Japan’s Northern Territories: Perception of former residents

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Kunashiri Island, a pale view from Rausu Town

Shiretoko Peninsula is situated in the north-eastern part of Hokkaido. The narrow strip of land stretching over Northern Pacific and Okhotsk Sea is famous for its scenic beauty. The peninsula is covered with untouched forest that runs all along from the coastlines to the spectacular Mount Rausu and covers everything around. The best way to enjoy the scenic views is to drive through the Shiretoko Pass, a motorway connecting Utoro on the western coast to Rausu on the east side of the peninsula. The 30 kilometer long road that sits around 740 meters above sea level gets closed during winter months from late November to early April. I had a rare opportunity earlier this month to visit that remote part of Japan with a group of Tokyo-based foreign media representatives.

Another view that attracts visitors who cross the pass is that of Kunashiri Island. Situated across the Nemuro Strait, Kunashiri is one of the four islands that Soviet Union occupied at the flag end of World War II. The Russian-held islands that Tokyo claims to be the integral part of the country are collectively known in Japan as Northern Territories. The purpose of our recent trip to that region of such pristine beauty was less to enjoy the offerings of nature and more to look at the situation of Kunashiri and other three islands from political perspective. The trip that started with a bus ride through the Shiretoko Pass; provided us with the rare opportunity of understanding Japan’s standing on the issue of Northern Territories from the position of those living in a close proximity of the disputed land. In this two part reportage based on that recent visit, I would like to focus on the issue from the perspective of various actors who are closely involved with the issue, both as victims and stakeholders such as local politicians.

Politics is a matter that cannot be separated from the understanding of history. Though Japan and Russia seems to be in a loggerhead over the ownership of four islands since the end of World War II, the origin of the dispute can be traced back to late 18th century, when two present-day neighbors were busy exploring the so-called unclaimed lands beyond their own natural habitat and claiming the ownership by all means of territories where indigenous local communities were leading a peaceful life. Russians and Japanese encountered each other for the first time when both were busy in geographic explorations of colonial nature. Since then there had been a number of treaties and agreements the two countries concluded defining the ownership of new territories, a process that seems to be continuing till today.

In any war situation it is the ordinary citizens who eventually suffer most and who bear the heaviest burden of any sacrifice. In Japan’s northern territories too, the worst sufferers had been those who were living in the islands without thinking much about the complexities of war and hostilities. The four islands that Soviet troops occupied in August 1945 were inhabited mostly by Japanese fishing communities. Many such families migrated to those northern islands roughly one or two generations earlier from Hokkaido as well as from Toyama prefecture of Japan. They had a peaceful life in that sparsely populated remote corner of the world, as had been described by one such former resident of the Islands, 86-year old Yoi Hasegawa, in the following words:

“I’m from Etorofu. When the war ended I was 13. We had plenty of food in the island and life was good. Everybody was working together. Food was rich and we enjoyed our life there.”

Her good life ended very early when Soviet troops occupied the islands and deported Japanese inhabitants, first to Sakhalin and from there eventually to Hokkaido, where she ended up settling in Nemuro City, never forgetting about the golden time of first 13 years of her life. Such a good life of another former resident, Kimio Waki, also ended in the same manner. He was born in Kunashiri Island in January 1941 and still remembers how in those childhood days he was riding horses and having a carefree, relaxing life in the peaceful surroundings of the village located at the foot of Mount Chacha. That life too was suddenly taken away after the arrival of Russians and though his family stayed in the island until he was seven, good old days had never returned. His family members were eventually taken to Sakhalin, where from they moved to Japan and settled in Raisu Town. Raisu is a small fishing port in the eastern part of Shiretoko Peninsula from where a pale view of the island of Kunashiri, along with the pick of Mount Chacha, is visible during daytime. After talking to us about his childhood days and also about the bitterness of being forcefully deported from the peaceful settings of his home village, Kimio Waki responded to our request and posed for a photograph, pointing his finger to the exact location of the mountain where in the distant past he once was having a good life.

The four Russian held islands had a combined population of 17,291 when Soviet Union occupied the land. Residents were first ordered to stay at home and subsequently they were deported to Japan where since then they have been living with the hope of returning to their former island homes after two countries reach a negotiated settlement. However that desire has never been fulfilled and out of more than 17 thousand former residents, roughly 6,000 are still alive and their average age now is 83.

It took quite long for Japan and Soviet Union to re-establish diplomatic relationship after the end of World War II. The Northern Territories issue prevented both countries from signing a peace treaty and it was only in 1956 that Tokyo and Moscow agreed to normalize relationship and continue negotiations over the ownership of disputed territories. The Moscow declaration issued by the leadership of two countries mentioned for the first time about the desire of Soviet Union to return two of the four islands after the countries sign a peace treaty, a proposal that was hard for Japan to agree on as Tokyo right from the beginning has been demanding that all four islands should be returned at the same time. This stalled further negotiation and left the issue unsolved. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Japan saw new opportunities for resolving the outstanding problem with Russia. However, nothing tangible has so far been achieved, except for arranging visa-free visits of the former residents and for Russians dwelling in the islands. This paved the way for both Kimio Waki and Yoi Hasegawa to set foot at their childhood villages after a gap of almost five decades.

Meanwhile, in the political arena negotiations between the two countries are continuing almost endlessly, though with no meaningful result so far. As age is catching up with the rest of former residents who are still alive, hope for them to see a settlement during their lifetime is gradually fading. This is a tragedy that remains mostly unheard of, not only to people overseas, but also to many of the Japanese citizens. Amid such a gloomy setting, the local business community and political leadership is hoping at least for some form of an understanding between the two countries that might pave the way for a settlement beneficial to both sides. Launching of Joint economic activities in Russian-held islands is one such development that local communities of eastern Hokkaido are hoping for, though this too is not immune from criticism and obstacles.

(Tokyo, October 15, 2018)

  • Japan’s Northern Territories: perception of former residents
  • Issue 15
  • Monzurul Huq
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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