Geographically, Russia and Japan are neighbors, and international experience has shown us that countries sharing borders have a greater chance in establishing friendships and becoming full-fledged partners. If a region suffers from ideological, territorial, religious, ethnic, and other conflicts, however, the reality of geographical proximity might conversely serve as an extra catalyst for mutual alienation, mistrust, and at times even open hostility. Relations between neighboring countries could also be negatively burdened with past issues. These might refer to issues regarding mutual offense and unilateral, occasionally tendentious, assessments of certain historical events. This would include the assessments of particular historical events, including those by officials, as well as various “cartographic” and “historiographical” wars when authorities, guided by their own understanding of national interests, sanctioned the use of certain types of historical maps, evidence, and documents, and in the process silenced those who did not conform to the official point of view.

Recent experience has demonstrated that such “skeletons in the closet” can poison the atmosphere of international relations and lead to serious diplomatic conflict. The search for solutions to such problems, based on compromise and reciprocal concession, can prove extremely difficult and often impossible as the problems surrounding bilateral relations between neighboring countries are emotionally charged and permit no half measures. The cumulative burden of a negative historical experience forces political leaders dependent on public moods to adhere to maximalist opinions and to remain inflexible. Ultimately, this hampers resolution.

Russia and Japan are no exception. As the present publication demonstrates, our countries have shared diplomatic ties for more than two centuries, and the first contacts between the Russians and Japanese date back over three hundred years. Our complicated bilateral history has witnessed numerous conflicts that have led to reciprocal distrust and on occasion conflict. For much of the 20th century—an especially ambiguous period in the history of Russian-Japanese relations—our two countries were rivals, competitors, and intermittently military opponents. Since initial contact, however, the people of Russia and Japan have generally treated one another with mutual respect and expressed an interest in each other’s culture. For example, the Japanese were taken by and appreciated Russian classical literature, music, and painting. In Russia, Japanese mass culture has recently become so popular that this has led to the emergence of a Japanese culture “boom.” At the same time, unreliable information and periodically a lack of knowledge—or a total absence of it—relating to the history of bilateral ties has resulted in the general public of both countries forming misguided judgments and prejudices.

For us in the 21st century, the history of the 20th century, the principal focus of the present study, is not a distant memory. Not only do we remember recent historical events but quite often overlay them with a subjective, and at times. emotional assessment. Historical offenses not only block an objective outlook on our past but also hamper the building of genuine good-neighbor relations. Working from and beyond these assumptions, this volume draws together Russian and Japanese historians in an effort to present research on the history of relations between the two countries. It aims to introduce Russian, Japanese, and international audiences to visions and interpretations of historical events and arguments, even if these visions appear at times diametrically opposed.

It was decided that the most logical structure for this research was one that followed the notion of a “parallel history.” The same historical stages and events were dealt with from parallel angles—that is, from two opposing sides to reveal both distinctions as well as common ground in their interpretation. We believed that differences in opinions on history can only be understood through a parallel representation and comparison of the views of both countries. A similar approach has already proven instructive and useful in the work of Russian and European scholars.

The research presented in this publication was the result of three years of diligent work. In 2011, a group of Japanese historians visited Moscow and held an informal meeting with their Russian colleagues. This gathering sowed the seeds for a joint research project on the history of bilateral relations between Russia and Japan. In June 2012, Russian historians formed the Russian-Japanese Commission on Complex Problems of Russian-Japanese Relations to discuss the difficult issues in Russian-Japanese relations; this group comprised some twenty Japanologists and experts in the history of international relations. Scholars representing Russian academic and educational centers in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Khabarovsk, and Krasnoyarsk, together with a number of Russian colleagues at Japanese universities, joined the Russian participants of the commission. These included individuals from Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO); Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU); the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IOS RAS); the Institute of the Far East of the Russian Academy of Sciences; the Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences; and the Far Eastern State University of Humanities. Moreover, young researchers and established experts—the disciples of the Soviet academic school—also participated in the work of the commission such that it became representative of the entire Russian academic community. The Japanese authors included respected historians and political scientists at home and abroad: Prefectural University of Kumamoto, Hōsei University; Kyoto University; Osaka University; Kobe University; Seikei University; Tokyo Woman’s Christian University; Hokkaido Information University, Ebetsu; International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) Kyoto; University of Tsukuba; Kyoto Institute of Technology; Yamanashi Gakuin University; Niigata University of International and Information Researches; and University of Waterloo in Canada.

Over the course of the project historians from the two countries met formally (in Morioka, Awaji, and Moscow) and informally (once in Moscow) from 2011 to 2013. These meetings provided opportunities to exchange opinions and to outline the general contextual requirements for this volume, including research methodology, as scholarly approaches in Japan and Russia are very different. The activity of the commission garnered attention far beyond Russia for several reasons. This was due, in the first instance, to the commission’s special international and political context, especially in light of the recent rise of Russian-Japanese relations and the dynamic development in the interaction between the two countries. The expansion and deepening of Russian-Japanese cooperation created conditions for the formation of an atmosphere of interdependence and trust, thereby promoting the work of the commission.

Second, it was also important to note that this project emerged as a form of international dialogue in a “Track Two” format, complementing and developing achievements of previous formal meetings between the leaders of our countries. Historians from the two countries have demonstrated the ability to collaborate as a team and to find a common language even concerning those difficult and delicate issues about which no mutual understanding has previously been reached at the official level.

Third, joint commissions for research into the thorny historical issues of bilateral relations already enjoyed widespread international academic practice by the time the Russian-Japanese commission of historians was created. Japan, for example, had formed commissions of historians with its Chinese and South Korean colleagues while Russian experts carried out successful joint research projects with Polish, German, Estonian, and Latvian historians to enrich the academic community with thousands of previously unstudied documents. They also issued publications in a number of languages and carried out a series of research forums. Therefore, when planning this research project, we took into consideration the past positive experience of similar research groups. But this project also had a certain advantage: our two countries were not held hostage to past historical issues like those that generate complex political problems for Japan vis-à-vis relations with its Asian neighbors. Despite the complicated and diverse issues in the history of Russian-Japanese relations, they do not create insuperable problems for political dialogue between the two countries.

The outcome of this project is a collection of essays organized into fourteen chronological sections that offers consolidated academic research on the history of Russian-Japanese contacts and relations from the 18th century to the present day. The authors are noted Russian and Japanese experts whose contributions present a range of interpretations of this rich history, drawing upon the ideas and views shaped by each country’s own historiography. It is hoped that this publication will not only offer new academic insights into the field but will also assist in mapping out the course of future relations that, in turn, will nurture a deeper understanding between our two nations.

A History of Russo-Japanese Relations

Over Two Centuries of Cooperation and Competition


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