Shohei Yamamoto still has to choke back tears when he talks about the day he was expelled from his village of Shibetoro on Etorofu Island off northern Hokkaido, two years after Japan was defeated in World War II.
When about 150 islanders were shipped out on a Russian cargo ship in early September in 1947, a dozen dogs ran back and forth on the beach, barking frantically as if imploring their owners to take them with them.
One dog jumped in the sea and others followed to try and catch up with the vessel. But after a while, they gave up and swam back to shore. The sound of their whining was drowned out by their owners’ wails.
“We could no longer hold back our tears,” recalled Yamamoto, 79, who now resides in Saitama Prefecture. “That was one of the saddest moments of my life.”
When tragic World War II stories are told, it is often about kamikaze pilots or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But little is known about the fate of some 17,000 Japanese who lived on the small islands off Hokkaido — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai — that were seized by Soviet Union troops days after Japan’s surrender in World War II.
Amid the chaos of its surrender, Japan was helpless against the Soviet Union’s invasion and the occupation that followed.
“I thought the island and us islanders were abandoned by the Japanese government,” Yamamoto said. “I hated the government so much for it.”
The government still claims the Russian-held islands are part of Japan, and the territorial row over the islands still tops Tokyo’s diplomatic agenda with Moscow. The dispute has prevented the two nations from concluding a peace treaty to end the war.
But campaigns by former islanders to have their homeland returned have lost momentum as time goes by. Many of the former residents now live in Nemuro, where they can still see the islands.
Yamamoto grew up in the windswept village of Shibetoro on the northern tip of Etorofu. He remembers playing with his friends in the river in the summer because the cold current flowing through the Sea of Okhotsk made it impossible for them to swim in the ocean.
Because the island had only elementary schools, students seeking to further their education went to Hokkaido to study. Yamamoto, who dreamed of becoming a doctor, was one of them.
When Yamamoto was a fifth-grader, he and one of his younger sisters moved to Asahikawa in central Hokkaido to live with relatives.
In the countryside where Yamamoto lived, war seemed far away until the morning of July 15, 1945 — a month before Japan surrendered to the Allied forces.
On that day, Yamamoto, then 17, and his sister were on a cargo steamship with their father, who had come to Hokkaido on business, waiting to go back to Etorofu because the chaos of the war was preventing him from going to college.
Suddenly, he heard the sound of machinegun fire piercing the ship’s hull.
“I was so surprised I thought my heart was going to jump out of my mouth,” said Yamamoto. “It was the (U.S.) Grumman fighters attacking us.”
Before he could panic, a rocket hit just a meter away from him, blowing up the room he and a dozen other passengers were in.
“The man standing next to me had his right foot blown away,” he said. “My sister was all right but I couldn’t find my father.”
Yamamoto took his sister’s hand and darted to the ship’s hold to find a place to hide. There he found more than 100 other people headed to Etorofu to work for the summer injured by the aircraft.
Realizing the ship was about to sink, Yamamoto and his sister fled to the deck. But Yamamoto lost his sister in the flood of panicking passengers desperate to jump ship.
Yamamoto had no choice but to jump and swim for his life. He prayed he wouldn’t be sucked down in the wake of the sinking ship.
“When I finally swam to a small boat, I was so tired I could not move any more,” he said. That was when he noticed that his left leg had been badly wounded by a bullet.
The Nemuro air raid lasted two days and killed about 200 people. Another 300 went missing as the attack burned 70 percent of the city.
Luckily for Yamamoto, he found his sister two days later covered in thick layers of oil that had leaked from the ship. Exhausted, they finally made it back to Etorofu in early August and told their six-month pregnant mother and six other brothers and sisters that their father probably hadn’t survived the air raid.
For the vast majority of Japanese, the war ended on Aug. 15, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s defeat over the radio. But for Yamamoto and many of the islanders off Hokkaido, that was the day their fear of being occupied by the Soviet Union began.
On Aug. 9, 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, after announcing the previous day that the Neutrality Pact it signed with Japan in 1941 had been scrapped. Soviet troops landed on Etorofu Island at the end of August, and by early September had occupied all the other islands off Hokkaido.
“We knew the Soviets were occupying the islands but we didn’t know when they would come to our village,” Yamamoto said. “We had no idea if they were going to kill us or not.”
For weeks, Yamamoto, the eldest son and thus the new head of the family, was afraid the Soviet troops were going to kill him and his family. Night after night he talked with his mother about killing his family first if Russian soldiers tried to torture or rape them.
It was on Sept. 20 that the Russians finally arrived at Shibetoro village and put it under Soviet control.
Before a crowd of villagers, a Russian general made a speech, saying that they would guarantee their lives and personal assets.
“When I heard him say that, I was so relieved,” Yamamoto said. “It meant my family would survive and not be separated.”
Until the islanders were sent to Hokkaido two years later, they were not allowed to leave. Even when they had to go to another village on the island, they had to get permission.
But Yamamoto and the islanders led rather peaceful lives considering the circumstances. The village was under martial law and they had to switch to Russian time, but they gradually got used to living under occupation.
Unlike mainland Japanese, food shortages were not a problem because they could fish and grow vegetables in their backyards. But the fact that the islands were cut off from mainland Japan was psychological torture for Yamamoto.
“We had no access to newspapers and radio so we had no idea what was happening in Japan,” he said.
“I was always frustrated thinking that my friends were probably studying at universities while I was stuck on the island not knowing when this would end,” said Yamamoto. “I was close to going out of my mind.”
Yamamoto was out on the beach on Aug. 30, 1947, when he heard a villager yelling about an expulsion order. They were instructed to pack up their belongings and gather at a nearby fish harbor in the next 36 hours. Along with 150 villagers, Yamamoto eventually arrived at the port of Hakodate in Hokkaido three weeks later. From there, his family went to Akita Prefecture to live with his uncle.
Yamamoto began to work for his uncle, who headed the local branch of a carbide producer and worked for the company until he retired. He got married and had three daughters.
It was not until 43 years later, in 1990, that Yamamoto was able to set foot on his home island again, as part of a bilateral program to allow former islanders to visit the graves of their loved ones. Until 1990, the program only allowed former islanders of Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai to visit. Yamamoto has since visited the island a number of times.
But the island was very different from the memories he had of it. The place where his house used to be had turned into a plain field covered with tons of sand, apparently due to years of windy weather.
“But there is something divine about the place,” he said. “When we first arrived by ship, the sun was rising from behind Mount Shibetoro, painting the clouds the color of gold. I just folded my hands in prayer.”
Having witnessed the island’s beauty, Yamamoto cannot give up on his campaign to get the islands’ returned, although he knows it is not realistic to think he might live there again. He is also committed to passing on his experience of living in the Northern Territories to the next generation by giving speeches nationwide.
“I want the government to negotiate with Russia even if it takes 100 or 200 years,” he said.
In this series, The Japan Times interview firsthand witnesses of Japan’s march to war and ensuing defeat who wish to pass on their experiences to younger generations. This is the 22nd installment of the Witness to War series. To read more, see the Witness to War archive.