The Kuril Islands/Northern Territories dispute
A comparison of local news reportage in Sakhalin and Hokkaido
Volume 17, Issue 3 (Article 10 in 2017). First published in ejcjs on 17 December 2017.
This article analyses local news coverage featuring the Russo-Japanese territorial dispute in Hokkaido and Sakhalin newspapers during the periods of the Russia-Japan bilateral summits that took place in May and December 2016. Quantitative and qualitative types of content analysis are used to identify key themes in the reportage related to the disputed islands, and to discuss those themes in the context of news-making trends and individual articles. The goal of this article is to provide an analysis of the local situations in border regions of Russia and Japan, where everyday lives are affected by the territorial dispute, and to contrast these local situations with the official positions on the dispute expressed by the national governments on both sides.
Keywords: territorial dispute, Sakhalin, Hokkaido, newspaper survey, content analysis.
The territorial dispute between Japan and Russia over the sovereignty of the Southern Kurils/Northern Territories1 remains the major obstacle to concluding a peace treaty and formalising bilateral relations between the two nations. The official position of the Japanese government is that the Soviet Union occupied the islands of Shikotan, Kunashiri/Kunashir, Etorofu/Iturup and the Habomai island group in 1945, and incorporated them into its territories without any legal grounds (MOFA). The official Russian position (Makarychev 2012, January 18) is that the sovereignty of the islands is not to be disputed, and that they were incorporated into the Soviet Union legally as the result of the war. The dispute has been discussed in various contexts, including its history and recent developments. Hasegawa (1998) discusses the history of the dispute before and after the San Francisco treaty, including Yeltsin’s presidency. Williams (2007) argues that subnational governments can be important actors inducing change in Russo-Japanese relations, and local transnational exchange and cooperation between Sakhalin and Hokkaido can become a catalyst for bridging the regions together and reducing political tension between the nations. Vysokov (2008) has published a detailed history of Sakhalin and the disputed islands. A study by Togo (2011) covers the negotiations that took place during the sixteen-year period between perestroika (1985-1991) and Putin’s completion of his first year of presidency (2001). Bukh (2010) approaches Japan’s foreign policy, including the territorial dispute, from a national identity standpoint. Richardson (2015) discusses regional exceptionalism and local activism on Sakhalin. Iwashita (2016) discusses the history of the dispute and the negotiations, and touches upon the local situation in the Nemuro subprefecture. Brown (2015) discusses recent developments in the dispute and Abe’s plans in the wake of his visit to Sochi in May 2016 (2016), and provides a comprehensive analysis of the territorial dispute and evaluates the prospects of a potential resolution (2017).
During 2016, two bilateral summits—Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Sochi in May 2016 and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Yamaguchi in December 2016—raised expectations within the Japanese public about progress in resolving the dispute and attracted media attention both domestically and internationally. A plan of economic cooperation (joint operations in fishing, aquafarming, tourism, and other businesses in the disputed areas) was proposed, but there was no significant progress towards concluding a peace treaty and resolving the territorial dispute. The implications of those visits and their potential role in resolving the dispute have been discussed in the press (Brown 2017). However, until recently the local situations in the border regions of Russia and Japan directly related to the dispute—Sakhalinskaya Oblast2 and Hokkaido—have received less attention than coverage of the official visits. The circumstances in the border regions are often under-reported because the territorial dispute is seen as an international rather than a local issue. As a result, voices in both Sakhalin and Hokkaido have struggled to reach the international arena, although in academic literature, Hokkaido and/or Sakhalin have been discussed in the context of the dispute by Williams (2007), Iwashita (2016) and Richardson (2015).
There is considerable exchange on the local level between Hokkaido and Sakhalinskaya Oblast, from visa-free exchange and joint environmental projects to fishing and trade agreements. To the residents of Hokkaido and Sakhalin, the dispute is a daily reality rather than an abstract international problem. Furthermore, life in border areas contributes to the formation of distinct regional identities. Opinions and attitudes regarding the dispute in these regions are more likely to be influenced by life experiences and practical concerns than national agendas. Local media are more likely to include such nuances in their coverage than national media.
The Russian Foreign Affairs Minister has repeatedly stated that Russia is ready to transfer the smaller islands of Shikotan and the Habomai group to Japan (Hokkaidō Shimbun December 10), in accordance with the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956. According to the declaration, the transfer of the smaller islands would take place after signing the peace treaty. In Japan, however, resolving the dispute on such conditions has long been considered a major political compromise with reputational consequences for the politicians supporting it. Nevertheless, an alternative to the current ‘return all four islands’ policy of the Japanese and Hokkaido governments has been created that was based on the 1956 declaration. In this position, the transfer of the smaller islands and some other concessions from the Russian side would be agreed upon, and then the other islands would be subject to further negotiations. This is commonly referred to as the ‘Two plus alpha’ proposal (Clark 2016).
The conditions preceding Putin’s December 2016 visit to Japan were seen as ‘slightly different’ than in the previous years: Abe is reported to have developed a relationship of trust with Putin, and relatively weak economic ties between Russia and Japan provided room for development. Abe had also raised public expectations in May by stating that he had a sense that things were “moving toward a breakthrough in the stalled peace treaty negotiations” (Kyodo News 2016), which only increased anticipation of Putin’s visit in December. By contrast, actors in Sakhalinskaya Oblast and Hokkaido—including politicians, local activists and the press—treated the visits in a more practical and cautious way. Many of the numerous concerns, worries, emotions and expectations of people in Sakhalin and Hokkaido before, during, and after the visits were significant enough to be reported in local media.
This article analyses Sakhalin and Hokkaido regional newspaper coverage of the dispute during the period of Abe’s visit to Russia in May 2016 and Putin’s visit to Japan in December 2016. Two types of content analysis3 were employed: articles were assessed quantitatively to determine regional news-making trends, and individual articles were examined qualitatively to discuss the various themes featured in the coverage. The newspapers included in the study were Hokkaidō Shimbun (also called ‘Dōshin’, the Hokkaido regional newspaper), Gubernskie Vedomosti, Sovetskiy Sakhalin and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Segodnya (Sakhalin regional newspapers). Articles discussing the islands or the dispute were compared between Sakhalin and Hokkaido newspapers, as well as within the same newspapers between the May and December official visits. Fieldwork data obtained in Sakhalin and Hokkaido (i.e., interviews with journalists covering Sakhalin and Hokkaido issues) provide additional background to news-making policy in both regions and offers explanations for the quantitative and qualitative differences between newspapers. The ultimate goal of this article is to point out major discrepancies between the national and the local views on the dispute, as well as to demonstrate how the local needs and concerns in Hokkaido and Sakhalinskaya Oblast compare with the national rhetoric regarding the dispute.
Newspaper coverage of the dispute in Hokkaido and Sakhalin
Before discussing local news coverage in Sakhalin and Hokkaido it is important to mention briefly how these regions relate to their national centres and each other. Sakhalinskaya Oblast and Hokkaido have different economic and social standings within their respective nations. The following table shows the differences in population, contribution to national economy and distance from these regions to their national centres:
|Population||497,973 0.3% of the total national population of 142,849,472 (2010)||5,506,419 4.2% of the total national population of 128,057,352 (2010)|
|% in national GDP per capita||~0.5% (2009)||~3.5% (2007)|
|Linear distance from national to regional capital||6663 km||1155 km|
The economic and demographic significance of Sakhalinskaya Oblast within Russia differs considerably from that of Hokkaido within Japan. It could be said that Hokkaido for Japan is a more ‘connected’ periphery, while Sakhalin for Russia is a remote periphery with some strategic importance. Recognition of these distinct peripheral statuses is important for analysing the difference in themes that appear in central and regional media.
A keyword search was carried out to retrieve news articles mentioning the dispute and/or the islands from newspaper databases. The survey was conducted from two weeks before to two weeks after the leaders’ meetings on 7 May and 15-16 December. A total of 48 articles were found in the Russian newspapers and 315 articles in Dōshin. Then, the articles were read and sorted into nine categories according to the primary subject matter of the article. The quantitative data relating to these categories were used to identify the relative volumes and focus of reporting on the key themes. Then qualitative analysis of article content was conducted with reference to academic and other media sources discussing the dispute.
Due to the low number of articles per individual newspaper, all Sakhalin newspapers were combined into one dataset. The total figures for all newspapers are as follows:
|Newspapers||Abe’s visit in May 2016
+ two weeks before and after
|Putin’s visit in December 2016
+ two weeks before and after
|Hokkaidō Shimbun||103 articles||212 articles|
|Sakhalin newspapers||26 articles||22 articles|
The discrepancy between the number of articles in Hokkaidō Shimbun and Sakhalin newspapers can be explained by several factors. One is the overall size (including corporate structure, number of employees, and circulation) of the newspapers. The morning edition of Hokkaidō Shimbun sold over one million copies per day in June 2016. This is bigger than some federal newspapers in Russia—for instance, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, which is considered the official mouthpiece of the Kremlin, has a circulation of 166,500 copies of the daily edition, and 3.5 million of the weekly edition. Sakhalin newspapers have a much smaller circulation: 8,000 copies for Gubernskie Vedomosti and 12,000 for Sovetskiy Sakhalin (Regress Press Agency n.d.). Hokkaidō Shimbun employs 1400 people (The Hokkaido Shimbun Press n.d.) and has correspondents stationed in many parts of the world, while Sovetskiy Sakhalin employs only six people including the chief editor (Sovetskiy Sakhalin n.d.). Hokkaidō Shimbun, therefore,has more resources to cover international affairs. It has local branches throughout Hokkaido, and international branches in Seoul, Beijing, Singapore, London, Washington D.C., Cairo, Moscow and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.
According to the chief editor of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Segodnya Serguey Tarakanov, Sakhalin newspapers do not have Japan specialists (namely journalists proficient in the Japanese language) or correspondents covering specifically international relations. As a result, news on Japan and international issues involving Japan, including the territorial dispute, are published in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Segodnya (and generally in Sakhalin newspapers) only when there is a ‘newsworthy occurrence’. For the Sakhalin newspaper editors this means an event that affects Sakhalin and/or its inhabitants directly and attracts the attention of the readership. While there is considerable interest towards Japan on Sakhalin, it is usually mentioned only in contexts related to local affairs, such as accidents that concern Sakhalin, or exchange with Sakhalin. Some of these events become routinised and no longer attract significant readership—such as joint searches for the remains of the war dead killed within the borders of modern day Sakhalinskaya Oblast during August 1945 following the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on Japan. Since those searches have been carried out for several years, reportage of such events has become routinised and often consists of a bare listing of facts. Overall, the number of articles mentioning Japan and the territorial dispute is relatively low.
However, more important than the difference in the raw numbers of articles is the prominence of the dispute within the coverage. Even with the size factor taken into account the Sakhalin newspapers do not have much coverage of the dispute. One potential reason for the relative lack of coverage is the general attitude towards the dispute: the Russian public is satisfied with the status quo, which was summarised by Putin in the expression: “there is no territorial dispute in Russia” (Dōshin December 17). The general public in Russia regards any territorial gains as the result of winning the war, and questioning them is deemed unacceptable. War legacy is a prominent topic on each side, but it is the Japanese side that lost territory at the end of the war. The loss of the islands has become part of Japanese identity, particularly on Hokkaido, where most of the displaced islanders settled after the war. The narrative of territorial loss and associated memories4 are irrelevant to the Russian side, which could be the possible reason for less coverage of the dispute on Sakhalin.
The articles were placed in the following nine categories according to the primary subject matter of the article:
- Negotiations and official visits between Russia and Japan (national): coverage of mutual visits, agreements, official statements, trivia (for example, descriptions of the venues, and other details about the negotiations not directly related to their content).
- Exchange on the local level: coverage of Japanese-Russian exchanges among non-governmental actors (primarily local residents) related to Sakhalin or the disputed islands.
- Exchange between Russia and Japan (other): coverage of exchange that does not involve Sakhalin or the disputed islands.
- International relations general: coverage of various events and visits not directly related to the Russo-Japanese relations and the dispute.
- History and archaeology: articles on war history, history of the territorial dispute, and negotiations, archaeological discoveries, excavation of war dead remains etc.
- Domestic affairs: stories that involve no official interaction on the international level, such as local industries, agriculture, tourism development, budget allocations.
- Japan/Russia general: coverage of various events in Japan (in Russian newspapers) or Russia (in Japanese newspapers) that do not involve Russo-Japanese interaction or have a direct relation with the dispute.
- Public relations and individual voices: articles covering events related specifically to the dispute and measures to raise public awareness; opinion polls and interviews.
- Other news: articles on topics that do not belong in any previous category, such as natural events, accidents, crime, animal sightings, etc.
The articles were analysed in two quantitative ways: the total number of articles on each topic for each period (all newspapers), and a daily breakdown by topic for each period (Dōshin only). The total figures for Hokkaidō Shimbun for Abe and Putin’s visit are as follows:
In Dōshin, the most prominent categories in both periods are coverage of the negotiations and public relations/individual voices. In the second period the total amount of coverage mentioning the dispute doubled (212 articles as opposed to 103 articles in the April-May period) mostly due to the increase of coverage in those two categories, as well as an increase in articles covering local affairs.
The daily breakdown for the May and December periods in Dōshin returned the following figures:
The main observation that can be made from the above figures is the increase of ‘social’ reportage (such as individual voices) during Putin’s visit, peaking near the days of the summit. Abe’s visit was not commented on as heavily; however the May period had more articles on the background of the dispute, such as the history of the negotiations. The May visit also has more articles on Sakhalin-Hokkaido exchange, which will be discussed separately.
The data for Sakhalin newspapers were as follows:
As seen from the above graphs, unlike Dōshin there was no increase in coverage of the dispute in Sakhalin newspapers during the December visit (22 articles as opposed to 26 during the April-May period); however there were more articles discussing the negotiations in the December period. The most prominent category of coverage in both periods is domestic affairs (such as budgets, transportation and agriculture), which is the main focus of Sakhalin newspapers. Having identified the key themes of coverage mentioning the dispute, each theme will now be discussed individually.
Analysis of coverage by themes
Reporting negotiations and official visits
In Dōshin, there was significantly more coverage mentioning the dispute during Putin’s visit to Japan in December in comparison to Abe’s visit to Russia in May, with 212 total articles as opposed to 103 during the April-May period. The amount of coverage dedicated specifically to Putin’s visit also doubled in comparison with Abe’s visit, and made one of the two most prominent categories in December’s coverage (the other one being public relations). In Sakhalin newspapers, Abe’s visit was covered in one article in Sovetskiy Sakhalin, while Putin’s visit had three articles in the same newspaper. There are several possible explanations for this difference. Putin’s visit was highly anticipated in Japan because it was a chance to demonstrate Abe’s previously announced ‘new approach’ to bilateral relations and an opportunity to make progress on the dispute. Several articles state that Russia and Japan have ‘different ways of thinking’, and that the Japanese way must be communicated to Putin during his visit: for instance, an article published two weeks before the visit quotes Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio’s intention “to tell Putin directly about Japan’s way of thinking” (Dōshin December 2). Japan’s stance also received attention from the Sakhalin public, which is reflected in news reportage in the Sakhalin newspapers, despite international relations pertaining to Japan barely being covered in Sakhalin newspapers. Another possible explanation is the practicalities and cost of covering the two summits. Even though Dōshin has correspondents stationed in Russia, the December summit took place in Japan, and there were more resources available to Dōshin to cover the summit than were available for the May summit in Sochi.
There were three news pieces dedicated to Putin’s visit in Sovetskiy Sakhalin. One article (December 16) discusses the proposed economic cooperation program, and comes to the conclusion that Japan needs gas from Russia rather than the islands. The other two articles are dedicated to the first day of the visit, before the negotiations. The first article consists primarily of various trivia, such as a description of the hotel where Putin stayed, and Abe’s suggestion to Putin to visit a hot spring. There is also a comment about local right-wing activists in Nagato petitioning Putin to ‘return’ the islands. The second article describes a small incident that occurred during the arrival of the Russian delegation. A Russian resident of Nagato wanted to offer Putin a handmade kimono, but was not able to present it as a personal gift due to formal obstacles, and had to submit it as a gift from the Nagato administration. The event is narrated from the personal perspective of a journalist from Kommersant (federal newspaper), who attended the press conference and witnessed the incident in person. The article states that, unlike the Japanese press, the author was more impressed by the dramatic gift giving event rather than the announcement of economic cooperation on the disputed islands. Although written by a federal newspaper’s correspondent, the article seems to fit the policy of Sakhalin newspapers, where a small local incident or a dramatic event is more newsworthy than international negotiations.
When approaching the territorial dispute and discussing its potential resolutions, there is a noticeable difference in the vocabulary employed by the Russian and Japanese officials and media. The Japanese side generally uses such terms as ‘return’ or ‘reversal’ (henkan), which implies that the islands originally belonged to Japan. Signing a treaty using such terms would imply restoration of Japan’s original right of ownership. The word ‘return’ is seldom encountered in the Russian media, and never in official statements. Terms such as ‘handing over’ or ‘transfer’ (peredacha) are used instead, which do not assume Japan’s original claim to the islands, and could be read as Russia’s voluntary gesture to give the islands away. The premise of these nuances is similar to that of Korean cultural assets acquired by Japan during the colonial period, that Japan offered to ‘transfer’ to South Korea, while the receiving end raised questions regarding the use of the term ‘transfer’ (o-watashi) instead of ‘return’ (Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet 2010).
Social activities and individual voices in the periods of Russia-Japan summits
During both Abe and Putin’s visits Dōshin had articles on various related sociocultural activities and surveys in similar numbers to the coverage of the summit itself. In Hokkaido, the public is constantly reminded about the dispute. Billboards demanding the return of the islands can be seen across the prefecture, and there are numerous public events organised by the government and private organisations to raise public awareness. Examples of such events that featured in the article survey include a ‘Northern Territories marathon’ (May 18), photo galleries depicting nature or prewar life on the islands, and organisations such as the Chishima-Habomai Islanders League (an association of former residents) conducting a panel discussion of Abe’s ‘new approach’ and promoting Northern Territories-related educational activities (May 8). Such activities include talks at Japanese schools given by former residents of the islands. In the wake of the December visit there were several other events organised to raise public awareness, such as exhibitions and a 60-person rally in Nemuro (December 2).
Other articles in this category represent readers’ voices, such as letters from former residents of the islands, which peaked around the days of Putin’s visit. Many of these letters are concerned with ‘expectations’ (kitai) regarding potential progress in the dispute, which rose in the wake of Putin’s visit, or express ‘uneasiness’ or ‘anxiety’ (fuan). One of the main concerns brought up with regard to the dispute is the pressure associated with the older age of the former residents—some have given up on the possible ‘return’ of the islands and simply wish to have easier access to them for visiting the graves of their relatives. Such visits have been the focal point of Hokkaido-Sakhalin exchange since the 1990s, and Japanese visitors are the most numerous group among foreign visitors to Sakhalin. Voices from the Russian side were also included: for instance, a May 8 article provided comments from several current residents of the islands stating that they were against the ‘return’ of the islands to Japan but welcomed economic cooperation.
Nemuro is the main location of coverage related to the dispute as the islands are deemed to belong in the Nemuro subprefecture, and many local issues such as the visa-free exchange program and the fishing industry are influenced by proximity to the disputed areas. Multiple reports from Nemuro indicate disappointment over the lack of progress in the dispute and a pessimistic view regarding the upcoming December visit. The concerns expressed in Nemuro reports in the wake of the December visit are similar to those in April and May. The former residents are pessimistic about the prospect of returning to their old homes during their lifetime, while the fishermen are frustrated with the decline of the fishing industry and view the dispute from the perspective of extending the permitted fishing area, hoping it would help the local economy recover. Local economic issues are a separate concern with regard to Russia-Japan economic cooperation announced during Putin’s visit, as it is seen as unlikely to result in any territorial gains for Japan, and its benefits for the Nemuro economy are questioned. The issue is complicated by the fact that the development will happen under Russian control, which, according to locals, “will not change anything,” as the fishermen would still have to pay for permission to fish and harvest seaweed in the disputed areas (Dōshin December 17).
A letter from former residents of the disputed islands written in Russian was handed over to Putin during his visit to Japan, and the occasion received detailed coverage in Dōshin (December 16). There was another letter (reported in a brief note in Sovetskiy Sakhalin on December 9) that was written and signed by Sakhalin scholars, government officials, and public activists, urging Putin to conduct the negotiations on the “principle of unshakable Russian sovereignty over the islands.” As Dōshin reports on December 10, in that letter the Sakhalin activists called the idea of signing a peace treaty with Japan ‘selfish’ and the territorial claims ‘unfounded’. This activism is similar to the protests and petitions that took place on Sakhalin in anticipation of Putin’s visit to Japan in 2005, which are discussed by Richardson (2015, 163-170).
From the observations made above it is clear that on both sides there are major discrepancies between the official government position on the dispute and the local situation. Moscow and Tokyo are looking at the dispute from the perspective of managing an international issue (to ‘return/transfer’ or ‘not return/transfer’ the islands), while the local populations in Hokkaido and Sakhalin are concerned with how the dispute and its potential resolutions affect their daily lives. The local industries are looking at the challenges and opportunities that economic cooperation might bring. The Sakhalin activists aim to protect the legacy of their compatriots who died fighting for Sakhalin and the Kurils, while the Hokkaido activists plead for the ‘return’ of their former homelands. Both sides have a strong emotional stance on the dispute, which is easily provoked by official statements.
Public opinion regarding the dispute before, during and after the summits
With the intense activity in Japan associated with Putin’s visit to Yamaguchi in December, the media and the Hokkaido public were also being made aware of the challenges stemming from public perception of the issue in Russia. On December 4 Dōshin published the results of a survey conducted by Sakhalin University, which revealed that 70% of the students perceived of the islands as native Russian territory. The students are quoted as being “friendly towards Japan,” but they are also reported to “have a strong stance on the territorial dispute.” Although economic cooperation was generally welcomed, the Russian residents of the islands were “against the return” (Dōshin December 13, 15).5 Another Dōshin article concludes that a major obstacle to the ‘return’ of the islands is that the Russians currently living there consider them their home (December 16).
The percentage of negative responses towards a resolution in Japan’s favour has remained consistently high on Sakhalin throughout the years: in a 1995 survey conducted on Sakhalin, about 85% of the respondents “believed that the islands are Russian territory and should not be returned to Japan;” according to a 1998 survey, only 3% of Sakhalin respondents believed that the best method for resolving the dispute would be “the simultaneous return of the four islands,” and a 2001 survey by a local Sakhalin newspaper revealed that almost 78% of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk residents argued that the Japanese had no legal right to claim all of the islands (Williams 2007, 131). A similar picture can be seen in nationwide surveys: according to the Levada Centre, 78% of Russian citizens are against the ‘transfer’ of all the disputed islands to Japan, and 71% are against the ‘transfer’ of Shikotan and Habomai, which would be conceivable under the terms of the 1956 Joint Declaration (Interfaks 2016). Richardson (2015, 163) also points out that the percentage of negative responses is higher among residents of Sakhalinskaya Oblast as opposed to nationwide surveys. In this context, the prospect for all the islands being returned in line with the consistent demands made by both the local Hokkaido and national Japanese governments for all four to be ‘returned’ seems ‘optimistic’ to say the least.
The Russia-Japan summit was followed by feedback from the population. Although Abe claimed to “have been able to make a steady big leap forward” during the negotiations, later reports stated that no progress was made on the dispute, and that Abe had ‘lost’ to Putin. Nemuro locals were disappointed with the lack of ‘consent’ during the negotiations and more concerned about fishing rather than economic cooperation. A nationwide survey held after the visit revealed that 77% of the population did not have high expectations regarding the resolution of the dispute. A letter from a reader published on December 21 suggested that resolving a territorial dispute with Russia would be difficult, comparing it with the situation in Crimea. According to a Kyodo News poll, about 54% of the Japanese respondents viewed the outcome of the December summit negatively, while about 39% had a positive judgment (December 19). Sovetskiy Sakhalin provides the same figures, and quotes another poll, according to which 60% of the Japanese are still hoping for a favourable resolution of the dispute (December 20). No similar Russia- or Sakhalin-based poll was mentioned in either newspaper. That could suggest a poll was not deemed necessary since the uniform attitude towards the dispute on Sakhalin was unlikely to change as the negotiations did not bring significant changes to the status quo.
Reporting domestic affairs and local exchange
The Sakhalin newspapers were more interested in discussing local affairs during both May and December visits. Such articles include plans to expand wireless networking on the disputed islands (Gubernskie Vedomosti December 16), plans to create a nature park on one of the islands (December 10), agriculture and the fishing industry on Sakhalin and the islands (Sovetskiy Sakhalin May 17, Gubernskie Vedomosti December 6 and 27), lack of social development on the islands (Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Segodnya December 1), and discussion of transport infrastructure (Sovetskiy Sakhalin December 2, 13 and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Segodnya December 15). Some of the articles are interviews with local officials, who mention the islands in the context of war history (Gubernskie Vedomosti April 28). None of the above articles mention Japan or the territorial dispute. Japan is mentioned in two other articles, which belong to the ‘historical’ category: an interview with the leader of an expedition to search for war dead remains on the islands (Sovetskiy Sakhalin May 17), and an article on Sakhalinskaya Oblast’s 70-year anniversary that has a brief summary of the region’s history from the 19th century (Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Segodnya December 27).
The stronger presence of this category of articles in comparison with other categories is related to news-making policies of Sakhalin newspapers, which generally specialise in local news rather than coverage of international relations. This category is also present in Dōshin, where there was a noticeable spike during the December summit. Article subjects included the many meetings and interviews at various local level organisations in preparation for the visit, comments from officials and discussions of Nemuro tourism, and Hokkaido transport infrastructure.
A characteristic of the April-May coverage is a significant number of articles on Sakhalin-Hokkaido exchange. The majority of those articles focused on a particular episode of the exchange and an incident that unfolded a week after Abe’s visit to Russia. A Japanese delegation from Hokkaido was supposed to visit the disputed islands on May 16 as part of an exchange agreement with Russia to conduct a memorial service. According to the Russian side, the Japanese were denied entry because the delegation filled in the names of the islands according to Japanese pronunciation rather than how they are spelled on the Russian map, which is required by Russian law. The Japanese side, however, reported that the visit was canceled due to safety concerns in bad weather. Both versions of the narrative were mentioned in the Russian and Japanese press, which resulted in comments from news agencies and government officials from both sides. The initial ‘bad weather’ report in Dōshin on May 17 received several follow-ups, and a May 20 article presented the following conclusion: “Regardless of which version is true, it appears that Russia and Japan are not coming to mutual understanding.” The incident was also mentioned in Sovetskiy Sakhalin in a relatively brief side note on May 20, with some background to the visa-free exchanges between Hokkaido and Sakhalinskaya Oblast and cancellations of such visits due to poor weather conditions in the previous year.
Other topics covered in Dōshin include meetings between the Sakhalin and Hokkaido governors (December 7, 17, 18) and wildlife research cooperation (December 9). These topics are not featured in Sakhalin newspapers in articles that mention the dispute and/or the islands.
Historical articles mentioning the islands or the dispute
Abe’s visit in May is characterised by a more prominent presence of historical articles in Dōshin and Sakhalin newspapers. Dōshin ran a lengthy series of articles on the history of the territorial dispute and negotiations, as well as exchange between Hakodate and Etorofu (Iturup) in the prewar period (December 13, 14), while the Sakhalin newspapers had several articles on war history, particularly on the role of Sakhalin and the Kurils in World War II. The war history topic is prominent in Sakhalin coverage, and several articles in other categories (interviews, social events etc.) mentioned the war legacy. While not necessarily a unique Sakhalin phenomenon, and taking into account that Abe’s visit was close to Victory Day celebrations on May 9, it can still be said that war memories are a strong part of the collective identity of Sakhalin. This aspect of Sakhalin identity is reflected in surveys and news coverage, particularly whenever the Kurils/Northern Territories are mentioned. The islands are widely regarded as a fair territorial gain of World War II, and any resolution of the dispute involving territorial concessions is deemed undesirable and even insulting to residents of both Sakhalin and the Kurils. The strategic importance of the islands is also mentioned often. For instance, in Gubernskie Vedomosti there is an interview (April 27) with a writer who had recently published a compilation of fictional stories set in Karafuto. The author expresses the following sentiment regarding the period: “We received a rich heritage in 1945. But I am consoled by the fact that the Japanese hadn’t made the islands their home when they had the time, particularly due to natural conditions. They only built military bases, and it didn’t go beyond that. By the way, if the Kurils became Japanese, Russia would lose access to the Pacific Ocean. That is with regard to the talks on giving the islands to our neighbours.”
This attitude seems prevalent across government and media circles on Sakhalin. The chief editor of Sovetskiy Sakhalin insisted that any discussions on the Russian side regarding potential territorial concessions to Japan are coming from the ignorance or irresponsibility of those not familiar with the local situation. He stressed the strategic importance of the islands and mentioned Boris Yeltsin’s surprise reaction during his first visit to the Kurils, who was not aware of the size of the islands and their habitability. Gubernskie Vedomosti has an article published during Putin’s visit on the history of the newspaper, where the author takes pride in the fact that Gubernskie Vedomosti has always had a firm and consistent viewpoint on the territorial issue. An article on the history of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk published in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Segodnya on December 27 reiterates that Sakhalin and the Kurils have been Russian since the 19th century.
Such statements seem uniform across the multi-ethnic society of Sakhalin. Victoria Bya, the chief editor of a local Korean language newspaper Se Koryo Shinmun (a weekly Korean language newspaper for Sakhalin Koreans) confirmed that the readers of her newspaper are likely to be extremely opposed to any territorial concessions in Japan’s favour because of Japan’s role in the history of Sakhalin Koreans. According to the 2010 census, there are about 25,000 ethnic Koreans living in Sakhalinskaya Oblast, making Sakhalinskaya Oblast the region with the largest percentage (5%) of ethnic Koreans in Russia (see Federal bureau of state statistics 2010). Koreans traveled or were brought to Sakhalin (then Karafuto) during the latter half of the Japanese colonial era as mining labourers, in the same way that Korean workers were recruited in the rest of the Japanese Empire, including Hokkaido, where by 1928 13% of mine workers were Korean (Irish 2009, 218). After World War II Sakhalin Koreans could not depart to Japan or Korea and had to stay on Sakhalin for 40 years. By the time repatriation became possible the majority decided to stay on Sakhalin. According to the editor of the Korean newspaper, there are two main Japan-related themes discussed in the newspaper: exchange between Sakhalin and Japan, and Japan’s responsibility for the fate of Sakhalin Koreans. The main readership of the newspaper is comprised of first- and second-generation Sakhalin Koreans: those born outside Sakhalin, and their children born on Sakhalin. Both generations tend to view the Japanese as former invaders and are generally opposed to any territorial transfers to Japan.
Analysis of local newspaper reportage in Hokkaido and Sakhalin allows us to look at the territorial dispute from a considerably different angle that contrasts with the views expressed during official negotiations and in the national press in both countries. The reported topics of exchange, border issues, war history, and various concerns voiced by Hokkaido and Sakhalin people make it seem as if there are two versions of the dispute: one as an international policy issue, and one as a local phenomenon that is deeply intertwined with the lives of people to whom the dispute is a tangible reality rather than a topic in international politics. Understanding the local situation and listening to the local voices is a crucial part in sustaining a constructive dialogue between the two nations. It provides a critical ground for evaluating the needs and capacities of the regions involved in exchange, and helps to respond to those needs better. Given that a political resolution has not yet been achieved, addressing local concerns becomes a viable way to improve the quality of life in the regions involved in the dispute.
The two summits in 2016 received considerable attention in both Sakhalin and Hokkaido, but ultimately the views on a potential political resolution remain pessimistic in Hokkaido, while the Sakhalin media presented no significant changes to its support for the status quo. Economic cooperation is welcomed in both Sakhalin and Hokkaido (more so on Sakhalin); however, both sides realise that it is unlikely to result in any territorial gains for Japan. In addition, the Hokkaido side has a number of concerns over the economic benefits of such cooperation as the stagnating Hokkaido economy might not be able to support it and would rather benefit from the relaxation of regulations in the disputed waters.
Both Sakhalin and Hokkaido are heavily invested in local affairs, and discussion of the disputed islands is often featured in the context of local development, such as tourism, transport infrastructure, or budgets. Reportage on the dispute itself, as well as many other points of Russo-Japanese interaction, such as visa-free exchange, is becoming repetitive and routinised, particularly on Sakhalin, where Russia-Japan exchange is no longer seen as particularly newsworthy. Both sides are more prone to reporting incidents that occurred during the exchange rather than covering the exchange itself. The major difference between Dōshin and Sakhalin newspapers in the amount of coverage featuring the dispute and the islands is explained by the news-making capabilities of the newspapers and the primary focus of Sakhalin newspapers on reporting local issues.
To remind the public of the official stance in the dispute, both sides regularly publish historical articles mentioning the disputed islands, particularly when there is little volume of other coverage related to the dispute. In Sakhalin newspapers, such articles mention the dispute in the context of war history or the history of Sakhalinskaya Oblast. Dōshin discusses primarily two topics: 1) history of territorial negotiations, and 2) interaction between Hokkaido and the islands that took place before the war.
Discrepancies between the official, common public, and media positions are significant enough to affect the reality of the dispute. The local population on Hokkaido is more concerned with domestic affairs associated with the dispute than seeking a political resolution. The aging former residents of the disputed islands, seeing that a political solution may not arrive during their lifetimes, would rather gain limited access to the disputed areas to visit the graves of their relatives. The local fishermen in Hokkaido are cautious about economic cooperation because they would still need permission to fish and harvest seaweed in the disputed waters. The Sakhalin public is concerned with protecting the legacy of World War II and the strategic importance of the islands. There is also strong opposition among the Sakhalin public and media to any territorial concessions to Japan that has remained consistent throughout the years. All these factors explain why the territorial dispute saw few substantial changes after the mutual visits in May and December 2016, and any future change in the status quo will face strong opposition from the Sakhalin side.
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Quoted dataset items
May 8. 「返還あり得ない」＊ロシア人島⺠＊経済協力は歓迎[‘Henkan arienai’* roshiajin tōmin* keizai kyōryoku wa kangei].
May 8. 一歩でも交渉前進を」＊千島連盟＊首脳会談受け訴え [Ippo demo kōshō zenshin o’* Chishima renmei* shunō kaidan uke uttae].
May 17. 悪天候で入域できず＊ビザなし第１陣 [Akutenkō de nyūiki dekizu* bizanashi dai 1-jin].
May 18. 領土問題 走って考えて＊８月２１日開催＊ノサップ岬マラソン 受け付け開始 [Ryōdomondai hashitte kangaete* 8-gatsu 21-nichi kaisai* Nosappu Misaki marason uketsuke kaishi].
May 20. ＜社説＞「北方」自由訪問＊原点を大事にしてこそ [< Shasetsu > ‘hoppō’ jiyū hōmon* genten o daiji ni shite koso].
December 2. 外相がロシアに出発＊きょうプーチン氏と会談 [Gaishō ga Roshia ni shuppatsu* kyō Pūchin-shi to kaidan].
December 2. 領土問題解決への機運を＊千島連盟十勝支部＊市役所でパネル展 [Ryōdomondai kaiketsu e no kiun o* Chishima renmei Tokachi shibu * Shiyakusho de paneru-ten].
December 2. ＜どうなる北方領土＞手旗や看板 道民一丸＊根室振興局 街頭啓発 [< Dō naru Hoppōryōdo > tebata ya kanban dōmin ichigan* Nemuro shinkō-kyoku gaitō keihatsu].
December 4. サハリン国立大生の７割＊「北方領土はロシア領」 [Saharin kokuritsudaisei no 7-wari*’Hoppōryōdo wa Roshia-ryō’].
December 7. 道、サハリン知事会談へ＊１６日＊地域間協力を協議 [Dō, Saharin chiji kaidan e* 16-nichi* chiiki-kan kyōryoku o kyōgi].
December 9. コクガン個体数 日ロ調査＊８割が野付湾、国後島に＊道東ネットまとめ＊重要な渡来地 [Kokugan kotai-sū nichiro chōsa* 8-wari ga Notsukewan, Kunashiritō ni* Dōtō netto matome* jūyōna torai-chi].
December 10. 日本との平和条約「不要」＊サハリン州議ら＊大統領に書簡 [Nihon to no heiwa jōyaku ‘fuyō’* Saharin shūgi-ra* daitōryō ni shokan].
December 10. ＜シリーズ評論 １６日ロ交渉 領土の行方＞４＊作家・元外務省主任分析官 佐藤優氏（５６）＊共同経済活動 解決の道 [< Shirīzu hyōron 16-nichi Ro kōshō ryōdo no yukue > 4* sakka moto Gaimushō shunin bunseki-kan Satō Masaru-shi (56)* kyōdō keizai katsudō kaiketsu no michi].
December 13. ＜１６日ロ交渉＞色丹島民 主権譲らず／根室市民 「帰属」懸念＊共同経済活動期待と警戒 [< 16-nichiro kōshō > Shikotantō-min shuken yuzurazu/ Nemuro shimin ‘kizoku’ kenen* kyōdō keizai katsudō kitai to keikai].
December 13. ＜函館と北方領土 交流の軌跡＞上＊「函館市択捉町」＊嘉兵衛が航路、漁場開拓＊北洋資料館に国境標柱 [< Hakodate to Hoppōryōdo kōryū no kiseki >-jō*`Hakodate-shi Etorofu-chō’* Kahei ga kōro, ryōba kaitaku* hokuyō shiryōkan ni kokkyō hyōchū].
December 14. ＜函館と北方領土 交流の軌跡＞下＊「大新丸遭難の碑」「西埠頭」＊帰函の漁業者ら犠牲に＊引き揚げ者 再会にドラÉ} [< Hakodate to Hoppōryōdo kōryū no kiseki > shimo*’dai shin maru sōnan no ishibumi’,’nishi futō’* ki hako no gyogyō-sha-ra gisei ni* hikiage-sha saikai ni dorama].
December 15. 色丹島⺠ 返還に反対 [Shikotantō-min henkan ni hantai].
December 16. ＜卓上四季＞国民の目 [< Takujō shiki > kokumin no me].
December 16. ＜１６日ロ交渉＞島への思い 交錯＊解決へ「前進を」＊千島連盟理事⻑ら会見 [< 16-nichiro kōshō > shima e no omoi kōsaku* kaiketsu e ‘zenshin wo’* Chishima renmei Riji-chō-ra kaiken].
December 17. ＜どうなる北方領土＞根室の経営者意欲＊「恩恵どこまで」不安も＊根室 [< Dō naru Hoppōryōdo > Nemuro no keiei-sha iyoku*’onkei doko made’ fuan mo* Nemuro]
December 17. ＜卓上四季＞三つの心 [<Takujōshiki>Mittsu no kokoro].
December 17. 直行航空便など提案＊サハリン州知事＊会談で道知事に [Chokkō kōkū-bin nado teian* Saharin-shū chiji* kaidan de dōchiji ni].
December 17. 日ロ首脳会談 領土返還の道筋示されず＊変わらぬ現状 落胆＊共同経済活動には期待も [Nichiro shunō kaidan ryōdo henkan no michisuji shimesarezu* kawaranu genjō rakutan* kyōdō keizai katsudō ni wa kitai mo].
December 18. 道・サハリン知事会談＊交流拡大で一致 [Dō Saharin chiji kaidan* kōryū kakudai de itchi].
December 19. 全国世論調査＊北方領土問題の進展＊「期待せず」道内最多７７％ [Zenkoku seronchōsa* hoppōryōdomondai no shinten*’kitai sezu’ dōnai saita 77-pāsento].
December 19. 日ロ会談「評価せず」５４％＊カジノ解禁７割反対＊全国世論調査＊内閣支持率５ポイント低下 [Nichiro kaidan ‘hyōka sezu’ 54%* kajino kaikin 7-wari hantai* zenkoku seronchōsa* naikaku shiji-ritsu 5-pointo teika].
December 21. ＜読者の声＞北方四島 非武装地域に [< Dokusha no koe > hoppōyontō hi busō chiiki ni].
April 27. Уровень мастера [Uroven’ mastera]. Gubernskie Vedomosti.
April 28. Думская одиссея [Dumskaya odisseya]. Gubernskie Vedomosti.
May 10. Военные и представители Русского географического общества отправились изучать историю острова Матуа [Voennye i predstaviteli Russkogo geograficheskogo obscshestva otpravilis’ izuchat’ istoriyu ostrova Matua]. Sovetskiy Sakhalin.
May 17. Рыбокомбинат ‘Островной’ на острове Шикотан объявлен банкротом [Rybokombinat ‘Ostrovnoy’ na ostrove Shikotan obyavlen bankrotom]. Sovetskiy Sakhalin.
May 20. Не так пишется, по-другому слышится [Ne tak pishetsya, po-drugomy slyshitsya]. Sovetskiy Sakhalin.
December 1. Наши общие задачи [Nashi obschie zadachi]. Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Segodnya.
December 2. Новости одним абзацем [Novosti odnim abzatsem]. Sovetskiy Sakhalin.
December 6. Рыбный цикл [Ribniy tsykl]. Gubernskie Vedomosti.
December 9. Новости одним абзацем [Novosti odnim abzatsem]. Sovetskiy Sakhalin.
December 10. Защита Атсонупури [Zaschita Atsonupuri]. Gubernskie Vedomosti.
December 13. Транспортная составляющая [Transportnaya sostavlyayuschaya]. Sovetskiy Sakhalin.
December 15. Необходимые траты [Neobkhodimye traty]. Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Segodnya.
December 16. Технологии сближения [Tekhnologii sblizheniya]. Gubernskie Vedomosti.
December 16. Японии от России прежде всего нужны не острова, а газ [Yaponii ot Rossii prezhde vsego nuzhny ne ostrova, a gaz]. Sovetskiy Sakhalin.
December 16. Перешли на горячее [Pereshli na goryachee]. Sovetskiy Sakhalin.
December 16. Подарочный набор [Podarochnyi nabor]. Sovetskiy Sakhalin.
December 20. Какое будущее ожидает Курильские острова? Региональные аспекты большой политики [Kakoe bususchee ozhidaet Kurilskiye ostrova? Regionalnye aspekty bolshoi politiki]. Sovetskiy Sakhalin.
December 27. Рыбий жир с фруктовым вкусом [Rybiy zhir s fruktovym vkusom]. Gubernskie Vedomosti.
December 27. 70 лет со дня образования Южно-Сахалинска [70 let so dnya obrazovaniya Yuzhno-Sakhalinska]. Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Segodnya.
 For the purpose of neutrality and consistency, hereafter the Southern Kurils/Northern Territories dispute will be referred to as ‘the dispute’, and the disputed territories will be referred to as ‘the islands’.
 Unless indicated otherwise, ‘Sakhalin’ in this article refers to Sakhalinskaya Oblast as a Russian administrative unit, which includes the island of Sakhalin, the Northern Kurils and the disputed islands.
 A research technique for the objective, systematic and quantitative description of the manifest content of communication (Berelson 1952, 18). Two types of content analysis are employed in this paper: 1) quantitative: “the systematic assignment of communication content to categories according to rules, and the analysis of relationships involving those categories using statistical methods” (Riffe 2014, 3), and 2) qualitative—“a systematic, replicable technique for compressing many words of text into fewer content categories based on explicit rules of coding” (Stemler 2001, 17). Quantitative data is used to single out the most prominent themes in the coverage, and then qualitative analysis is used to discuss those themes in detail.
 There are many parallels between the loss of the Northern Territories and the loss of Karafuto (Southern Sakhalin under Japanese rule). In both cases the residents were displaced after the war, and the majority of them settled in Hokkaido. There are organisations of former Karafuto residents, such as Karafuto Renmei, and a considerable part of Sakhalin tourism comprises visits from Japanese citizens who used to live on Sakhalin until the end of war. For more discussion of Karafuto, the narrative of loss and war memory in Hokkaido, see Seaton (2016). Perhaps the closest equivalent to the memories and nostalgia of the Japanese associated with the loss of the Northern Territories would be the feelings many Russians have towards the USSR and the territorial changes that followed its collapse.
 According to Williams (2007), there is a tendency among academic and government officials in Russia and Japan to make broad generalisations regarding public opinion of the residents of the disputed islands. The author also points out that survey results are considerably varied between different islands and times of the year, and the reports made by Russian and Japanese journalists seem to contradict each other (132-134).
Article copyright Georgy Buntilov.