November 03, 2010 13:23
The Kuril Islands to the north of Japan's Hokkaido Island were the traditional home of the Ainu people. "Kuril" comes from the Ainu word "kur" meaning "person." The waters surrounding the islands are among the top three fishing regions in the world and apparently contain vast amounts of minerals and oil beneath the sea floor.
But even 200 or 300 years ago, the region was the remotest of Japan's and Russia's frontiers. When Japan's aspiration to expand northward clashed with Russia's southern expansion plans in 1855, the two countries signed a treaty whereby Tokyo claimed the four southernmost islands while Moscow took the rest.
Since then, control over the Kuril Islands has shifted between the two countries depending on their strengths. After defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Japan gained control over Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands. But Japan's defeat in World War II turned the tables. At the Yalta Conference in 1945, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt made an offer to Joseph Stalin to acknowledge Russia's control over the Kuril Islands if it fought against Japan. Russia declared war on Japan on Aug. 8, just as the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki, and gained control of the Kuril Islands just for joining the war for one week. North Korea also fell into Russian hands.
Japan harbors an intense attachment to the four southern Kuril Islands. Teachers' guides for social studies and science specifically point out that what it calls the Northern Territories are part of territorial disputes facing Japan.
Now Tokyo is reeling from a sudden visit to the Kuril Islands on Monday by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the first by a Russian leader. Medvedev vowed to invest in the region to boost its standard of living. The visit was an especially hard blow for Japan because it is also disputing ownership of the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands in the East China Sea with the Chinese.
But Japan must take a look at its own history. The disputes over the Kuril and Senkaku islands and Korea's Dokdo islets can be viewed as the consequences of its colonial domination. Insisting on one historical claim over a territory while ignoring the amply documented historical rights of another country to another territory is tantamount to destroying the legitimacy of one's own claim. Japan needs to put itself in the shoes of others.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Tae-ick
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