Ex-islanders set off for Russia-held Kunashiri on visa-free trip

Kyodo

A group of 65 people, including former residents of Russian-held islands claimed by Japan off Hokkaido, left the port of Nemuro on Saturday bound for Kunashiri, one of the disputed isles, under a visa-free exchange program.

The members, including former Diet lawmaker Muneo Suzuki, a Hokkaido native, are the first batch from Japan to visit one of the four contested islands this year. They were initially scheduled to depart Nemuro, in eastern Hokkaido, on Friday, but poor weather delayed the trip.

Before returning on Monday, they are scheduled to visit a museum and Japanese cemetery on Kunashiri while engaging in exchange programs with the island’s Russian residents.

This year, the exchange program will see 20 visits by Japanese groups to the four Russian-held islands by October, while the Russian side will make 15 visits to Japanese destinations.

The islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, called the Southern Kurils by Russia, were seized by Soviet forces after Japan’s surrender in World War II. The long-running sovereignty saga has prevented Japan and Russia from signing a formal postwar peace treaty.

Since the program debuted, around 11,500 Japanese citizens have visited the islands while 8,300 of the Russian islanders have traveled to Japan.