Elderly Japanese pine for return to Northern Territories
NEMURO, HOKKAIDO â" Yoi Hasegawa still remembers when armed Soviet soldiers burst into her house just days after Japan surrendered at the end of World War II and tried to drag away her teenage sister.
At gunpoint, her father shielded his daughters in their home on the island of Etorofu, northeast of Hokkaido.
âOnly after you kill me!â he screamed at the soldiers, who left without harming the family. âI thought we would all die,â Hasegawa says.
Nevertheless, Hasegawa, then 13 and now 86, has fond memories of her home on Etorofu. It was one of the islands invaded by the Soviet Union at the end of the war.
Four of the islands known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the southern Kuril islands in Russia are disputed and remain a bitter sticking point between Tokyo and Moscow, preventing them from signing a formal peace treaty.
Now, former residents who were children when the Soviet troops arrived are heading into their twilight years with little expectation of returning to their former home.
More than 60 percent of the 17,000 former islanders have already died and the average age of those still alive is 83.
After the Soviet invasion, the father of Kimio Waki, a former resident of the island of Kunashiri, buried his important documents in a pot, r eady for the day when he and his family returned.
But he didnât live to see that day and Waki, 77, doesnât expect to either. âNo progress at all for 70 years â¦ I have nothing to say but that itâs truly regrettable,â he says.
He, too, remembers the Soviet arrival clearly.
âBig men Iâve never seen before, carrying machine guns, came into our house, ransacking rooms . . . I was frozen with terror,â he recalls.
The 4-year-old Waki later became friends with Russian children, who came with families after the invasion.
But the friendships came to an abrupt end three years later when hundreds of Japanese residents were expelled, some gathered inside a fishing net with a wooden bottom and hoisted onto a cargo ship.
âWe were like swordfish. â¦ We were not treated like humans,â he said.
In recent months, diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue appear to have accelerated.
In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin sugges ted signing a peace treaty âwithout any preconditions.â
Tokyo rejected the proposal, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to sit down with Putin again before the end of the year.
Historically, Japan insists the islands, which were once inhabited by indigenous Ainu people, have never belonged to anyone else.
Russia considers them spoils of war as agreed between U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1945.
Strategically, control of the islands gives Russia year-round access to the Pacific Ocean for its Pacific Fleet, a formidable naval force based in Vladivostok, as the surrounding water doesnât freeze in winter.
âToo little time is left,â says Masatoshi Ishigaki, the mayor of Nemuro, the closest Hokkaido city to the disputed islands.
In 1956, Moscow offered Tokyo the two smallest, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets, in exchange for a peace treaty, but the offer went nowhere.
Ishigaki says peop le in Nemuro would now accept that offer, and even a partial return of the islands would bring âgreat benefits.â
Another area mayor, Minoru Minatoya of the town of Rausu, further north on the Shiretoko Peninsula, says grassroots exchanges could help build trust.
This process is already underway in a limited fashion, with some former residents allowed back to visit family tombs and Russians coming to Japanese towns under an exchange program.
Japan and Russia are also negotiating economic projects on the islands in areas such as fishing, farming, wind-generated energy and tourism, but the details have yet to be worked out.
But Minatoya is skeptical that the economic projects are the best way to solve the problem. âWould you accept it when someone you donât trust says, âHereâs a big present for you, please take this?â â he asks.
On the other side of the strait, there is little appetite to return the islands.
âIt is not likely that e conomic projects will enable Japan to retake control of the islands,â said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.
âThe Russian position is firm: the Kurils are Russian,â he said.
Until the deadlock is broken, Hasegawa has only the memories of her home island, known as Iturup in Russian, from where a Japanese carrier fleet departed to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941.
She remembers riding a horse on the beach, her family felling trees and pulling the logs home on a horse sled. She remembers the bitter cold and how they would put a brick on a stove, then wrap it in a towel to warm their bed.
Waki now lives in Rausu, around 25 kilometers from his hometown on Kunashiri, known in Russian as Kunashir, which is visible on a clear day.
âItâs so near but yet so far.â
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