OSAKA – In Hokkaido’s far east, Nemuro feels nothing like a typical Japanese city. Mist and fog often shroud the area in the summertime. During July and August, while much of the country bakes in 30 degree-plus temperatures, it’s just over 20 degrees in Nemuro.
As one approaches Nemuro from Kushiro by car, Russian-language signs appear, while at the souvenir shop in front of JR Nemuro Station, Russian goods are available for sale, and Russian visitors can be seen at local stores, purchasing a variety of daily goods.
Lying close to the four disputed islands occupied by Russia, Nemuro is on the front line of efforts to have them returned.
As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin prepare to meet on Dec. 15 in Yamaguchi Prefecture, which is farther from Nemuro than any of the islands, there is a mix of hope and concern among residents over what sort of an agreement might be reached.
In the past, there’s been talk about returning the two smaller islands — the Habomai group of islets and Shikotan — and discussing the fate of the others — Etorofu and Kunashiri — later, even as Japan continues to officially demand the return of all four.
Minako Usui, who runs a small business in Nemuro, said, however, that returning just two islands is problematic.
“There are a lot of people in Nemuro who are from each of the four islands,” she said.
“If they’re told only two islands will be returned, people who are from those two islands will be happy, but those from the two islands that are not returned will ask why, and there will be grief and sadness.
“These four islands are Japan’s and, historically, there is a view that the four islands were taken from Japan. So people will ask, ‘well, does returning only two islands solve the historical problem? What about the other two?’ “
Nobuyuki Noritsuki is head of a Nemuro group that arranges trips to the Russian-held isles for former residents. Speaking in a personal capacity, he said that the four islands should be returned.
“More than 70 years have gone by (since the end of World War II and the Soviet seizure of the islands) and a solution of some sort is needed,” he said.
Takako Suzuki, an independent Lower House member who represents the Nemuro area and is the daughter of former veteran Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Muneo Suzuki, who was deeply involved with trying to improve Hokkaido’s relations with Russia, said she has big hopes for the December meeting.
“The meeting between the two leaders in May, which lasted over three hours, was a constructive, positive exchange and will greatly influence the political decisions at the top in dealing with the (island) problem,” Suzuki said.
As to the possibility that Putin might offer to return only two islands, she said the Russian’s leader’s comment earlier this month about moving forward together on the issue was important.
“It’s extremely important to share a recognition that a solution means progressing together in a quiet environment, without a lot of distractions and without wounding each other’s pride or patriotism,” she said.
While Nemuro waits with caution on what kind of deal Abe and Putin might reach, there are also questions over what any new agreement will really mean for local businesses, especially those in the fisheries industry.
Suzuki said a stable relationship with Russia meant stability and economic development for eastern Hokkaido. But the direct impact of increased economic ties on local businesses or the fishing industry, as opposed to large corporations based in Kushiro, Sapporo and Tokyo seeking to develop eastern Hokkaido, remains to be seen.
Beginning this year, Russia banned drift-net salmon and trout fishing by Japanese fishermen in its exclusive economic zone, which Usui said has hit Nemuro very hard.
She said many local fishermen are hoping Abe and Putin will discuss allowing at least a partial return to drift-net fishing.
Japan and Russia agreed in May to cut this year’s quota for salmon and trout fished by Japan in Russia’s EEZ to just under 69 tons, way down from the nearly 2,000 tons caught last year.
The December summit is also likely to touch on the importance of more people-to-people exchanges.
Currently, there are several frameworks that allow Japanese and Russians on the islands to visit each other. There is a four-island, nonvisa exchange program, in which Japanese citizens and Russian residents can engage in mutual visits (including homestays) without visas. Japanese can also visit the four islands on humanitarian grounds, thereby bringing former Japanese residents and their families to the islands.
Finally, Japanese whose ancestors have graves on the islands can visit by presenting nothing more than an identification card.
As of 2015, over 4,400 people had visited graves on the four islands. Over 3,800 people, including doctors and medical professionals as well as relatives of former residents, have visited on humanitarian grounds.
“The principle of the no-visa exchange visits is a good one. But if a trip to the islands to, say, visit former homes or one’s ancestors’ graves, a trip which has to be set in advance, gets canceled due to, say, bad weather, it forces the former residents to wait until the next trip can be arranged,” Noritsuki said.
“They are very old, though, and it’s difficult to ask them to wait until the next trip can be arranged.”
Despite the island issue, relations on an individual level between visiting Russians and Nemuro residents are said to be better than might be expected.
Many Russian fishermen who visit the city, Usui said, purchase everyday household items or get their boat equipment repaired, while a lot of Nemuro residents have learned simple Russian to communicate with them.
Thus in this part of Japan, Japan-Russian relations are not abstract political, international relations, or intellectual discussions, but a very real part of daily life — one for which the outcome of December’s meeting will directly impact.
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