National / History

Historic Japan-Sakhalin seabed cables now damaged, hazards to fishermen

Kyodo

Disused undersea telecommunications cables from before the war are becoming a headache for fishermen in Hokkaido when they inadvertently hook sections lying on the seabed, tearing their nets. Historians nevertheless are pleased to see the artifacts from Japanese prewar history.

For Yasushi Shimizu, 42, an oyster fisherman at Hokkaido’s northern village of Sarufutsu, the cables are nothing more than a nuisance.

“The cables may hurt our workers and boats,” he said.

They used to connect northern Hokkaido to what is now Russia’s Sakhalin Island, about 160 km away. The southern half of the island was Japanese until August 1945, at which point Soviet troops occupied the territory and most Japanese residents fled.

The cables ensured communications between Karafuto, where some 400,000 Japanese lived, and Hokkaido.

When the cables first went into operation in December 1934, local daily newspaper Karafuto Nichinichi Shimbun reported with enthusiasm that the voice of the deputy head of Karafuto Prefecture in the city of Toyohara, now Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, had been heard in Tokyo, some 1,700 km away.

Eighty years on, the cables are abandoned and a nuisance for Shimizu and other local fishermen.

The seabed cables, measuring 6 cm in diameter and sturdily built with copper cores bound in outer steel wires, have been damaged over the years and are now broken. In some places, sections of cable stick out with sharp edges.

Oystermen usually rake the sea bottom with clawed nets for oysters. They and other fishermen are forced to take care when pulling up their nets, as the nets can rip on the metal cables.

The cables started to bother oystermen after they introduced a different type of claw on their nets about 15 years ago.

Old charts show where the cables were laid, but sea currents have since shifted them from their original locations.

Cables made of copper and steel are so heavy that if small fishing boats try to raise them they risk capsizing.

The fishermen have asked for help from a subsidiary of NTT Corp., which succeeded the now-defunct Communications Ministry. So far, the company has retrieved some 10 tons of the cables.

Shimizu says there is still a long way to go:

“I don’t think they’ve pulled out even 10 percent of the undersea cables lying in the area of our oyster fishing.”

While the cables are merely garbage to fishermen, they are of historical significance to local researchers, including Joichi Saito.

“Cables have historical value,” said the 41-year-old curator at the Hoppo Kinenkan local history museum in Wakkanai, Hokkaido. “I would definitely want to display them here because this is where many former residents of Karafuto still live.”

Ferries used to link Wakkanai port and Karafuto, and the city retains many old documents related to what is now Russian territory.

Last year, the NTT subsidiary donated the cables to Hoppo Kinenkan, which exhibited them at a shopping center in the city for about five months. It will consider exhibiting them permanently at the museum.