Why Russia Is Intensifying Anti-Japanese Propaganda

Since 2021, Russia’s hostile behavior towards Japan is picking up stream.

By Andrii Gurenko

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Zhenya Voevodina Shutterstock.com

Since 2021, Russia’s hostile behavior towards Japan is picking up stream. It captured a Japanese fishing vessel in May, and in the Northern Territories, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin made an illegal landing in July, established a “tax-free special economic zone,” two Russian deputy prime ministers landed illegally in October, and the Russian military conducted firing drills on a regular basis. These are all unacceptable acts of outrage that are infringement of Japan’s sovereignty and violation of international law.

Russia has also conducted military drills, including the launching of missiles within Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and 10 Chinese and Russian naval vessels formed an armada and sailed around the Japanese archipelago. These two cases are not exactly violations of international law, but are apparently intimidating behaviors against Japan, as if claiming the Japanese coastal waters belong to Russia.

The above actions are acts of hostility using its “hard power.” What is also becoming notable recently are acts of hostility using its “soft power”—anti-Japanese propaganda based on distorted historical facts. Since the historic views against Japan by China and South Korea are so blatant, Russia’s view on history was not so noticeable in Japan. There are also a considerable number of people with the mistaken view that “Russia does not disseminate anti-Japanese propaganda,” or “Russia does not conduct anti-Japanese education.”   

But in fact, anti-Japanese propaganda has existed in Russia for a long time. In books and TV programs, the claim that “Japan has committed war crimes,” “The Japanese have still not reflected on its past” has been repeated all the while. An example is a series of Facebook and Twitter postings by the Russian Embassy in Japan in August 2020, related to the Soviet Union entering the war against Japan. In the postings, Japan and the Japanese are insulted dreadfully, and the Soviet war crimes against Japan are brazenly justified.

Desperate Glorification of the Soviet Union

The countries the Kremlin detests the most are the U.S. and other Western countries that are far more developed than Russia, and the neighboring countries including Ukraine and the Baltic states that want to escape Russian control and be independent countries. Therefore, Russia has focused on propaganda against its neighboring countries and the U.S. The propaganda against these countries is conducted daily in all manners on an extensive scale at levels exceeding anti-Japanese propaganda by China and South Korea.

Russia was not that earnest in anti-Japanese propaganda, compared to those against the neighboring countries and the U.S. In the book I published in March 2019, I had stated, “Anti-Japanese propaganda does exist in Russia. Although the focus is not so strong compared to anti-West publicity, anti-Japanese intent has been preserved, ready to be unleashed on full scale when necessary.” This prediction became a reality in 2021.

The following is quoted from the newspaper article, “Ryosuke Endo’s Russia in Depth: Do We Remain Silent to Russia’s ‘Historic View Against Japan’?” from the September 15, 2021 issue of the Sankei Shimbun.

“Russia’s historic view of Japan has rapidly intensified this summer. In August, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) declassified a series of documents concerning the Kwantung Army, which gained massive coverage on the state-run media.

The declassified information was post-war “testimonies” by the detained Kwantung Army officers and soldiers through interrogation by the Soviet authorities. With these documents, Russia is claiming that:

  1. Japan was preparing to wage war on the Soviet Union by breaching the Neutrality Pact, and
  2.  Japan was planning a biological warfare and conducted human experimentation on Soviet prisoners.

‘Japan was conducting research on tuberculosis germs and bacterium paratyphosum B to use in the war against the Soviet. I heard the war with the Soviet Union would begin in June 1945.’ One document was this statement by a former company-grade officer of the Unit 731 (the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army). There is also a statement by a former prison warden saying, ‘Unit 731 was studying how bacteria affected the human body, and I sent about 40 people (Soviet prisoners) there.’

In early September 2021, at Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East, an academic conference was held on the ‘Khabarovsk War Crimes Trials’ (December 1949), which was a one-sided prosecution of Japan’s war crimes by the former Soviet Union.

Co-sponsored by the Russian Historical Society which is chaired by Director Sergey Naryshkin of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia (SVR), the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this conference emphasized the recognition that ‘the Soviet troops prevented Japan’s biological warfare and saved the world.’ In a video address, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated it was ‘essential the atrocities of Japanese militarists are remembered in the future.’”

For the opening of this conference held on September 6-7, 2021, President Vladimir Putin also sent a video address, stating the meeting was “very important for the preservation of historical memory, so as to effectively counter any attempts to distort the World War II events and to prevent their recurrence.”

At this two-day academic conference, various speakers reiterated on how monstrous Japan was and how wonderful the Soviets were. The attendants emphasized the Soviet Union’s entry into the war against Japan “saved millions of lives.” By the way, the speakers were not all Russian, but included Chinese and South Korean academics, and they too presented anti-Japanese historic views.

In this meeting, the Khabarovsk Trials were deemed to have a historic significance equivalent to the Nuremberg Trials and the Tokyo Trials, and received the same treatment as these two. Science and Higher Education Minister Valery Falkov proposed the details of the Khabarovsk Trials should be included in the university curriculums for law and history students. Naryshkin also emphasized, “the Japanese government should accept the of World War II result.”

Of course, the reality is that the Soviet’s war against Japan was a one-sided invasion by scrapping the Japan-Soviet Neutrality Pact, and the countless atrocities committed by the Soviet troops are inexcusable. Also, the so called Khabarovsk Trials were entirely bogus. The Soviet authorities accused freewheelingly those detained in a long-term state of enslavement who had no means of defense within the Soviet Union.

As of 1949, four years have passed since the war ended, yet the Soviets have not allowed the captives to return to Japan. This is clearly a breach of international law and violation of human rights. The Japanese captives held unlawfully were not criminals but victims that Russia should compensate. To summarize, from whichever way you look, both the 1949 Khabarovsk Trials and the 2021 academic conference held to praise this, are complete bogus events and symbolize Russia’s egoistic behavior.

As I previously mentioned, thinking “Russia has launched anti-Japanese propaganda” is wrong because it is nothing new. But it is true that “Russia strengthened anti-Japanese propaganda since the summer of 2021.” Many Japanese may wonder why this is so.

Similarly, quite many people in Japan may think it strange that Russia is spreading such propaganda in Japan, rather than domestically. “Since Russia already controls the Northern Territories, they would benefit by lying low and keeping the status quo. They have already stolen what they wanted, so why make a fuss?” I would like to consider the answers to these questions.

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Victory an Absolute Fact in Constitution

The first reason that comes to mind is to justify its illegal occupation of the Northern Territories. In response to Japan’s demand for the return of the islands, Russia brings up a ridiculous historical interpretation to fabricate the framework of “the goodies Soviet, the baddies Japan.” It says, “Since the marvelous Soviet has defeated the evil Japan, the territories the Soviet gained in this war belong to Russia,” and justifies the illegal occupation.

Another reason is to justify Soviet atrocities. The Soviet Union not only violated the Japan-Soviet Neutrality Pact and attacked Japan and illegally seized its territories, but also committed many atrocities during the assault. There were repeated massacres of Japanese civilians by Soviet troops, and the Siberian internment is also a large-scale breach of international law and a violation of human rights.

Russia uses the logic, “inherently, the Soviet is good, and Japan is evil, and the righteous Soviet enforced justice on villainous Japan, so we do not deserve to be criticized on minor details of our conduct,” to justify its atrocities.

The two reasons, to rationalize illegal occupation and justify atrocities are certainly motivations for Russia’s propaganda. But these are only superficial, and there is a deeper intention at the base. It is Russia’s abnormal obsession with historical perception. Russia is fixated strongly on a historical interpretation that serves its interests. Of all, its victory in World War II has a special standing.

For the current Russia, World War II victory is not just a proud history. Victory is an absolute object of worship and the source of the country’s legitimacy. It is a worldview supported by the concept that Russia is wonderful because it won the World War II.

In today’s Russia, May 9 Victory Day is the country’s greatest anniversary, and events are held on a large scale across the state. While the military parade in Moscow is well known, parades and marches are held in various regions across Russia. On the days around May 9 each year, talk of victory fills the major media. For the Russians, Victory Day celebration is far more important than the New Year or Christmas. We could even say the real religion in Russia is no longer Christianity, but the faith of victory.  

Even a well-known critic in Russia says, “If victory is taken away from us, what will remain to bring the country together?” They are surprisingly frank on this point. Indeed, Russia has nothing else to be proud of apart from the World War II victory, and without it, it would be difficult to lead the country.

The historic view giving absolute priority to the victory is also enshrined in the Russian constitution. In 2020, the constitution was amended to include a provision stating, “the nation’s achievements in ‘defending the Fatherland’ must not be undervalued.” The “nation’s achievements” refers to the Soviet victory in World War II. The constitution says this must not be undervalued, so any criticism of the Soviet World War II behavior would be against the law.

In July 2021, a law banning comparison between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany was enacted. This means, in Russia, an official historic perception exists, and not adhering to it would be against the law and constitution. Such is the importance of victory in Russia.

Inconvenient Unless “Japan = Evil”

Then, what does that have to do with Japan? Well, the victory over Japan is also an important part of the “victory,” an object of absolute worship. Therefore, the Soviet invasion of Japan must be righteous, or Russia’s version of history could not be sustained.

The Kremlin is rejecting historical views other than “the Soviet’s absolute righteousness.” If many people realized the historical fact that, “in reality, the Soviet was the invader, and committed numerous atrocities,” Russia’s whole national ideology could collapse. So, Russia is desperately spreading the historic view based on the “divine victory.”

In other words, for Russia, unless Japan was an absolute evil, its national ideology would not be valid. Moreover, it is critically important for Russia that this recognition of history is established not only domestically but also in Japan, because if the defeated side admits Russia’s view of history, it would be a firm base for its legitimacy.

For these reasons, Russia is imposing its historic view on Japan too. That is why it holds anti-Japanese events on a large scale and strengthens anti-Japanese propaganda. It also takes the trouble of translating the propaganda into Japanese and disseminating them though the Russian Embassy in Japan.

This issue also relates to the Northern Territories. Since Russia is an aggressor by nature that continuously seeks territorial expansion, it is obvious it will never return the territories it seized. However, with the Northern Territories, besides the original appetite for territorial expansion, there is also the historic view. Russia claims the “World War II result” as the grounds for its sovereignty over the islands.

This is not just an excuse, but a recognition based on the real ideology of the Russians. Since victory is absolute, so are the territories obtained through that victory. To respond to territorial negotiations with Japan would lead to “reviewing the World War II result.” This could cause the whole national ideology of Russia to crumble, so there is no way Russia will agree to returning the Northern Territories.

Russia’s view on Japan based on its historical perception could be summarized roughly as follows: “The absolutely righteous Soviet Union defeated the evil Japan. The defeated nation Japan should accept what the victor country Russia says unconditionally, and Russia rules out any objections. The Japanese should repent forever, and always know its place as a defeated country.”

Let me just mention that the Soviet Union is a genuine evil empire, certified as an aggressor and expelled from the League of Nations for the invasion of Finland in 1939. The succeeding nation, Russia, shows no shame in feigning to be absolutely righteous.  

The Unstoppable Abuse of Dictatorship

Some may wonder why the Kremlin is strengthening the anti-Japanese propaganda now. As for the timing, we should see the activities not as a separate incident, but within a series of the hostile behaviors mentioned at the beginning of this article. Russia is boosting aggressions against Japan, and historic-view-based anti-Japanese propaganda is just one of them.

There is no particular reason the aggression against Japan increased in the year 2021. With the passing of time, brutal dictatorship, such as Russia, escalates its hostile activities towards other countries. This is a structural nature of a dictatorship. Some small authoritarian states may choose not to deteriorate its external relations. However, a huge dictatorship controlled by a militarist and expansionist leader seeking global hegemony will always become aggressive.

If there is a change in leadership, for example, there could be a temporary improvement in external relations or easing of tensions. But if the same dictator reigns for a long time, the desire for supremacy will grow and the actions will become increasingly violent. Especially with a country like Japan that quietly accepts any humiliation without taking countermeasures, the dictatorship will escalate the aggressive actions even more.

Putin has already been in power for 22 years. During that time, his external policies have become increasingly hardline. His second term was more aggressive than the first, and the third term (formally Dmitry Medvedev’s term) was more aggressive than the second and escalated to the fifth term in the same fashion.

It is easy to imagine that Russia will become naturally more aggressive in the future. This is obvious considering the nature of a dictatorship and the world view of Putin and his aides. The conflict between Russia and liberal democratic countries will probably go on to the limit.

As part of Kremlin’s overall toughening stance, hostile acts towards Japan are also on the rise. That is why it has strengthened its occupational administration of the Northern Territories and intensified military activities around Japan and history-based anti-Japanese propaganda. And from here on, more aggressive acts against Japan are almost certain.

How should the Japanese government respond to increasingly aggressive Russia? First, it must overhaul its diplomacy towards Russia. It should discontinue the support activity called “Joint Economic Activities,” and stop the Japan-Russia peace treaty negotiations, because Russia has no intention to return the Northern Territories.

Japan should impose sanctions on Russia for its infringement of sovereignty in the Northern Territories. Through collaboration with the Western countries, it should deter Russia’s further aggression with multifaceted sanctions. One measure that would be effective is to close all Russian consulates in Japan, reduce the embassy grounds by half, and limit the number of diplomats that can stay in Japan. This would reduce the scale of stratagems Russia can conduct in Japan.

In response to anti-Japanese propaganda, Japan should make proper objections. Japan should do away with the optimism: “there is no need to deal with Russia’s propaganda since no one will believe such absurd claims.” No matter how absurd it is, people will start believing if it is spread repeatedly on a large scale.

Therefore, for Japan’s national interest, the government should take the initiative to spread history-based objections to counter Russia’s absurd anti-Japanese propaganda. If the Japanese public knows about the atrocities committed by the Soviets, it will change their awareness on the of the Northern Territories and Japan’s defense and security.

(Translated from the Japanese article originally published in the January 2022 issue of the “Seiron” magazine.)

Andrii Gurenko
Born in Kyiv, Ukraine in 1987. After studying Japanese at Waseda University, graduated from Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv majoring in Japanese. Earned Master degree at Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies, Kyoto University. Author of books including “Illusion of Putin” and “Lessons of NATO” (both in Japanese, from PHP Shinsho).

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