Japan’s Northern Territories: How local political leaders look at the problem

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Lighthouse at the very end of the cape.

Cape Nosappu, located in a narrow strip of land off Nemuro City of eastern Hokkaido, is considered to be the eastern-most point of Japan. There, in an extreme corner, stands a lighthouse marking the point where land gives way to the roaring sea. Not far from the lighthouse are a number of structures erected with the purpose of telling visitors that not far from that last stretches of Japan’s eastern land borders are islands that belong to the country but remain out of bound since they are occupied illegally by an invading force. Two of the structures attracting the attention of visitors from a distance are a bell that people can ring, presuming that the vibrating sound will reach those roaming the nearest of the occupied islands; and a massive curved monument with an eternal flame burning at the front facing the sea.

Nearby is a two storied building housing Bokyo no Ie/ Hoppokan, where a museum depicting the historical background showing the legitimacy of Japan’s claim over the four Russian held islands, as well as an observation deck fitted with telescopes and binoculars allowing visitors to have a closer look at some of the islands within close proximity are placed. From here one can see an old lighthouse standing at Kaigara Island. A telescopic view brings the island closer. The island, only 3.7 kilometer off the Japanese shore, is the closest from the cape and Japanese territory. However, for those who once might have been living there or made a stopover while fishing in the fertile fishing ground around, the island is so close, yet very far for making a return trip. This is the reality of life of Japan’s former residents of Russian held islands, many among them later settled around Nemuro with the hope that they would be able to get back to their old places without much delay once the problem is resolved. But the problem lingers on, and meanwhile; majority of those who had been driven out are already dead and for the rest aging is quickly catching up.

The Director of this center, 67-year old Hideo Odashima, was obviously not born in the Russian-occupied land. But he is closely linked with the territory as his mother was among those who were forced to leave their birthplaces. His mother had a happy memory of the island where she was born and had taken the opportunity of visa free arrangement to visit the place. Though she couldn’t recognize the places of her younger days, the visit made her happy.

Looking at the islands through the binoculars fitted at the observation centre, what else one can see is the presence of thousands of birds, flying all around and haunting catches. The scene gives a clear hint of how fertile the fishing grounds around the inlands are. However, this also adds another problem to the list of hustles related to occupied islands. Japanese fishermen sailing nearby are routinely rounded up and detained by Russian patrol boats and those caught are compelled to pay a handsome amount of fine for crossing the demarcation lines illegally before they are released. In some cases boats are never returned and Russians use them for catching fish and other sea lives like oysters or kelps and sell those to Japanese consumers. Though in recent days with the introduction of GPS navigation system cases of detention have dramatically declined, the problem of fishing rights in the disputed water remains unsolved and the matter is routinely discussed in periodic negotiations held between the two sides.

The Russians, back in 1956, hinted about Moscow’s willingness to return two of the four islands after two sides sign a peace treaty. The Japanese government rejected the proposal as Tokyo wants all four islands back and made it clear Japan was not willing to use the ownership of islands’ issue as a bargaining chip for a peace negotiation, a position that Tokyo is holding firm since then. As a result, no progress has so far been made in reaching a negotiated settlement.

Very recently Russian President Vladimir Putin made a new proposal, saying that two sides first sign a peace treaty without any precondition and then continue negotiations over other pending issues. This too was promptly rejected by Japan. However, there have been a number of significant breakthroughs the two sides could achieve since the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991. A visa free exchange program was introduced in 1992, under which the former residents and their family members are allowed to visit the islands bypassing visa formalities. The other one is joint economic activities in the islands, an initiative that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is keen about. Under this proposed initiative, Japan hinted to cooperate in a number of fields that would help the islands economic development and also benefit Japan indirectly. Development of fisheries and energy sectors, as well as providing assistance for tourism and infrastructure development and improvement of waste disposal facilities are some of the sectors that has been identified. If things move smoothly according to the plan, this is also supposed to benefit Japanese local economy through contracts and supplies.

Moreover, cooperation in fisheries sector will also give a boost to local fishing industry. Minoru Minatoya, mayor of Raisu Town is more inclined to Joint Economic activities, rather than return of two islands that he rightfully thinks would benefit Nemuro more than other regions. He also thinks obstacles like the legal framework, under which projects in Russian held islands are to be implemented, is an issue that can be worked out between two countries through diplomatic negotiations. That is why he is making an open call to Japanese lawmakers to visit the region more often to get a better idea about the realities from the perspective of the regions.

The Mayor of Nemuro City, on the other hand, thinks that Japan needs to be more pragmatic in calculating losses and gains in real term in the decision making process. Talking to the group of visiting foreign journalists from Tokyo, Mayor Masatoshi Ishigaki said that the city, being at the center of Japan’s Northern Territory issue, would like to see the signing of a peace treaty between Japan and Russia without much delay. He did not say he would prefer a return of two islands against keeping the matter pending. However, he also gave a rough calculation of the benefits Nemuro region can derive from if two islands are returned.

According to the original Russian proposal of 1956, two small islands – Habomai and Shikotan were to be handed over to Japan after signing a peace treaty. The two islands consist of only 7 percent of total land area of four islands combined. However, 38 percent of exclusive economic zone come under this 7 percent. Moreover, as shallow sea water around the two islands is a perfect breeding ground for fish and other sea creatures, the economic benefit is quite significant.  Currently the total yearly catch in that area remains around 28 thousand ton and according to the Mayor of Nemuro City, this might well increase to more than 70 thousand.

The mayor and local politicians know perfectly well that this is a decision to be taken by central administration where political calculation overweighs economic consideration. Hence, it looks as if the current stalemate is destined to continue, at least for the near future, dashing the hope of former residents, as well as local communities of adjacent areas.

(Tokyo, October 20, 2018)

  • How local political leaders look at the problem
  • Japan’s Northern Territories
  • Issue 16
  • Monzurul Huq
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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