SSoviet soldiers broke into Hirotoshi Kawata’s house on September 4, 1945, looking for hidden Japanese soldiers and valuables. Kawata, then 11, remembers only understanding two words they said: tokei, or wristwatch; and Sakewhich they then looted from the house.
It was the start of the Soviet takeover of a chain of resource-rich islands in northern Japan, to the terror of families who had thought the worst of the war was over after Japan’s surrender. Japanese citizens were soon banned from working or moving freely, and women and children were detained for forced labor.
Many families fled on boats in the middle of the night, first rowing until they were far enough from the coast to start their engines. Kawata’s family was among the thousands displaced during this period.
“All these years later, I still can’t forget everything I saw before my eyes,” said Kawata, 87. Now, “seeing Ukrainians…it touches me so close to home. There doesn’t seem to be anything going on far away.
Thousands of miles from Ukraine, in this city in Japan’s far northeast where many of the approximately 17,200 former residents of the Northern Territories resettled, the Russian invasion and the fate of millions of refugees Ukrainians resonate deeply.
The war dashed their hopes of seeing their homeland again after Russia broke off negotiations over the islands in response to Japan’s sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine.
For these former residents, whose average age is nearly 87, the hope of returning home in their lifetime has faded.
“The only ones left to tell these stories are just the memories of some fifth-grade students. The others are all dead, unable to share their stories,” says 88-year-old Hiroshi Tokuno, who fled Shikotan Island in the age of 13.
For years, under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan sought to improve relations with Russia and prioritize peace treaty and territorial settlement in an effort to make Moscow a strategic partner and prevent getting closer to China. When Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, concerns over negotiations for the islands shaped Abe’s lukewarm response.
But in a dramatic reversal from its years of pursuing rapprochement with Russia, Japan imposed far-reaching economic sanctions in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Although negotiations have stalled since 2020, Moscow said last week that it had no intention of resuming talks and planned to end visa-free travel by Japanese citizens to the islands. He also threatened to withdraw from joint economic projects there.
What Japan calls the Northern Territories – the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Habomai and Shikotan – lie off Hokkaido, and some of them are visible from Nemuro on a clear day. They were part of Japan before World War II, but shortly after the country’s surrender in August 1945, the Soviet Union claimed the islands, which it called the Kuril Islands.
These volcanic islands located southeast of the Russian island of Sakhalin separate the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean and are at the heart of post-war Russian-Japanese relations. The two countries made a joint declaration in 1956 ending the state of war between them, but did not sign a peace treaty. This has been pending a resolution of the dispute over the islands.
From Japan’s perspective, the Soviet seizure of the islands was a betrayal, as 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, says James Brown, an expert on Russian-Japanese relations on the Temple University campus in Tokyo.
For Russia, the islands are its legitimate territories, obtained in exchange for joining the United States against Japan during World War II. Abandoning the islands is seen as a betrayal of Soviet soldiers and citizens as well as Russia’s World War II heritage, Brown says. The islands are also of strategic interest to Russia, as they allow Moscow easier access to its ships in the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Okhotsk and possess valuable natural resources, including a rare earth metal used in aerospace construction.
Tokyo and Moscow have held peace talks on and off since the 1956 declaration, but there has been no significant movement. Unlike Japan’s territorial disputes with China and South Korea over largely uninhabited islands, the scale of the dispute with Russia is different, as the islands are larger (Etorofu measures nearly 2,000 square miles) and the lives of thousands of people are directly affected.
In Nemuro, it’s hard to walk a few blocks without seeing a massive statue or a demanding sign, in unusually forceful Japanese language: “The Northern Territories, give it back!” Signs and street names are written in Japanese and Russian, for the benefit of Russian fishermen doing business in Nemuro.
Here, the announcement by Russia of its withdrawal from the negotiations carries consequences. It prevents former residents from visiting the graves of their relatives on the islands. It also ends cultural visits between Russian residents of the islands and Japanese citizens, who hoped that the two populations could one day coexist if the dispute was ever resolved.
“This is extremely unfair and unacceptable, undermining the efforts of residents of both countries who have worked hard to promote an exchange,” Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki said in response to Russia’s announcement.
As Russia considers ending its economic deal with Japan, the fishing industry is also on edge, depending on the waters between Japan and Russia. This area, where 3 million tons of fish and other seafood are caught each year, is considered one of the best places on the planet for fishing.
Fewer than 5,500 former residents of the Northern Territories are still alive. They are clear-headed about what Japan’s tougher response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means for the future of the island negotiations, but some still support Japan’s resistance to Russia. At the Nemuro museum dedicated to the conflict, residents and visitors left messages attacking Russian President Vladimir Putin and expressing solidarity with Ukraine.
Some residents say they hope to see Prime Minister Fumio Kishida take a tougher approach with Russia to resolve the Northern Territories dispute.
“What Russia is doing in Ukraine, trying to change the status quo by force, can never be justified,” says 84-year-old Yasuji Tsunoka, who was 8 when Soviet forces took control of the small island of Yuri, part of Habomai’s group. islets on which there were 70 houses.
“Kishida issued severe penalties, and we understand that. But now, more than ever, we want the negotiations to be direct and strong, without seeking to be constantly sensitive to Russia,” he said. “The situation in Ukraine is again a question of territory, just like the northern islands with Japan.”
After the islands were taken by the Soviets, some Japanese families stayed for a few years, living alongside the Soviet families who had settled there. Tokuno remembers going to school with Soviet children, and his experience was later turned into an animated children’s film called Giovanni’s Island.
But eventually, to make room for Soviet citizens, Japanese residents were moved from their homes and pushed into sheds and stables. In October 1947, all remaining Japanese in the Northern Territories were taken from the islands in Soviet ships. This group included Tokuno, who recalls that they first withstood grueling conditions in Sakhalin before making their way to Nemuro. Some died during the trip.
It wasn’t 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 burial sites of their loved ones.
Former residents say they hope future generations of Japan, as well as American leaders, will pick up the fight.
“We will continue to share the movement with the next generation to keep it going for as long as it takes,” Tsunoka said. “Japan must never stop.”
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