February 4, 2023

The Ukrainian war dashes the hopes of the elderly Japanese to return to the Kuril Islands

The Ukrainian war dashes the hopes of the elderly Japanese to return to the Kuril Islands

Many families fled on boats In the middle of the night, they initially rowed until they were far enough from the coast to run their engines. The Kwata family was among the thousands of displaced during that time.

“After all these years, I still can’t forget everything I saw before my eyes,” said Kwata, 87. Now, “Seeing the Ukrainians…hits very close to home. It doesn’t seem like something is going on from afar.”

Thousands of miles from Ukraine, in this northeastern Japanese city where nearly 17,200 former residents of the Northern Territories were resettled, the Russian invasion and the plight of millions of Ukrainian refugees reverberate hard.

The war dashed their hopes of seeing their homeland again after Russia halted post-war negotiations on the islands in response to Japan’s sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine.

For these former residents, whose average age is around 87, hope of returning home in their lifetimes has faded.

“The only people left to tell these stories are just the memories of some fifth graders. The rest of them all died unable to share their stories,” said Hiroshi Tokono, 88, who fled Shikotan Island at the age of 13.

For years under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan sought to improve relations with Russia and prioritize a peace treaty and territorial settlement in an effort to make Moscow a strategic partner and prevent it from getting too close to China. When Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, concern over negotiations over the islands shaped Abe’s tepid response.

But In a dramatic turn away After years of seeking rapprochement with Russia, Japan imposed extensive economic sanctions over the invasion. Although negotiations have stalled since 2020, Moscow said last week that it has no plans to return to talks and intends to end visa-free trips for Japanese nationals to the islands. It also threatened to withdraw from joint economic projects there.

What Japan calls the northern lands, the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Habomai and Shikotan, lie off the coast of Hokkaido, some of which can be seen from Nemuro on a clear day. They were part of Japan before World War II, but shortly after its surrender in August 1945, the islands were claimed by the Soviet Union, which they called the Kuril Islands.

These volcanic islands southeast of Russia’s Sakhalin Island separate the Sea of ​​Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean and are at the heart of postwar Russo-Japanese relations. The two countries issued a joint declaration in 1956 that ended their state of war but did not sign a peace treaty. This was pending resolution of the dispute over the islands.

From Japan’s point of view, the Soviet seizure of the islands was a betrayal, because Japan had already surrendered and the islands had been Japanese territory since the first treaty between the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan in 1855, said James Brown, an expert on Rousseau. – Japanese Relations on the Temple University campus in Tokyo.

For Russia, the islands are its proper territory, and they were obtained in exchange for joining the United States against Japan in World War II. Brown said giving up the islands was a betrayal of Soviet soldiers and citizens and Russia’s World War II legacy. The islands are also of strategic importance to Russia, as they make it easier for Moscow to transport its ships to the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of ​​Okhotsk, and they have valuable natural resources, including a rare earth metal used in space construction.

Tokyo and Moscow have held peace negotiations sporadically since the 1956 declaration, but there has been no significant movement. In contrast to Japan’s territorial disputes with China and South Korea over largely uninhabited islands, the scale of the dispute with Russia varies, because the islands are larger (Etorovo is about 2,000 square miles) and the lives of thousands of people are directly affected.

In Nemuro, it’s hard to travel a few blocks without seeing a colossal statue or a sign calling, in uncharacteristically strong Japanese: “Northern Territories, bring it back!” Road signs and street names are in Japanese and Russian for the Russian fishermen doing business in Nemuro.

Here, Russia’s announcement of its withdrawal from the negotiations has consequences. Former residents are prohibited from visiting the cemeteries of their relatives on the islands. It also ends cultural visits to the islands by the Japanese in the hope that the two peoples will coexist one day if the conflict is resolved.

“It is very unfair and unacceptable, and it undermines the efforts of the people of both countries who are working hard to promote exchange,” Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki said in response to Russia’s announcement.

With Russia considering closing its economic pact with Japan, the fishing industry is also on edge, as it depends on the waters between Japan and Russia – considered some of the best places on the planet to fish, with 3 million tons of fish and more. Seafood is caught annually.

Fewer than 5,500 former residents of the Northern Territories are still alive. They know what Japan’s tougher response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means for the future of negotiations over the islands, but some still support Japan standing up to Russia. At the Nemuro Museum dedicated to the conflict, residents and visitors left messages criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin and expressing solidarity with Ukraine.

Some residents said they hope to see Prime Minister Fumio Kishida take a tougher approach with Russia to resolve the conflict in the northern regions.

“What Russia is doing in Ukraine, trying to change the status quo by force, can never be justified,” said Yasuji Tsunoka, 84, who was eight when Soviet forces captured the small island of Yuri, part of the Habomai group. The islands with 70 houses.

“Kishida imposed heavy sanctions, we understand that. But now, more than ever, we want the negotiations to be direct and vigorous, without constantly trying to be sensitive to Russia.” The situation in Ukraine again is a matter of territory, just like the northern islands with Japan.”

After the islands were seized by the Soviets, some Japanese families stayed for a few years, living side by side with the Soviet families who moved there. Tokono remembers going to school with Soviet children, and his experience was later turned into an animated children’s film called “Giovanni Island.

But in the end, to make way for the Soviets, the Japanese population was driven from their homes and pushed into barns and horse stables. By October 1947, all the Japanese remaining in the northern lands were transferred from the islands in Soviet ships. That group included Tokono, who stated that they first survived harsh conditions on Sakhalin before reaching Nemuro. Some died on the flight.

It was not until 1964 that Russia and Japan agreed to allow a limited number of humanitarian trips to the islands so that former residents could visit the graves of their relatives.

Former residents said they hoped future Japanese generations, as well as American leaders, would take the fight.

“We will continue to share the movement with the next generation to keep it going for as long as possible,” Tsunoka said. “Japan must never stop.”