National / Politics

With Abe-Putin detente, former residents of Russian-held islands off Hokkaido hope to get easier access

by Eric Johnston

Osaka

Former residents of four islands off Hokkaido that were seized from Japan by Russia in the last days of World War II greeted with cautious optimism Friday’s announcement that efforts would be made to simplify visits to their ancestor’s gravesites. They also offered specific suggestions on what such efforts could be.

In August 1945, the then-Soviet Army’s invasion of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, forced 17,291 Japanese to relocate to other parts of the country. The islands, which are within sight of the many places along Hokkaido’s eastern coastline, have remained under Russia’s possession since.

Today, only about 6,300 of the original residents are alive, and their average age is over 81. Along with family members, they are allowed to visit their ancestors’ graves on the islands under a special arrangement between the two countries.

However, for many in this group, they want the process sped up and the number of visits increased, noting the existing bureaucratic process can often mean a wait of years before they secure permission to visit, notwithstanding last-minute cancellations due to bad weather.

Susumu Seida, 77, a former resident of the Habomai islets who now lives in Kawasaki, said making it easier for former residents to visit by cutting down on the number of security checks would be a good way to improve access.

“Simplifying the identification of former island residents to allow them to travel more freely when they visit, without the constant need for checking IDs, would be a good idea,” he said.

Nobuyuki Noritsuki, who heads a Nemuro group that arranges trips to the Russian-held isles for former residents, said increasing the number of trips between Japan and the four islands should be a top priority in any discussions on improving access.

“There’s a lot of preparation and documentation required for visiting the four islands, so it’s not easy to do so,” he said. “But I think that the number of visits will increase as a result of the summit.”

Due to bad weather in eastern Hokkaido, which often gets thick fog and rain during the summer months in particular, trips sometimes have to be canceled.

Noritsuki said there have been past cases where former island residents were forced to wait up to three years for another chance to visit their former homes because their originally scheduled trip was canceled.

Takako Suzuki, an independent Lower House member who represents the Nemuro area, said in a statement that reforming access to the islands for former residents means that discussions would take place on reforming the periods in which visits take place — often in spring, summer and early autumn — as well as the number of visits and places that can be visited.

“The prime minister made the desires of the former residents a top priority in negotiations,” she said.

In addition to former residents and their families, select others, including local and national politicians, members of the Japanese mainstream mass media, and Japanese who are involved in the return of the islands and looking to promote educational and cultural exchanges have previously been granted permission to visit under strict guidelines.

Since 1992, nearly 13,000 Japanese have visited the four islands under the visa-free exchange program. Over 9,000 Russians living on the islands have visited eastern Hokkaido under the program.

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