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Sunday, Aug. 14, 2005

60 YEARS, AND ONWARD

TRYING TO KEEP HOPE ALIVE

Islanders bemoan 60-year wait to return


Staff writer

FUKUI -- Shohei Yamamoto may not be a professional storyteller.

News photo
Shohei Yamamoto, a former resident of the islands seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, speaks at a symposium in the city of Fukui.

But the 77-year-old's experiences on Etorofu Island after Japan's surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, seem to have made an impression on an audience unaware of his hardships.

Yamamoto was in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, just before Japan surrendered. He and his little sister took a ship from Nemuro, eastern Hokkaido, to his home island.

But during the trip back, the U.S. sank the ship with three bombs. Of about 120 people on board, he and his sister were among 20 survivors.

"We ran for our lives" to Etorofu, where his six brothers and sisters were waiting, Yamamoto said in a lecture in the city of Fukui last month. His mother was five months pregnant.

After landing on the islands three days after Japan's surrender, Soviet forces advanced southward and seized Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islets by early September.

It was not long before Soviet troops came to Yamamoto's house.

"I was held at gunpoint as three Soviet soldiers searched our house one day in September," Yamamoto said. "I remember my grandmother glaring at them."

The Yamamotos and other Japanese islanders lived under Soviet occupation for two years before they were evicted to Hokkaido.

Yamamoto's story is part of a campaign by former islanders to keep the public aware of the issue.

Last year, the group began to register former islanders and their descendents so they could talk about their experience on the islands. The storytellers are dispatched nationwide when asked to lecture.

According to the group, some 17,000 people were living on the islands at the end of World War II. Half have since died. Forty-five former islanders and 22 descendents are registered as storytellers in the group.

"Because we don't have video footage of life on the islands, we cannot show people how things were at the time," said the group's spokesman. "That is why we are asking the islanders and their descendents to talk about their experiences as storytellers."

In the same lecture, Kai Nishimura, 54, whose mother lived on Shibotsu, one of the Habomai islets, talked about the anguish he felt last June 2.

Nearly 300 boats headed for Kaigara Island to harvest kelp growing some 3.7 km from Nossapu Point, the eastern tip of Hokkaido, Nishimura said.

Japanese fishermen have to pay 500,000 yen a year per boat to Moscow for permission, he said.

"Why do we have to pay money to harvest our own kelp?" he asked.

Nearly 60 years after Soviet troops took control of the islands, Japan and Russia have not been able to resolve the territorial row.

Few Japanese, however, are aware that Yamamoto, Nishimura and many other former islanders are still campaigning for the return of the islands they and their ancestors grew up on.

Junko Iwata, who attended the lecture in Fukui, likened Yamamoto's case with that of Yasushi and Fukie Chimura, who were abducted in Fukui by North Korean agents in 1978.

"The local government and people close to the (abducted) couple worked hard to draw public attention, but the campaign did not gain momentum" until North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted to the abduction in September 2001, Iwata said. "These people are going through a similar situation."

Despite the effort, Toshio Koizumi, 82, who heads the islanders' group, admitted that the momentum of their campaign is declining and a sense of resignation is looming large in the minds of group members who are mostly in their 60s and older.

"After all these years, some feel resigned that the island issue is somewhat forgotten," he said. "Others feel they will not be able to see their islands returned while they are alive."

The lack of momentum has also caused friction among former islanders over the government's negotiation policy.

Although the group is demanding that Russia acknowledge the sovereignty of all four islands in one occasion, some people in Nemuro argue that the government should first get back two of the four and negotiate the sovereignty of the other two, Koizumi said.

If two islands are recovered, Nemuro fishermen will be able to profit from fishing in an expanded sea zone. But the group is afraid Russia will try to end discussions after it returns the smaller two of the islands, which constitute 7 percent of the seized territories.

Although some former islanders still place their hopes on seeing progress in the territorial issue when President Vladimir Putin visits Japan in November, government officials are pessimistic.

Nobuo Shimotomai, a professor of international relations at Hosei University, said the two countries should start discussing how Japanese and Russians can coexist on the disputed islands in the future.

"Even if the four islands are placed under Japan's jurisdiction in the future, Japan obviously would not kick out Russians living there," Shimotomai said. "Negotiations should focus on how the two sides could share the islands."



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