NEMURO, HOKKAIDO – With the cancellation last week of the first chartered flight between Hokkaido and the Russian-held islands off Japan’s northeast coast, former residents want politicians to pay less attention to the political weather in Tokyo and Moscow and put more focus on the real weather when planning the next trip.
About 70 former residents of Kunashiri and Etorofu islands and their family members found themselves stuck at Nakashibetu in eastern Hokkaido for not one but two days as fog and mist over Kunashiri prevented the plane, chartered from a Russian airline, from making the trip.
There was disappointment over the cancellation, but also questions about the timing.
“There is a lot of fog and mist at this time of year on Etorofu as well. Rather than rushing the trip, I wanted it to be arranged properly,” said Rumiko Amano, 76, who was born on Etorofu and now lives in Sapporo.
Others knew the weather at this time of year could cause problems but nevertheless expressed surprise.
“I figured that since we were going by plane, not ship, it would be OK, no matter the weather. There was no effect on domestic flights (in and out of Nakashibetsu airport),” said Hideo Yamamoto, 85, a former resident of Kunashiri who lives in Nemuro, Hokkaido.
The islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets were seized by the Soviet Union in the closing days of World War II. Called the Southern Kurils in Russia, the islands are known as the Northern Territories in Japan, which wants them back. The dispute has prevented the two countries from signing a World War II peace treaty.
The agreement for the aborted trip by former residents to visit their ancestral graves had been made by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Vladimir Putin, following years of complaints by former island residents that ship visits would often be canceled due to poor weather.
As the average age of the former residents is now over 80, and as the bureaucratic red tape for approving visits often means waits of a year or more, the former residents and their families feel time is running out, and it was hoped that last week would mark the start of regularly scheduled charter flights.
But clear weather is especially critical in flying between Hokkaido and Kunashiri and Etorofu. The airport on Kunashiri is located close to a volcano and lacks the most up-to-date technology for instrument landings in fog and mist. Pilots must have visual contact with the runway before landing, and that was not possible last week.
The airport on Etorofu is designed for all weather landings. However, under the arrangements between Russia and Japan, immigration and customs procedures were to have been carried out at Kunashiri airport first.
Poor weather at this time of year is also common in eastern Hokkaido. Data compiled by the city of Nemuro show the area gets about 100 days of fog and mist annually, especially in spring and summer. Visibility on Nemuro’s streets is sometimes down to just meters.
While planes are often able to take off from foggy airports in eastern Hokkaido, bad weather tends to leave other types of aircraft grounded.
Kushiro officials reported last week that last year there were 777 emergency calls in Kushiro, Nemuro, Tokachi and northern Hokkaido for medical helicopters, but only 427 flights were dispatched. Of the 350 cases in which helicopters were not sent, 190 were canceled due to poor weather where the helicopter was based.
Behind the expressions of regret for the local weather from former islanders and officials, however, were questions about whether the timing of last week’s flight had less to do with granting the visitors’ request to charter a flight as soon as possible and more to do with the Abe administration’s political schedule.
The prime minister will travel to Germany next month for a Group of 20 summit, where he hopes to meet with Putin on the sidelines. Trumpeting a successful charter flight was likely one of the items he wanted to bring up at the meeting.
Now, the government must scramble to meet its promise to provide a flight by the end of the year. But that might prove difficult.
A ship is due to depart Nemuro for the islands by mid-September as part of a visa-free program for former islanders. Some wonder if Tokyo and Moscow can come to a quick agreement on a charter flight at about the same time. Abe is also scheduled to meet Putin again at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September.
Based on an agreement reached by Abe and Putin at their summit last December, a group of Japanese officials and private-sector representatives began a five-day trip Tuesday to the disputed islands for talks on joint economic cooperation. The group will visit facilities connected to the fisheries, tourism, environmental and medical sectors, and discuss ways to cooperate.
For Nemuro, further agreements with the islands to expand local fishing grounds would be especially welcome. About two-thirds of the Nemuro area’s revenue from fishing comes from salmon, Pacific saury and scallops, much of it caught in waters around the disputed islands.
Nemuro also hopes to improve its tourism infrastructure to attract more Russian visitors.
Medical cooperation is particularly important and something both sides want to expand. Since an agreement was reached in 1991, Japan has provided medical assistance by accepting some Russian patients to Japanese hospitals, providing food, medicine and examinations. Since 2012, when Abe came to power, 86 Russians have received medical treatment and 16 doctors and nurses have been offered training.
But Tadaaki Iwasaki, 83, last week’s group leader, who was born on Etorofu, said pressure would be kept on the government not to let the idea of charter flights take a back seat to other issues.
“We’ll continue to press the Japanese government to realize another charter flight, and as soon as possible,” he said.
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