Since 1981, Japan has observed February 7 as “Northern Territories Day,” which commemorates the signing of an 1855 treaty granting the nation possession of a chain of islands off the coast of Hokkaido.
In a recent commercial titled “Drawing the Northern Territories,” a male voice begins: “Even though it’s Japanese territory, Japanese people can’t live here.” Pastel drawings of picturesque mountains and fishermen at work segue into a shot of a woman looking out across a stretch of sea to a rocky outcrop. “Look, it’s so close,” continues the narrator, as “16 km” appears across the bottom of the shot. The ad ends with the message: “The Northern Territories: inherently Japanese.”
Harmless patriotism, or government propaganda? Public reactions seem to be leaning toward the latter.
The term “Northern Territories” refers to Kunashiri, Iturup, Shikotan, and the Habomai islets, which extend from the northwestern tip of Hokkaido to the southern end of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Though these four are currently under Russian control, with some 30,000 residents present on the islands, the dispute concerning their ownership goes back over a century to the signing of the Treaty of Shimoda in 1855.
This treaty granted Japan possession of the four islands and Russia all territory to the north, which is why they are known in Russia as the Southern Kurils and in Japan as the Northern Territories.
Though Japanese settlers from the mainland eventually took up residence on the islands, adding their numbers to those of the Ainu peoples who migrated there earlier in the 18th and 19th centuries, both groups were deported following Japan’s defeat in World War II.
Japan claims that these deportations constituted an illegal act, and that Japan never truly relinquished the Northern Territories (though Japan renounced “all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands” as part of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, Russia was not a signatory). Meanwhile, Russia points to this treaty and a number of other international agreements as proof of its rightful ownership.
Which brings us to this commercial message. With its pastel drawings and uplifting music, it might seem no more than an innocuous celebration of the Northern Territories in keeping with the spirit of the holiday.
But not everyone in Japan is convinced. Considering that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released a statement on February 7 declaring his intention to resolve the issue in favor of Japan, this coming on the heels of the government’s decision to place sanctions on Russia for its maneuvers in Ukraine, some think the televised message is part of a campaign to rally the nation around Abe’s foreign policy.
Weighing in on the debate, one Twitter user said: “I can’t help but think this is meant to stir up nationalism… sounds like saber-rattling to me.”
Others seemed to share this individual’s sentiments.
“This is my first time seeing an ad about how the Northern Territories are Japanese. Shiver. I get the feeling something has just begun.”
“I recently saw this commercial: “Even though it’s Japanese territory, Japanese people can’t live here.” Was I the only one whose first thought was, “Fukushima?” This government propaganda about the Northern Territories is too much. There are people saying they want to live in the Northern Territories? First let’s see about allowing people [in the mainland] to live where they want.”
The timing of the media campaign certainly seems telling given Abe’s recent comments. However, whether a favorable resolution will indeed come to pass remains to be seen.
Sources: Nikkan Spa, Channel NewsAsia, BBC News
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