VISA-FREE VISITS BITTERSWEET

Island life before Soviets a fading memory

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NEMURO, Hokkaido — Takashi Matsubara, 46, carried a photo of his late father, Kosaku, with him to Kunashiri, one of the four Russian-held islands just off northeastern Hokkaido, during a visa-free visit in mid-September.

Kosaku used to live on Taraku, one of the Habomai islets, until Soviet troops occupied them along with Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan islands right after Japan’s surrender.

Kosaku, a “konbu” kelp fisherman, passed away in 1997 at the age of 71 without ever again setting foot on the islet where he spent his childhood.

“He had wanted to go back there if the islands were returned to Japan,” said Matsubara, who teaches social studies in Kurobe, Toyama Prefecture. “Now that I brought his picture, I was able to show him the islands.”

At the war’s end, 17,921 Japanese, from more than 3,000 families, lived on the four islands. Some fled to Nemuro on the eastern tip of Hokkaido. Others were deported to Japan via Sakhalin between 1947 and 1949.

Most settled in Nemuro. Others moved to Toyama Prefecture, home to many fishermen who used to ply the waters off the four islands during the fishing season, according to the League of Residents of Chishima and Habomai Islands, a group of former islanders.

Matsubara’s father moved to Toyama after he was discharged from the Japanese military at the end of the war.

But nearly 60 years on, there are few former islanders left who can still recall what life was like before the Soviets arrived, the group said, adding that it is working to get their descendents to carry on as storytellers.

There are few photos or film footage showing what life on the islands was like when Japan held sovereignty over the territories, unlike the atomic bombing images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that are repeatedly broadcast whenever their anniversaries draw near, the group said.

Tomiko Wakamatsu, 74, who lives in Nemuro, is one of 2,200 Japanese who fled when Soviet troops landed on the Habomai islet of Shibotsu on Sept. 3, 1945.

“We were hiding in a dugout, but it was a place that could easily be found,” said Wakamatsu, who was 15 at the time. “I was really scared.”

Her family and about 300 fellow islanders decided to flee to Nemuro in the night aboard a large boat piloted by her father.

“My father let the boat drift out with the tide out of fear that Soviet vessels anchored offshore might chase us if we were detected,” Wakamatsu said. “It was not until we were far away from their ships that my father turned on the engine.”

It took the refugees about 16 hours to reach Nemuro, a voyage normally taking 3 1/2 hours, she recalled.

Wakamatsu was unable to visit the islands until the government-sponsored visa-free exchange program started in 1992. She has since gone back six times, including a visit to her hometown of Shibotsu.

Tokyo and Moscow agreed to launch the program to promote mutual understanding in October 1991, two months before the collapse of the Soviet Union. To date, about 6,200 Japanese have visited the disputed islands and roughly 5,200 Russians from them have come to Japan via the exchange program.

During last week’s visit, Matsubara from Toyama Prefecture was surprised at how close up the Shiretoko Peninsula in eastern Hokkaido appeared from the western coast of Kunashiri.

Matsubara said he intends to talk to his children about his trip to Kunashiri and about his ancestors who once lived there.

“The Russians say the territorial row is an issue involving adults, not children,” Matsubara said. “But I believe it is a big issue for children, too. I hope the Russians will pass on the territorial issue to the next generation.”