KUNASHIRI ISLAND — Eduard Denisov, 35, was stumped when asked what he thought of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s recent cruise aboard a Japan Coast Guard boat to view the four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” he said. “I don’t think people here have anything to say.”
Koizumi’s Sept. 2 trip, which drew heavy media coverage in Japan, was not a topic of major interest for Kunashiri’s inhabitants.
The Russian islanders’ attention was focused elsewhere on the day Koizumi glimpsed the islands Japan wants returned and met in Hokkaido with Japanese former islanders who either fled or were evicted when Soviet troops occupied the territories right after the end of World War II.
Kunashiri’s inhabitants, like the rest of Russia and most other countries, were engrossed in the hostage crisis unfolding at a Beslan school in North Ossetia that began a day before Koizumi’s trip. The standoff ended Sept. 3 in explosions, gunfire and the loss of more than 330 lives, mainly children.
Some Kunashiri inhabitants are from North Ossetia. Others have relatives in Moscow, which they fear may be hit by more terrorist attacks, the islanders said.
Igor Koval, South Kuril district assembly chairman, urged Koizumi to come to Kunashiri and hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin to resolve the territorial row, which according to Tokyo can only be achieved with the return of the territories.
But Koval’s interests are economic: He believes a bilateral summit on the island would be a good opportunity to expand business with Japan. Tokyo bans Japanese firms from investing in any of the Russian-held islands.
“Borders have become less important in Europe after (the EU) introduced a common currency and economy,” Koval noted. “Japan and Russia should follow suit and jointly develop the (disputed) islands.”
At official events, senior officials of the South Kuril district are careful not to make remarks that would challenge Russia’s sovereignty over the disputed territories. At the same time they try to maintain a friendly atmosphere with Japanese who visit on a government-sponsored visa-free exchange program.
“When President Putin visits Japan in 2005, the two leaders are expected to discuss the territorial issue,” Tatyana Yakimova, a district assemblywoman, said in a speech. “I hope they come up with the right decision — one that will not (run counter to) the interests of the islanders.”
At another gathering of Russians and Japanese, Valentina Sukovatitsyna, chief of the district’s general affairs division, claimed the Russians feel no territorial row exists.
But Sukovatitsyna later added that she personally hopes the two countries can sign a peace treaty soon. The territorial row has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from concluding a World War II peace treaty to formally end hostilities.
Most islanders reject Tokyo’s demand for sovereignty over the four islands, but some suggest they could be flexible.
Firefighter Aleksei Ignatjev, 40, said Japan’s persistence in wanting the islands back is understandable, considering the abundant marine resources the area holds, including a bounty of trout and salmon.
“If we can stay here and live with the Japanese, I am not opposed to the return,” said Ignatjev, who is currently studying Japanese.
In April 1998, when then President Boris Yeltsin visited Kawana, Shizuoka Prefecture, for a summit with Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, he offered a compromise in which Russia would retain administrative control over the four islands for the time being while acknowledging Japan’s sovereignty over the territories.
But Russia dismissed the idea when Hashimoto’s successor, the late Keizo Obuchi, visited Moscow seven months later. Yeltsin instead offered to sign a peace and friendship treaty first and resolve the territorial issue in a future separate treaty.
“Yeltsin almost agreed to Hashimoto’s proposal in Kawana, but Russian bureaucrats made frantic efforts to stop the president from accepting it,” said a Foreign Ministry official familiar with the situation.
Observers say the economic situation specific to each of the four islands has tempered the public sentiment toward the dispute.
People on the relatively well-off Etorofu and Kunashiri strongly oppose the islands’ return to Japan, noted Toshihiko Ikura, who heads the Hokkaido city of Nemuro’s Tokyo office.
A large marine products company is a major employer on Etorofu, the wealthiest among the Russian-held islands, Ikura said. The district office and a few factories meanwhile provide jobs on Kunashiri, he added.
“But more people on Shikotan, the poorest of the four, think their standard of living would improve if the islands were returned to Japan,” said Ikura, who has traveled to the islands dozens of times on the visa-free exchange.
According to a joint survey of a combined 300 residents of three of the islands carried out by the Asahi Shimbun and Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency in 1998, 65 percent of Etorofu residents opposed the islands’ return, compared with 44 percent on Kunashiri and 28 percent on Shikotan.
Some 33 percent of Shikotan islanders wanted the island to be jointly managed by Russia and Japan, while another 30 percent hoped Shikotan and the Habomai islets are returned to Japan.
The Asahi-ITAR-Tass survey did not cover the Habomais, where only Russian soldiers live. The islets are the closest of the four islands to Japan.
General sentiment on the islands toward Japan meanwhile appears to have improved as exchanges grew more frequent after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Tokyo eased restrictions on Russian vessels in 1992, allowing Russian fishermen to call at Nemuro and other ports in Japan for trade. About 20,000 Russian fishermen now visit Nemuro’s Hanasaki port annually.
Japanese who used to live on the islands and their descendents, people involved in the campaign for their return and reporters have been allowed to visit the territories on the visa-free program that started in 1992. Under the program, about 600 Japanese visit the islands and 400 Russian islanders come to Japan on an annual basis.
“People were awkward at first in receiving Japanese when the program started,” recalled Valentin Smorchkov, head of the state-run Japan-Kuril Center. “After all, there had been an Iron Curtain up until then.”
Masayo Yamashita, a Japanese-language teacher who spent the summer on Kunashiri teaching, said the increased exchanges have led to more Russians here becoming interested in Japan.
Schools on Kunashiri, Shikotan and Etorofu began to discuss the territorial row in social studies classes both from Russian and Japanese perspectives. Most islanders were informed of the dispute for the first time after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But some still know little about the history of the dispute, said Akemi Yasui, who stayed on Kunashiri over the summer with Yamashita.
“A Russian woman in her 50s told me the Japanese left the islands because the Emperor told them to go back to Japan,” she said. “She looked perplexed when I told her that is not true.”