Resolving the Russo-Japanese Territorial Dispute: Hokkaido-Sakhalin Relations

Resolving the Russo-Japanese Territorial Dispute

Author(s):  Brad Williams

ISBN:           978-0-415-41321-2

Publisher:  Routledge

Year:           2007

Price:           $36.63

Reviewed by Major Timothy R. Romans, Assistant Professor of History, United States Air Force Academy, United States.


Brad Williams wrote his book Resolving the Russo-Japanese Territorial Dispute: Hokkaido-Sakhalin Relations in 2007, contributing to the political science field by focusing on actions at the subnational level in Russia and Japan. Williams’ thesis in this book is that “Hokkaido-Sakhalin subnational government relations failed to create, at the subnational level, an environment conducive to resolving” the territorial dispute over the South Kuril Islands/Northern Territories (p. 1).  The focus then of Williams’ work is to provide context and answer “why” both the Japanese and Russians have yet to reach an agreement to end the dispute from the 1990’s to the present day.

According to Williams, most of the works that specialize in Russo-Japanese relations have focused on “central governments” and “private firms” and for the most part have neglected examining government relations at the subnational level (p. 5).  Williams establishes the “subnational” level of politics as a “broadly defined area below the nation state” (p. 178). The level of subnational politics on which Williams chooses to focus in his study is the regional government of Sakhalin and the prefectural government of Hokkaido. He explains his reasoning for the selection of Hokkaido and Sakhalin by pointing out the dearth of studies on their activities at the subnational level.  Additionally, Williams rationalizes the focus of his study by asserting that in the area of the territorial dispute, Hokkaido and Sakhalin are the most active, their relations are the most “institutionalized,” and that their relationship is unique due to their proximity to the dispute and “numerous private groups and organizations” they host who are engaged in the dispute (p. 6).

With his thesis and the parameters of his political science study of the Russo-Japanese territorial dispute established, Williams delineates the approach and theoretical undercurrents of his work. He professes to use a “limited case study approach,” but does not entirely qualify what this means (p. 8).  As defined by Raya Fidel (1984) at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Washington, a “limited” case study is conducted to “generate findings of relevance beyond the individual cases” and are appropriate when “(1) a large variety of factors and relationships are included, (2) no basic laws exist to determine which factors and relationships are important, and (3) when the factors and relationships can be directly observed” (p.273).

How does Williams then address the criteria for his chosen methodology in his book and is it appropriate? His quest to examine the “salutary” effect that Hokkaido-Sakhalin subnational relations have had on diplomatic exchange between the respective central governments in Tokyo and Moscow in brokering a conclusion to the territorial dispute largely satisfies the requirements for his chosen methodology (p. 7).  Concerning the presence of a large variety of factors and relationships, this can be satisfied as well. Williams draws upon various instances of Russo-Japanese relations over time, examining the impact of various private and governmental institutions, and charting the interactions of various public figures and personalities. With regard to the condition of “basic laws” that “determine which factors and relationships are important,” Williams again meets this threshold by advancing the  theories of “high politics” and “low politics.” He defines “high politics” as “security and defense of national sovereignty” and “low politics” as “economic, social, and environmental issues” (p. 9).  Central to this theory is the presumed dichotomy or as Williams states “division of labor” between these differing levels of politics (p. 10).  This theory underpins Williams’ argument  which he extends even further to the less explored “subnational” realm of politics, where he posits that “subnational” governments are capable of being international actors through influence and “consciousness raising measures” or through bypassing central governments through “formal and informal contacts” (p. 12).

As for observing “factors and relationships” this is where Williams’ work is exceptional. Williams was the recipient of a Japanese government scholarship and also made research trips to Hokkaido and Sakhalin. The extensive fieldwork he performed in Japan and Russia involved thorough use of Japanese and Russian language documents, archival records, interviews, and news sources further bolsters the credibility of his work and his argument which he arranges in five chapters: 1. Tokyo, Moscow, and the Disputed Islands, 2. Russian and Japanese Subnational Diplomacy, 3. Hokkaido-Sakhalin Transnational Relations, 4. The Sakhalin Political Elite and the South Kuril Islands, 5. Sakhalin Public Opinion and the South Kuril Islands, and 6. Sakhalin’s Commercial Environment and Local Trade.

The chapter titles suggest a Russo-centric approach for the book which coincides with an unspoken assertion that the locus of control in resolving the territorial dispute largely lies with Russia. While not entirely misleading, Williams does make efforts to illustrate the Japanese agency in resolving the territorial dispute, not only at the “subnational” level with Hokkaido, but also at the macro level. One of the more prevalent tropes Williams latches onto in his analysis is that of Kankyō Seibei or “groundwork,” which is also incidentally the name of an industrial waste disposal company in Morioka Japan (p.3).  Should we then buy stock in Williams’ emphasis on this concept? Williams identifies Kankyō Seibei as a “ubiquitous Japanese expression” that categorizes the main thrust of Japanese diplomacy in favorably resolving the territorial dispute which is broadly defined as “establishing conditions to achieve a particular goal – a necessary first step on the way to fulfilling an ultimate objective(or a means to an end)” (p. 3).  Throughout Williams’ work, the concept of Kankyō Seibei becomes an umbrella under which he places Hokkaido’s economic and diplomatic actions geared towards ending the dispute in the 1990’s. In his analysis of the Japanese involvement in the territorial dispute, Williams’ study would have benefitted from utilizing Karel Van Wolferen’s book, The Enigma of Japanese Power, a crucial work in understanding the dynamics of center-periphery power relations within the Japanese political context (1990.) Van Wolferen (1990) exposes the Japanese government as “a system without a core,” noting the diffusion of power, and casting governmental agencies and policymakers as figureheads (p. 49). While Williams makes similar notations about power relationships in post-Soviet Russia, he does not delve into this level of detail for his study of Japanese politics. Van Wolferen’s book, among others, would have assisted him in doing so.

For the purpose of this study, Williams’ characterization of Kankyō Seibei mostly fits with the evidence he has gathered and his overall thesis. Although Williams grants much agency to the relations between Hokkaido and Sakhalin, he is quick to point out that the economic, political, and diplomatic actions at the subnational level are only complimentary to the respective central governments. After all, Williams acknowledges that only Tokyo and Moscow possess the ultimate ability to defuse the territorial dispute. Why then did Kankyō Seibei fail to create the ideal environment in which Japan and Russia could reconcile their differences? One of the primary impediments that Williams emphasizes is the intransigence of both the Russians and the Japanese and that this ultimately led to the failure in resolving the dispute at the subnational level. Just as the Sakhalin bloc pressured the Russian central government in not relinquishing the South Kuril Islands, Williams grants similar agency to Hokkaido in pressuring Tokyo to accept nothing less than a complete return of the territories, creating an insurmountable diplomatic impasse.

Williams also notes that the increase of the territory’s “intrinsic and instrumental “ value in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse served as a further obstacle to the effectiveness of Kankyō Seibei and the resolution of the territorial dispute (p. 169).  To Williams, the demise of the 75 year-old Soviet state resulted in a political environment evocative of a “freeze and thaw” a term coined by Ralph Blum (1965) in his New Yorker article (p. 40.) As Williams notes, the 1990’s “thaw” in Russia’s relations with the outside world resulted in a fragmentary state with a weakened central government in Moscow. This created a vacuum in which Williams proposes Sakhalin had the opportunity to wield a disproportionate amount of power in negotiating the territorial dispute.  During Sakhalin’s temporary displacement of the central government in negotiating with Japan, Williams observed that Sakhalin exerted its influence through the tools of opportunistic nationalism and public opinion.

If the 1990’s represented a “thaw” in Russia’s relations with the outside world, Vladimir Putin’s ascendancy to power would qualify as a “freeze” in which center/periphery relations were redefined in Russia’s political landscape, curbing the power of the Sakhalin local government and political elite. As evidence of this retrenchment of central government authority, Williams charts the change in Putin’s stance from hardline opposition to the transfer of the “South Kuril Islands” to adopting a more conciliatory posture toward Japan, a motion in direct opposition to Sakhalin’s aims of maintaining the territory (p. 120).

Resolving the Russo-Japanese Territorial Dispute: Hokkaido-Sakhalin Relations has a broad-based appeal, not only for scholars in the historical and political science fields, but also for the general reader interested in understanding Russian and East Asian diplomatic relationships in the late Twentieth Century.   Williams’ thesis that Hokkaido-Sakhalin Relations at the subnational level failed to create an environment conducive to resolving the Russo-Japanese territorial dispute offers new perspectives for research in the field of international studies.   Williams’ application of the subnational level paradigm also promises to inspire further scholarship in this direction and ensure that future analyses of this nature will broaden their scope of understanding in the realm of international politics.


Blum, R. August 28, 1965, Freeze and Thaw: The Artists in Russia, The New Yorker, p. 40-41

Fidel, R. 1984, The Case Study Method: A Case Study, Library and Information Science Research, Vol. 6, p. 273-288

Van Wolferen K., 1990, The Enigma of Japanese Power: The First Full Scale Examination of the Inner Workings of Japan’s Political/Industrial System, New York, Vintage Books

Williams B., 2007, Resolving the Russo-Japanese Territorial Dispute: Hokkaido-Sakhalin Relations, New York, Routledge

Suggested citation: 

Timothy R. Romans (2010). Review of “Resolving the Russo-Japanese Territorial Dispute: Hokkaido-Sakhalin Relations” edited by Brad Williams,  East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no.11, Internet file: