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echnically speaking, a war cannot be deemed over until a Peace Treaty is signed by the two or more forces that have been fighting each other. This is the reason why, for example, the Korean War has never come to a formal ending. An armistice was signed in 1953, but not a peace treaty. Hence, an armistice is by definition an agreement made by opposing sides in a war to stop fighting for a certain time. It’s a sort of a truce. However, this story is not about the Korean War, instead, it is about World War II. Formally, the most destructive and bloody war of all time has never ended.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The reason why World War II has never ended is because of the Kuril Islands dispute. The Kuril Islands are a volcanic archipelago made up of 56 islands that divides the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. Its possession has always been disputed by Russia and Japan. The first agreement signed by the two forces with the aim of solving the dispute was the Treaty of Shimoda (1855). According to this treaty, some islands would have passed under Russian sphere of influence and other islands would have passed under Japanese sphere of influence. Then, the 1875 Treaty of Saint Petersburg established that Japan would have given up all rights to Sakhalin (another large island disputed by Russia and Japan) in exchange for full ownership of the Kuril Islands. Anyway, this treaty didn’t solve the dispute because of some problems with its translation from French, the treaty’s official language.

Towards World War II

With the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) and the Russian Civil War following the October Revolution (1917), Japan succeeded in conquering the Kuril Islands, Sakhalin and parts of Russia’s Far East. During World War II, Russia and Japan signed the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact (1941). The Pact was to last for five years, but any of the two countries could withdraw from it four years after its enactment. So, in 1945 Russia used its legal right and declared war to Japan. On August 14, 1945, Japan accepted the Postdam Declaration and announced unconditional surrender. Between August 18 and September 3, Russia started its offensive against Japan in order to conquer the Kuril Islands, helped by the United States.

Yoshida signing the San Francisco Treaty (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Peace Treaties

Problems arose when it was time to sign peace treaties. In particular, Russia on one side and Japan and the USA on the other didn’t share the same point of view regarding which islands were part of the Kuril Islands. Another dispute regarding the status of the Kuril Islands arose during the preparation of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951, a peace treaty between Japan and the Allied forces of World War II. According to the treaty, Japan would have renounced all rights to Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. However, the treaty didn’t state explicitly that Japan would have recognized Russia’s sovereignty over those territories. Furthermore, the Habomai Islands and Shikotan (part of the Kuril Islands, at least geographically) would have remained to Japan. As a consequence, the San Francisco Treaty, signed by 49 nations (Japan and its former enemies), was not signed by the Soviet Union.

The Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration

In 1956, the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration ended the state of war between the two states. But it was just an armistice, not a peace treaty. The Joint Declaration was not a resolution of the Kuril Islands dispute, but Japan and the Soviet Union agreed to start a negotiation for a permanent peace treaty that would have brought to a conclusion of the dispute. Anyway, a peace treaty has never been signed, and this is why World War II cannot be considered ended, technically speaking.

The Dispute Nowadays

Nowadays, the archipelago is administered by Russia. Nevertheless, the territory is still claimed by Japan, in particular the Habomai Islands and Shikotan (as provided by the San Francisco Treaty). The dispute was exacerbated in 2008 when the Japanese government published new school textbook guidelines directing teachers to say that Japan has sovereignty over the Southern Kuril Islands (Habomai and Shikotan). Obviously, this is just an anecdote, but what is interesting is that, after World War II, solutions were quickly found for Europe and other important areas but not for a few islands in the Pacific Ocean inhabited mainly by fishermen.

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