THE Kamchatka fisheries question is the hardy perennial of discord between Soviet Russia and Japan. From small beginnings it has now assumed the proportions of a major political issue. Its ramifications can best be presented by noting the stages of its growth.

Pre-revolution Period. The Tsarist Government exhibited an extraordinary disinterest in the riches of Russia's Far Eastern waters and permitted Japan to obtain a long headstart in their exploitation. The first privileges which Japan received from Russia were contained in that same Treaty of 1875 whereby Russia acquired Sakhalin and Japan the Kurile Islands. The treaty gave Japanese fishing boats and traders rights equal to those granted by Russia under the most-favored-nation clause. Subsequently, Japanese fish buyers conducted a brisk trade with the natives at the mouth of the Amur. But the special fishing rights exercised by Japan spring from Article 11 of the Treaty of Portsmouth as implemented by the Fishery Convention of 1907, which granted Japanese subjects the "right to capture, gather and manufacture marine products along the Russian coasts facing the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea." According to this convention, concessions (or fishing lots for lease) were to be distributed by auction with no discrimination as between Japanese and Russian nationals.

"Illegal" Period: 1917-1924. Difficulties over fishing rights did not develop between the two nations until the Russian Revolution severed diplomatic relations, thus preventing renewal of the 1907 convention when it expired in 1919. During the period of foreign intervention in Siberia, the Russians lost control of the fishing grounds. In 1921, Japan, declaring the 1907 convention void, proclaimed "free fishing," and protected her fishermen with warships. During this period Japan progressively took over control of the entire fisheries, built canneries on the Kamchatka shore, and doubled the output of her fish products. In an effort to legalize her enhanced position, Japan first attempted to negotiate with the Merkulov "White" government at Vladivostok, later with the Far Eastern Republic at the Dairen Conference (1921-1922), and again with the latter, this time supported by the Soviet Government, at the Changchun Conference in September 1922. These negotiations broke down (in so far as fishing was concerned) on the issue of payment for the fishery privileges that Japan had enjoyed and expanded during the "illegal" interim. On March 2, 1923, the Soviet Government decreed that the 1907 Convention was still in force. Then in April of that year came the first postwar auction: the Japanese not only took part, but paid the arrears in rent for their fishing leases, amounting to one million rubles.

Period of Soviet General Concessions Policy: 1924-1928. After that auspicious indication of good will by both parties, a temporary fishing agreement was drawn up in 1924, restoring the 1907 obligations. At that time the Soviet Government was embarked on the general concessions policy of inviting foreign investments in Russia. By the Treaty of Friendship of 1925 the two governments formally recognized each other and agreed to revise or cancel all pre-1917 treaties between Russia and Japan, with the exception of the Treaty of Portsmouth. The 1907 Fishery Convention was to be revised in accordance with the changed conditions of the industry. After two years of negotiation the new convention, with three additional protocols, was signed (January 23, 1928). Its term was set for eight years, subject to automatic renewal for twelve-year periods. Japan's rights to exploit Russian Far Eastern waters were reaffirmed, with the exception of 37 bays and inlets specifically enumerated. These rights include the right to catch fish, except fur seals and sea otters, the right to the free use of the littoral of the fishing lots for purposes of the industry (e.g. for buildings, canneries, etc.), and the right to export the products without payment of an export duty or license. The equality between Japanese subjects and

Russian citizens at the annual auction of lots in Vladivostok was again formulated in treaty form. Rates, fees, etc., due the Soviet state were itemized, and a compromise formula was drawn up as between Soviet labor laws and Japanese fishing customs. With the signing of this convention the Kamchatka fisheries question seemed to have been settled.

Period of the First Five Year Plan: 1928-1933. But the hardy perennial was not so easily uprooted. Within a year the Soviets launched their First Five Year Plan, in which the program for the fish industry involved an effort to break the Japanese monopoly in the Far East. By the Convention of 1925, Soviet state enterprise had been excluded from the fish auctions, it thus was restricted to non-auctionable lots which supplied only 20 percent of the total catch. However, an extraordinary number of so-called private Russian firms appeared on the scene, with the result that the lots obtained by the Russians increased from 42 in 1928 to 313 in 1930. Fresh trouble appeared in the form of the yen-ruble exchange. The Japanese fishing interests had been making payments with Soviet currency, obtainable at depreciated rates at the Vladivostok branch of the Bank of Chosen. Following an inspection by local Soviet authorities that bank was forced to close on December 17, 1930. Thereafter the Japanese had difficulty in making payments because the official Soviet exchange rate was from five to six times more favorable to the ruble than was the rate on the illegal "black exchange." The Japanese government therefore demanded a lowering either of the fishing rents or of the ruble. There ensued another six months of negotiation, terminated by a compromise in April 1931, which permitted payments for that year to be made in debentures of the AKO (Russian Kamchatka Fishing Concern) to be purchased at the rate of 32.5 sen per ruble. After the depreciation of the yen by 40 percent in 1931, the Russians tried without success to boost the rate to 75 sen per ruble. General dissatisfaction caused the Japanese to request a conference to interpret the 1928 convention. Again protracted negotiations took place, resulting in the Hirota-Karakhan Agreement of August 1932, which increased the catch permitted the Soviet state enterprise by two and one-half times, and extended most of the existing Japanese contracts to 1936 without auction. Since new grounds were being opened to exploitation, the relative position of the Japanese continued to decline.

Period of the Second Five Year Plan: 1933-1937. By this time the Soviets had definitely abandoned the former policy of attempting to attract foreign capital into industrial concessions and were interested only in technical assistance. Concessions involving foreign capital had failed, e.g. Lena Gold Fields Co., Ltd., etc. Also, the Second Five Year Plan had for its formula the development to the utmost of the productive strength of the entire country, including the Far Eastern fisheries. In May 1935 Japan requested revision of the 1928 convention before the date of its expiration (January 23, 1936), and there began the latest of the long series of negotiations. What Japan now wanted was the extension of the existing leases for a 12-year period, the abolition of the auction method, and the limitation of Soviet output. Pending the outcome of these negotiations, the 1928 Convention, with the 1932 supplement, was extended to December 1, 1936. A new convention was finally drafted (but not published) and was ready for signature late in November 1936. The Japanese Foreign Office chose that moment (November 25, 1936) to announce the signature of the German-Japanese anti-Communist agreement. The Soviet Government countered this move with a refusal to sign the new fisheries convention, confining its action to a further extension of the existing agreement for another year. Consequently, the annual auction of leases, which Japan had sought to abolish, was expected to be held as usual in February of this year. In the meantime Japan was reported in the January 1, 1937, issue of Manchuria (semi-monthly publication of the South Manchuria Railway) to be prepared to protect "the Empire's legitimate fishery activities in Kamchatka sea with warships."

In the meantime there has been a continual expansion of Soviet fishing activity in the convention waters. And Japan's output, despite its gradual increase in volume, is becoming a relatively smaller part of the total catch. In 1924 Japan controlled 80 percent of the leases and accounted for 97 percent of the output of conserved fish. But between 1930 and 1934 Japan's leases of fishing districts increased from 296 to 369 whereas those of the Soviets jumped from 240 to 383. In 1927 Japan produced 92 percent of the canned crab; in 1934, Soviet canned crab from convention waters (129,500 cases, or 55.4 percent of the total) exceeded the Japanese share for the first time. At the beginning of the First Five Year Plan the Soviets had one conserving plant in Kamchatka; at the end of it they had 16. They expanded their exports from 1,584,700 gold rubles in 1928 to 20,343,700 in 1933. In the same period the Soviet employees increased from 3,017 (of which none was permanent and 1,599 were Japanese) to 16,707 (of which 5,927 were permanent and none was Japanese). The Soviet figure for the number of Japanese nationals engaged in the Kamchatka fisheries is 33,000; the Japanese figure is 22,227 in 1930 and 20,364 in 1934. Further, the Soviets have built can factories, barrel factories, saw mills, etc., to produce supplies and equipment formerly obtained in Japan.

The importance of the fishing industry to Japan is indicated by the fact that of the three million persons engaged in fisheries throughout the world, 1,521,916 are Japanese (of whom 57.9 percent use fishing as subsidiary employment). Japan's 364,582 fishing boats represent one-third of the world's total of such craft and with them she takes one-third of the world's total catch, amounting annually to between nine and fourteen million tons. Her annual catch is valued at about 300 million yen. In 1935 her exports of fish products were worth 82 million yen. From the convention zones she took in 1934 prepared fish products valued at 40 million yen and canned fish valued at 27 million yen. These figures give a clear idea of the value of Japan's fishing rights in Soviet waters, and explain why she is so perturbed over the prospect of their loss.

From the above one may conclude that the Kamchatka fisheries question does not lend itself to an easy solution. If Japan's fishing rights rested merely on a Soviet concession contract, they would probably have been liquidated before this. But they stem from the Treaty of Portsmouth, which the Soviet Government in 1925 recognized as binding. While the use of the term servitude might be seriously questioned in describing these rights, they do nevertheless constitute a limitation on Soviet sovereignty in certain territorial waters and along the adjacent shores of the USSR. According to the Soviet view, the Japanese northern fisheries do not contribute to Japan's food supply since they are utilized mostly for exports, and therefore constitute capitalistic exploitation, which during the "illegal" period attained monopolistic proportions. The Japanese, on the other hand, hold the view stated in the Diet of 1934, that: "The problem of fisheries in the northern waters is not less vital for Japan than the Manchurian problem." The suggestion is frequently made in Japan that the fish industry be transferred to the state in order better to compete with the Soviet state industry, for evidently the Soviet Government is determined to "overtake and outstrip" the Japanese on the basis of straight competition. But behind the economic issue as to who shall control the conserved salmon or crab markets of Europe and America loom political issues loaded with elements of danger for both sides.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • BRUCE HOPPER, Assistant Professor of Government in Harvard University; author of "Pan-Sovietism" and other works.
  • More By Bruce Hopper