Contested Territories and Symbolism: The Historical Significance of Land Disputes

February 6, 2020

One of the more peculiar and lesser-known controversies to originate from World War II involves two key players of the war. In 1945, the Soviet Union joined the Allied Powers in the final confrontations against Imperial Japan in the Pacific. The Soviet Union annexed the Northern Japanese territories of Southern Sakhalin, the Kuril Chain, and numerous small islands near Hokkaido as part of their aggressive tactics [1]. After the war, Japan gave up its territorial rights to Sakhalin and the Kuril Chain in the subsequent peace treaty. Despite this, the exact geographical boundaries of the Kuril Chain were not specified in the document, and since the 1950s, Japan has adamantly demanded the return of four islands within the Chain: Kunashiri, Etorofu, Habomai, and Shikotan. The argument is that the four islands are not part of the land that was renounced in the treaty [1]. Disagreements over the four islands (referred to as the “Northern Territories” by the Japanese and the “Kurils” by Russia) has remained a dominant diplomatic issue between the two countries, preventing both nations from signing a proper peace treaty. Although the Soviet Union claimed and current Russian President Vladimir Putin now claims that all four islands were rightfully and legitimately belonging to Russia since the 1950s, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has consistently argued that the “Northern Territories” are “illegally occupied” [2]. 


On a related topic, to the west of Japan, we find another historically significant neighbor of theirs: South Korea. Much like the Northern Territories with Russia, Japan holds a territorial dispute with its former colony over a group of islets called “Takeshima” by the Japanese, and “Dokdo” by the South Koreans. Following independence, South Korea has claimed ownership of the islets by referencing documents from as early as the sixth century. In contrast, Japan argues that Takeshima became a part of its territory in the mid-seventeenth century and that full incorporation of the islets, which took place in 1905, solidified Japanese ownership [3]. Japanese sovereign control of Takeshima eventually subsided after the Korean War and the dispute was mutually deemed insignificant and not worthy of pursuing. However, in 2005, the islets were brought into the spotlight when Japan’s Shimane Prefectural assembly passed a bill to designate February 22 as the nation’s official “Takeshima Day” [4]. This action, despite opposition from the central Japanese government, was met with harsh backlash and anger from South Koreans, significantly increasing tensions between both nations.


 Photo: The islets under dispute by South Korea and Japan.


What exactly do the two disputes have in common besides disagreements over small groups of islands? At a first glance, one might infer that both disputes ultimately come down to a need for resources and territorial expansion. However, a historically conscious analysis of both issues reveals that rather than material gain, national identity and the symbolic meaning of the islands is maintaining the relevance and significance of the disputes. This blog will discuss the varied historical symbolism associated with the Northern Territories for the Japanese and how a complex web of national actors with contrasting interests lead to manipulation of the significance of the Kuril Islands. Furthermore, relevant comparisons will be made with the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute and how symbolism is manifested in that dispute. Finally, the contemporary significance of both disputes will be discussed.

The immediate post-war symbolism was quickly changed with the introduction of new actors and interests in the 1950s. Most notably we have Hokkaido prefectural governor Tanaka Toshifumi, who partly appropriated the irredentist movement to criticize the central government. With then Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida signing the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, all four islands now considered the Northern Territories were given to the Soviet Union. During the same period, conflicts between the central government and Tanaka’s administration in Hokkaido gave him a reason to oppose PM Yoshida’s government. Using Japan’s renouncement of the Kuril Islands in the Peace Treaty, Tanaka heavily emphasized the irredentist movement and the right of the Japanese to regain their territory to highlight the mistake that the central government had made. Despite the claims not deviating from the original ideas, the underlying critique of the central government was present in Tanaka’s overall message [1]. However, Tanaka’s opposition was short-lived. In a matter of a couple of years, through structural changes, Hokkaido prefectural administration's views aligned with that of the central government and Tanaka’s criticism disappeared.


During the period spanning 1955 to the 1970s, political rivalries between Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and its main opponent, Japan’s Socialist Party (JSP) lead to critical shifts in the symbolic value and meaning of the Northern Territories. This shift can be summarized as a replacement of economic symbolism by political and nationalist symbolism, which was ultimately used to undermine the power of the JSP by the LDP [1]. The use of the term “Northern Territories” by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1963 represented Tokyo’s final appropriation of the irredentist movement that firstly originated in Hokkaido [3]. The two parties’ disagreements over domestic issues such as the reversion of Okinawa lead to the Northern Territories being used to undermine and portray the USSR (and the ideologically related JSP) in a negative light [1]. Nationalist terminology such as “our inherent territory” [1] was used in government-sponsored publications and texts to turn the population against the USSR. Yet at the same time, minimal efforts were made to compensate or help the displaced and affected people from the disputed islands or Hokkaido, many of whom had already lost the initial attachment they had to the islands right after the war. 


The contradiction of this symbolism is evident. Since the national symbolism of demanding all four islands became ingrained into the cultural policy of Japan, seeking a compromise or any different deal would weaken the power of the symbolic value associated with the islands. Therefore, the stringent position of Japan regarding the islands seems to have weakened the nation’s prospects of realistically reclaiming the Northern Territories. With this, further deviation from the original economic symbolism is evident. 


Turning now to the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute that was mentioned earlier, we can see a similar chronology of events and interconnected actors and interests. Like the Northern Territories, the post-war position in the late 1940s and early 1950s of Japan viewed Takeshima symbolism largely in terms of economic benefits. Specifically, Japan’s Shimane Prefecture maintained that fishing grounds were urgently needed for the prefecture’s economic well-being [5]. Although the Japanese argued that the islets were rightfully theirs, territorial and irredentist motivations were nowhere as strong or relevant as they were for the Northern Territories. In the 1960s, Tokyo’s position towards Takeshima was significantly loosened as closer ties with South Korea were sought after. Both countries ignored the dispute altogether. Meanwhile, Shimane prefecture, which was actively campaigning for full rights over Takeshima and integration into Japan’s territory, felt a large sense of abandonment and resent over the lack of attention that Takeshima was receiving from the central government. In this sense, while the central government held almost no symbolic value for Takeshima, the symbolism of the islets for Shimane prefecture was one of victimhood and injustice caused by Tokyo on the prefecture. Much like Hokkaido and the Northern Territories, Shimane formed the symbolism of Takeshima due to its struggle with the central government, not necessarily because it was motivated by negative feelings towards a foreign country (South Korea) [5].


The passage of the “Takeshima Day” ordinance in 2005 by Shimane prefectural assembly was not a special event in itself. Rather, it was another routine and symbolic effort by the prefecture to maintain the idea of Japan’s right to Takeshima and establish the frustrations it held regarding the central government’s lack of action towards the dispute [5]. The continued marginalization of Shimane’s concerns and subsequent unpopular fishing agreements on Takeshima waters above other things contributed to the prefecture’s decision to pass the ordinance. Still showing the scars of colonization, South Korea’s symbolic meaning of Dokdo is intimately related to its independence, sovereignty, and ability to thrive despite its dark history. Thus, South Korea’s historically sensitive symbolic value was heavily challenged by the Takeshima Day ordinance. Furthermore, despite South Korea’s strong backlash, the central government of Japan chose to follow through with the establishment of the ordinance by promoting the narrative of Takeshima being rightfully Japanese [3]. 


What exactly would have motivated the central government to support the Takeshima cause and add to the outrage of the South Koreans? We could turn to Japan and Korea’s colonial history for a potential explanation. Alexander Bukh’s summary of the works of various scholars on the “discursive role of Takeshima” and “the discursive construction of Japan’s identity vis-a-vis Asia in general and the Korean ‘other’” [5] shows that the reason behind supporting the ordinance could be interpreted as being based on a sense of superiority to Korea (as Japan’s former colony) and the need to feel ontological security. In short, feeling that Japan’s superiority and ontological security were being challenged by South Korea’s growing economy and cultural relevance, perpetuating the notion that Takeshima was illegally being claimed by “unruly” Koreans served to maintain South Korea’s inferior status relative to Japan. Thus, a different symbolism was associated with Takeshima by the central government. A symbolism that puts down South Korea and confirms its inferiority and simultaneously affirms Japan’s ontological security. 


The Dokdo/Takeshima dispute has shown relatively little progress. In the present, the islets are controlled and administered by South Korea and thousands of Koreans have visited it every year. Despite the relative calmness of the dispute, a visit to Dokdo last year by Korean lawmakers proved controversial, prompting a protest from Japan [6]. Although the dispute does not seem to be the main cause of soured relations between South Korea and Japan, it certainly does not help their diplomatic ties. If anything, this dispute significantly exacerbates any periods of tension between the nations. An interesting thing to note is that occupation of territory through full control and administration (like we have with South Korea and Dokdo) has been recognized as a legitimate form of ownership and sovereign rule of territory by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). For instance, during the 1953 Minquiers and Ecrehos case between the United Kingdom and France, the ICJ ruled that the islets belonged to the United Kingdom given its extensive history of integrating them into its territory and holding legal authority [7]. With Dokdo being under full control by South Korea, international law indicates that it is rightfully Korean. However, it is easy to see how the prevailing symbolic dimension of the dispute would still cause trouble.


In contrast, the Kuril Islands dispute has received more attention from both PM Abe and President Putin. With ongoing talks between both leaders, the benefits of reaching a deal are significant. Whereas Japan would benefit from the return of the islands and consolidate the national symbolism of the islands that originated in the 1960s, closer bilateral cooperation with Japan would allow Russia to achieve greater stability and security in Asia, especially with the growth of powerful actors such as China [8]. At the same time, there is reason to believe that Japan may become more flexible to the symbolic value of the islands and seriously consider a compromising solution. To quote Alexander Bukh, “The symbolism of the Northern Territories has lost its acuteness over the last decade or so for a variety of reasons- most important probably the rise of China and North Korea as Japan's dominant "others" and PM Abe's policies aimed at resolving the dispute”. With consistent dialogue and the possibility of compromise, the prospects of a solution are historically higher than before. However, given the fundamental disagreements that PM Abe and President Putin still hold about the dispute, it would be rash to assume an optimistic outcome in the immediate future. 


What is certain as of now is that neither issue has a solid chance of being entirely resolved. With decades of history and symbolic significance behind both disputes (not to mention that numerous WW2-related issues are also connected to these disputes), it is hard to imagine an outcome that does not involve any party losing more than it hopes to gain symbolically and physically. 


***This blog was made possible thanks to the valuable knowledge, and information from the numerous sources given to us by Dr. Alexander Bukh. Those who are interested in the issues discussed in this blog are highly encouraged to read his upcoming book: “These Islands Are Ours: The Social Construction of Territorial Disputes in Northeast Asia” which is now available for pre-order at 


***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of JTMS or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.




  1. Bukh, Alexander. "Constructing Japan's ‘Northern Territories’: domestic actors, interests, and the symbolism of the disputed islands." International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 12.3 (2012): 483-509.

  2. Streltsov, Dmitry. “Why Russia and Japan Can't Solve the Kuril Islands Dispute.” The Moscow Times, The Moscow Times, 24 Jan. 2019,

  3. Bukh, Alexander (2020) These Islands Are Ours: The Social Construction of Territorial Disputes in Northeast Asia. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

  4. “‘Happy Takeshima Day...?": Dokdo - Takeshima 독도 - 竹島 Liancourt Rocks The Facts of the Dispute.” Dokdo,

  5. Bukh, Alexander. "Shimane Prefecture, Tokyo and the territorial dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima: regional and national identities in Japan." The Pacific Review 28.1 (2015): 47-70

  6. Sang-hun, Choe. “South Korean Lawmakers Visit Disputed Islets Claimed by Japan.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 Aug. 2019,

  7. "The Minquiers and Ecrehos case, Judgment of November 17th, 1953 : I.C. J. Reports 1953, p. 47." 

  8. Hazir, Umit Nazmi. “Kuril Islands: The Unresolved Dispute between Japan and Russia.” DailySabah, 10 Aug. 2019,


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