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Saturday, March 15, 2008

G8 offers forum for territory dispute

Displaced islanders hope arrival of Russian president leads to dialogue

Staff writer

NEMURO, Hokkaido — Hirotoshi Kawata hopes the Group of Eight summit in July will be an opportunity to tell the world about his 62 years as a displaced person, banished from a Soviet-seized island when he was a preteen.

Hirotoshi Kawata
Hirotoshi Kawata

The former resident of Taraku, one of the Habomai islets and within sight of Nemuro, recalls the rich environment of his village, where crab and shrimp could be caught by hand.

"The 1,500 people who lived on the island mostly engaged in fishing and selling kelp. We were one big family," Kawata said.

But during and after the final days of World War II, the Habomais and nearby islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan were occupied by the Soviet army. The Japanese residents were ordered in the following years to leave for Japan proper or become naturalized Soviets.

"I still recall how the Soviets came to our neighborhood, checking each house for American and Japanese soldiers. They'd say 'toki, toki,' demanding that we turn over our watches ('tokei') and other valuables," Kawata recalled.

The unresolved territorial row over Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islets has remained a diplomatic thorn between Tokyo and Moscow for over six decades.

But with the expected presence of new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Hokkaido this July — the first visit by a Russian leader to the prefecture — former islanders hope progress will be made on the getting their territory returned.

Located 3.7 km from the closest of the disputed islands, Nemuro is ground zero for the campaign to demand the islands' return from Russia, and ubiquitous signs along the city's streets state this demand.


However, Kawata, a resident of Nemuro since he left Taraku at age 11, is concerned that interest in the issue has waned outside Hokkaido. "The issue has received less attention and the younger generations are less aware of what's going on. I fear for the situation. We must raise our voices," he said.

Born on Taraku in September 1934, the former Nemuro city employee left the island two months after the Soviet invasion in September 1945. His parents, who chose to remain on the island, were also eventually expelled aboard a jam-packed ship.

"But instead of heading straight to Nemuro, their ship made stops in the Soviet Union, so it took my parents three months to arrive at the city," Kawata said.

Since being forced to leave Taraku, Kawata has been allowed back only three times since 1989 via programs that permit visits to family graves and the like. The only people on Taraku now are Russian guards, and Kawata's house has been torn down.

"Considering the time that has passed since the invasion, it distresses me that the issue has faded for some," Kawata said.

News photo
A statue in Nemuro, Hokkaido, titled "A Cry — The Way to the Four Islands" depicts an elderly woman and two boys pointing toward a group of disputed islands that have been held by Moscow for more than six decades. JUN HONGO PHOTO

Nemuro Mayor Shunsuke Hasegawa echoes Kawata's concern about the lack of attention to the issue.

"The Soviets declared war on Japan on Aug. 7, 1945. They began their attacks two days later," Hasegawa said during a news conference last month, explaining that 3,124 households, or some 17,300 people, were eventually evicted from the islands.

The government's position is that the neutrality pact signed by Japan and the Soviet Union in 1941 was valid and thus the Soviets should not have invaded. But Moscow counters that the nonaggression deal was void by that time.

While global warming and African development will dominate the G8 summit's agenda, the mayor looks forward to raising his voice during the international event.

"The summit is a great opportunity to make this case known to the world, especially because of the stalemate. I believe the issue will only be resolved through tough negotiations," Hasegawa said.

Meanwhile, Takashi Yoneya, director of Nemuro's Hoppokan museum, which is dedicated to the territorial dispute, explains that occasional bilateral rows have stymied progress.

Hopes were high in 1997 when then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Russian President Boris Yeltsin pledged to do their best to resolve the row, and to sign a peace treaty by 2000. But the islands were not returned.

Then in August 2006, a Russian patrol boat fatally shot a 35-year-old Nemuro fisherman off the Habomais, raising bilateral tensions. The crab boat he was a crewman on was impounded by Russian authorities, who said it had ignored orders to halt and thus the shooting was justifiable.

"The attack took place right in front of our facilities," Yoneya said, pointing to the islands. He noted that since 1945, the Russians have seized 1,339 Japanese boats.

"There has been no progress on the (territorial row) in my opinion, unfortunately" he said.

"These are islands that our ancestors cultivated through hard work. Their sons and daughters have the right to demand them back," he said.

Kawata, whose father immigrated to Taraku at the turn of the 20th century, agreed.

His forebears, he said, shed "sweat and blood" to develop the land, granting him and the other residents the right to the territory.

Though irate about what he regards as the Russian occupation of his homeland, Kawata remains clear-eyed. The retiree recognizes it is unlikely the issue will be brought up in the general meeting of the summit, but remains hopeful Japan and Russia can engage in talks on the sidelines.

"I'd like to put my trust in Prime Minister (Yasuo) Fukuda's diplomatic capabilities," Kawata said. "It may take a long time, and it's not going to be an easy task. But I believe it is possible."

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