YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK, RUSSIA – Yutaka Miyanishi felt a strong sense of gratitude when he discovered, during a visit to the former Soviet Union, that local people were tending the graves and looking after a cemetery where Japanese soldiers who died in labor camps after World War II are buried.
“That was the starting point for what I am currently doing” to repay the gesture, said the 79-year-old Sapporo native, who now runs a Japanese restaurant in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Sakhalin’s provincial capital.
Miyanishi decided that starting this summer, he would ensure that the Sakhalin Regional Museum, which dates from when Japan controlled the southern part of Sakhalin before the war, is kept illuminated every night.
The building, put up by the Japanese government in 1937 and formerly known as the Karafuto-cho (Karafuto Government Office) Museum, is much loved by locals and many couples take photos there after their weddings.
Miyanishi even offered to pay some ¥6 million for equipment and travel fees for engineers from Japan to install a lighting system for the museum’s exterior.
“I wanted to do something for this building that has been loved so much by Russians,” he said.
Miyanishi moved to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, still known among Japanese by its Japanese name, Toyohara, in 1991 and was named an honorary resident in 2008 in recognition of his many contributions to the city, which has included offering support to orphanages and hospitals and donating cherry trees.
In his younger days, Miyanishi worked for Hokkaido Broadcasting Co. after joining it in 1957. He also became famous as an accordion player and music composer and had a big hit in 1967 with a song he wrote called “Hakodate Blues.”
He began to take an interest in Russia following his visit to the Soviet Union in 1976, when he saw the cemetery for captured Japanese soldiers in Khabarovsk, another Far Eastern city.
Expecting it to have been left unattended, he was surprised to find that it was kept clean and neat.
He recalled that one local woman told him that since Japanese were not able to visit the island freely to offer prayers, locals would “protect the cemetery until they are able to come back again.”
Some locals have described his restaurant as the best for Japanese food in the Russian Far East.
However, despite the accolade, Miyanishi said he is planning to return to Japan next year after he turns 80.