The reason for the strained relations between Russia and Japan is the well-known conflict over the four Southern Kurile Islands — Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashi, and Iturup — which were occupied by Soviet forces in the closing days of the war. Both countries consider these islands in the Sea of Okhotsk to be their territory. The issue of their status remains a hot-button issue with the publics in both countries.The four islands were first mentioned in official Russian-Japanese relations in the Semod Treaty, which was signed in February 1855. Under the accord, the Southern Kuriles were declared part of Japan. In May 1875, the two countries signed another treaty that gave Russia control of Sakhalin Island in exchange for Russia renouncing claims to all 18 islands in the Kurile chain. Following the Russo-Japanese War, which ended in a decisive defeat for Russia, the two countries signed the Portsmouth Treaty, in which Russia pledged to renounce forever its claims to the Southern Kuriles. The Japanese, incidentally, have never considered the four islands to be part of the Kurile chain, but instead view them as associated with Japan’s Hokkaido Island.In April 1941, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin negotiated a treaty with imperial Japan on mutual neutrality in the fighting in Asia. That agreement alleviated Moscow’s concerns about a possible second front in the Far East in the event of war with Germany. The war broke out when Germany attacked the Soviet Union just two months later. The treaty also untied Japan’s hands and in December 1941, a Japanese fleet based near the Kuriles attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, drawing the United States into the war.
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