For Yuki Nishida, 23, the Soviet Union and Russia had long been the frightening foes who seized Kunashiri Island, where his grandmother lived, after Japan’s World War II surrender.
His 78-year-old grandmother routinely told Nishida about her agonizing days in 1945 when the Soviets seized her hometown. The stories of how she hid from them, and how she escaped the island at night on a fishing boat, were chilling enough to make him hate Moscow. The Soviets had not only seized Kunashiri, but Shikotan, Etorofu and the Hamobai islets as well.
Nishida’s hatred of the Russians, however, subsided when he visited Shikotan on a visa-free group tour in 2008. The two-day trip was organized by the state-backed Northern Territories Issue Association.
To learn more about the Russians, Nishida visited the islands five times afterward while attending Waseda University in Tokyo.
He even took a leave of absence from the university to live in Moscow from 2010 until 2012. There, hoping to make friends, he worked at a Japanese anime shop and went to “costume play” events. While not as widespread, “cosplay” culture is vibrant in Russia, where young people, mostly women, dress up in costumes that mimic the tiniest details of their favorite animated characters, he said.
“What I’ve learned is that the government and its people are different. . . . When I told Russians about my family history, they were empathetic and they thought about what we can do” to solve the issue, said Nishida, who is scheduled to graduate next month.
“Russians who love Japanese culture were especially kind. Many were like, ‘Why doesn’t the Russian government just return those tiny islands to Japan?’ ” Nishida said.
By making use of these experiences, Nishida hopes to become a bridge between Japan and Russia to deepen mutual understanding.
Nishida believes that what he can do to help solve the long-standing territorial issue is increase the number of Russians who are fond of Japan and Japanese who like Russia. He said if the two countries increase their compassion, that will help resolve the sovereignty issue.
While he was in Moscow, Nishida organized several Japanese animation events, drawing more than 1,000 participants. He also released a free smartphone app in February 2012 titled Utsukushi Sugiru Roshia-jin Kosupreiya Shashinshu (The Photobook of Too Beautiful Russian Cosplayers) — a collection of Russian costume party fans. Because the app surprised many Japanese who were unaware of the Russian cosplayers, it became a hit with 50,000 downloads in just two weeks, Nishida said.
Nishida said he feels it is important for both peoples to deepen their interest in one another, now that the evicted Japanese residents of the islands are aging.
“The young generation has no interest in the territorial issue. I hope to change that” through anime and other Japanese cultural activities, he said.
The territorial dispute has kept Japan and Russia from signing a peace treaty. Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu and the Habomai islets were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, after Japan announced its surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. Some residents were forced into labor while others, like Nishida’s grandmother, opted for death-defying escapes.
As of Aug. 15, 1945, 17,000 Japanese were living on the four islands, according to the Japanese government. Nearly 70 years on, the number has shrunk to about 7,000, with an average age of 79.
Although Nishida welcomes recent moves by Tokyo and Moscow to resume negotiations on a peace treaty, neither Tokyo nor Moscow has shown signs of easing their stance on the islands.
Tokyo has said that if Russia acknowledges the four islands belong to Japan, it is prepared to respond flexibly to the timing and manner of their actual return.
“When my grandmother and her family fled the island, they decided to live on Nemuro, from where parts of Kunashiri can be seen, hoping to go back there one day. But 70 years on, my grandmother has not yet set foot on the island,” Nishida said.
Although Nishida’s grandmother can visit Kunashiri using the visa-free trips, which Tokyo and Moscow agreed to in 1992, she hasn’t, due to her weak legs. The trips require switching boats, he said.
The only hope for her is to go there on one boat after a port is built on the island, he said.
“I really want to take my grandmother to Kunashiri, even if I need to carry her on my back,” Nishida said.