The Chargé in Japan (Huston) to the Secretary of State

No. 416

Sir: With reference to the Department’s instruction no. 116 of June 1, 1949, concerning the ultimate disposition of Formosa and the Kuril Islands and possible United States support to Japanese claims at the peace settlement to the Habomai Group, Shikotan, Kunashiri, and Etorofu islands, I have the honor to transmit a memorandum, dated June 15, 1949,1 prepared by FSO Charles N. Spinks on the subject of Soviet and Japanese territorial claims to the Kuril Islands, the Habomai Islands, and Shikotan Island. It is believed that this memorandum affords a useful resumé of historical claims to these territories [Page 788]and contemporary developments under the Occupation which may have a close bearing on their ultimate disposition.

The problem of the future disposition of the Kuril–Habomai–Shikotan area has been brought to the immediate attention of this Mission through assertions of territorial sovereignty over these islands and adjacent waters made by the Soviet Member, Allied Council for Japan, in connection with the seizure and detention of Japanese fishing vessels allegedly operating outside the authorized fishing area established by General Headquarters (this Mission’s despatches nos. 706 of November 2, 1948, and 34 of January 19, 19492).

The three-power agreement signed at Yalta on February 11, 1945,3 is the primary basis of the Soviet Union’s present position in southern Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. This agreement provided for the entry of the Soviet Union into war against Japan two or three months after termination of the war in Europe, on several conditions one of which was that “The Kuril islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union.” There was, however, no definition of the term Kuril Islands. Since the Habomai Islands and Shikotan Island have been traditionally regarded as an island group distinct from the Kuril archipelago, and under Japanese control had a local administration as a political subdivision of Hokkaido separate from the Kuril island local administration, there appears no valid basis, either in the Yalta Agreement or in any other international understanding, justifying Soviet occupation of the Habomai-Shikotan area at the end of the war in addition to the Soviet occupation of the Kuril Islands. It can only be concluded, therefore, that the Soviet occupation of the Habomai Group and Shikotan Island was a unilateral action for which no more previous understanding had been reached than for Soviet occupation of the island of Hokkaido.

Although the Yalta Agreement did not specifically provide for the actual occupation by Soviet forces of the Kuril Islands (or any other area), it did of course contemplate military operations against Japanese forces after the Soviet Uniones entry into the war against Japan (which took place on August 8, 1945). The Yalta Agreement’s provision for the ultimate disposition of the Kuril Islands unquestionably afforded ample justification for the invasion and occupation of this area by Soviet forces. This action was, of course, recognized in General Order No. 1 issued to the Japanese Government by the Supreme Commander on September 2, 1945, which provided that Japanese forces in Manchuria, North Korea, southern Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands were to surrender to the Commander-in-Chief of Soviet Forces in the Far East.

[Page 789]

From Japanese sources it has been learned, however, that on the basis of a surrender agreement concluded on August 19, 1945, in Manchuria between the Commander-in-Chief of Soviet Forces in the Far East and the Chief of Staff of the Japanese Kwantung Army, Japanese forces throughout the entire Kuril chain and in the Habomai Group and Shikotan had ceased hostilities and surrendered their arms before General Order No. 1 was issued on September 2. It may be said, therefore, that the Soviet Union, while invading and occupying the Kuril Islands, lost no time in extending this military operation to include the Habomai–Shikotan area, thus confronting the Allied Powers, and particularly the United States, with a fait accompli.

The Basic Initial Post-Surrender Directive to SCAP for the Occupation and Control of Japan, prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff JCS Directive No. 18 of November 8, 1945,4 Section 4, paragraph d) provides for the complete governmental and administrative separation from Japan of certain Pacific islands acquired by Japan since 1914, Manchuria, Formosa, the Pescadores, Korea, Karafuto (southern Sakhalin), and “such other territories as may be specified in future directives.” This provision of JCS 18, which it may be noted did not specifically mention the Kuril Islands, was carried out by General Headquarters through a directive to the Japanese Government on January 29, 1946 (Scapin 677). In defining the areas to be separated from Japan governmentally and administratively, Scapin 677 specifically enumerates the Kuril Islands as well as the Habomai Group and Shikotan Island. Historically, this is the first time that the Habomai–Shikotan area is dealt with in a document of international character concerned with the territorial boundaries of Japan. Although the Habomai-Shikotan area was under Soviet occupation at the time Scapin 677 was drafted, such specific mention of the area in this directive has unfortunately tended to endorse if not validate the Soviet position there. In a sense, therefore, it is believed that Scapin 677, while fundamentally a General Headquarters administrative matter, will be regarded by the Soviet Government as tantamount to an addendum to or extension of the provisions of the Yalta Agreement.

The establishment by the Supreme Commander of the authorized Japanese fishing area through Scapin 1033 of June 22, 1946, as amended, will also no doubt be cited as supporting the Soviet position in the Kuril Islands and the Habomai–Shikotan area by its exclusion of these islands from the scope of the fishing area.

From the historical standpoint, Japan is believed to have a sound claim to the Kuril and Habomai-Shikotan islands which is, of course, completely disregarded by the Yalta Agreement. Historical Japanese [Page 790]records and extant old maps plainly indicate that from at least the beginning of the 17th century the Japanese regarded the Kuril Islands and the Habomai–Shikotan area as Japanese territory. Moreover, there is abundant historical evidence to show that the Japanese through almost the entire Tokugawa period (1600–1868) provided some degree of political administration for the Habomai Group, Shikotan, and the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu in the Kuril archipelago. In contrast, the earliest known Russian activity in the Kuril Islands did not begin until early in the 18th century, and there is little evidence of real Russian political administration in any of the islands until the 19th century.

The first treaty between Japan and Russia, signed at Shimoda in 1855, clearly divided the Kuril Islands between the two countries at the Etorofu Straits. By the Saint Petersburg Treaty of 1875, Japan, in exchange for relinquishing her rights and interests in Sakhalin to Russia, received from Russia the Kuril Islands northeast of the Etorofu Straits. Thereafter, the Kuril Islands were never the subject of dispute or discussion between the two countries. The Habomai Islands and Shikotan Island, on the other hand, were never discussed in connection with the treaty settlements in 1855 and 1875, their Japanese status never theretofore having been disputed.

With the establishment of Japan’s modern system of political subdivisions and administration after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Kuril Islands in the possession of Japan were made integral parts of the Hokkaido prefectural government, forming various districts of Chishima-gun, or Chishima County, which is in turn part of the Nemuro Shicho, or Nemuro Branch Administration. The Habomai Islands and Shikotan Island constituted another administrative subdivision of the Nemuro Shicho.

There appears to be a tendency to think of the so-called “minor outlying islands” off the Japanese coasts independently of their historical relationships to Japan and the long periods over which some of them have formed integral parts of the Japanese home administration. It is believed that any peace settlement with Japan should give adequate weight to these important historical and administrative considerations.

In the case of the Kuril Islands, the Habomai Group, and Shikotan Island, their permanent transfer to the Soviet Union would necessitate complete disregard of Japanese territorial claims which are virtually as valid as the Japanese claim to the island of Hokkaido. It is therefore believed that, in the event of a peace settlement, Japan is reasonably entitled to expect some readjustment of the territorial provisions of the Yalta Agreement, as now supplemented by the provisions and implications of Scapin 677 and Scapin 1033. It is believed that consideration should be given to the fact that, of the Kuril Islands, Etorofu and Kunashiri have always been regarded as [Page 791]Japanese territory, a fact which Russia formally recognized in its earliest treaty with Japan, the Shimoda Treaty of 1855; and that the Habomai Islands and Shikotan Island have likewise always been regarded as Japanese territory, their possession by Japan never having been previously contested or violated until the unilateral occupation of the area by Soviet forces in 1945.

There are also believed to be other important considerations which would justify territorial readjustments in this area. The present administrative boundary between Japan and Soviet-occupied islands off the eastern coast of Hokkaido is a tortuous line running through narrow, fog-bound channels which during the fishing season bear considerable traffic. If this line becomes a permanent boundary there will unquestionably occur continuous violations of Soviet waters by Japanese craft and violations of Japanese waters by Soviet shipping. The separation from Japan of the southern Kuril Islands, the Habomai Group, and Shikotan also deprives the Hokkaido fisheries of an important fishing area, the loss of which represents an undesirable restriction on Japan’s overtaxed facilities for producing foodstuffs. Finally, it should also be recognized that Soviet possession of Kunashiri Island and the Habomai Group brings Soviet power within exceedingly close proximity of metropolitan Japan, a situation which the Japanese cannot help but regard as a grave strategic liability.

It is believed that the most satisfactory and effective territorial adjustment could be made by restoring to Japan the two southernmost Kuril Islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri, the Habomai Islands, and Shikotan Island. The relinquishment of this territory, totalling 1,868.69 square miles, could be no substantial loss or burden to the Soviet Union, while its future possession by Japan could not conceivably represent a strategic threat to the Soviet Union or materially assist Japan’s hypothetical revival as a military power. On the other hand, the recovery of this territory by Japan is in conformity with valid historical consideration, would enable Japan to rehabilitate the vital Hokkaido fisheries, and would eliminate an impractical and controversial political boundary between Japanese and Soviet territory.

Respectfully yours,

Cloyce K. Huston
  1. Not printed.
  2. Neither printed.
  3. Foreign Relations, The Conferences at Malta and Yalta, 1945, 984.
  4. JCS 1380/15, November 3, 1945; see bracketed note, Foreign Relations, 1945, vol. vi, p. 815.