Ex-residents set to visit two of disputed isles off Hokkaido in June

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Former residents of the four Japan-claimed islands that were seized by Russia at the end of World War II may soon fly to two of them on June 18, as plans are now being finalized, according to multiple reports quoting government sources on Friday. That would mark the first time they have been allowed return to the isles by plane.

About 70 former residents of Kunashiri and Etorofu are likely to board a Russian aircraft chartered by the Japanese government, at Hokkaido’s Nakashibetsu-Nemuro airport for a one-day trip to visit their ancestral graves. The plane will land in Kunashiri and then fly on to Etorofu before returning to Kunashiri and heading back to Hokkaido later the same day, the sources said.

Kunashiri lies within sight of eastern Hokkaido, and Etorofu lies to its northeast.

Charter flights had long been demanded by the former residents, who have been granted the right to visit their ancestral graves without a visa. To date, the two governments have only allowed a few yearly visits by ship, usually out of the port of Nemuro, and typically to only one island at a time.

Bad weather in eastern Hokkaido has frequently forced ships to cancel at the last minute, meaning that the often-elderly travelers have had to wait months, sometimes over a year, before another trip could be arranged.

At their April summit in Moscow, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to start chartered flights for grave visits.

On Friday, a separate group of 65 of the former islanders departed Nemuro by ship to visit their family graves on Kunashiri. During the four day visit, they will also visit Russian families on the island.

Accompanying the group is Muneo Suzuki, head of the Hokkaido-based New Party Daichi, who said another purpose of the trip was to talk to Russian officials and residents about how they viewed last December’s agreement between Abe and Putin to jointly develop the Northern Territories.

Suzuki and the former residents are expected to return to Nemuro on May 22. On May 30, a delegation of between 50 and 60 Japanese government officials and private-sector representatives will visit the islands on a five-day tour to discuss specific economic projects with Russian officials.

Following the December summit, Japan and Russia agreed to consider engaging in economic cooperation on the four islands in five areas: fisheries, marine culture, tourism, medicine and environmental protection.

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