With a settlement over the sovereignty of a group of Japan-claimed islands off Hokkaido under Russian control —after nearly three-quarters of a century—nowhere in sight, some Japanese visitors to the area said they have almost given up hope of seeing the territories returned.

As a Kyodo News reporter, I accompanied a group of former residents of Kunashiri and Shikotan islands, along with some of their relatives, on a visit to the territory in late August under a bilateral visa-free exchange program, and witnessed progress in development by Moscow on the Far East islands.

The two islands, as well as Etorofu and the Habomai islet group, are together called the Northern Territories by Japan and the Southern Kurils by Russia. They were seized by the Soviet Union after Japan surrendered in World War II in August 1945.

After departing by ship from Nemuro in eastern Hokkaido on Aug. 24 for a three-day trip aboard the 1,124-ton Etopirika, we arrived at Kunashiri Island, where Russian officials checked our identification papers that were specially prepared for the visa-free program. Based on a bilateral arrangement, Japanese visitors do not need to show their passports.

“The population on the island has increased by 300 to 400 people every year. Newcomers mainly engage in fishing or the construction industry,” said Konstantin Butakov, a local Russian official. At present, Kunashiri Island has around 8,000 residents.

When we visited a downtown area lined with local government buildings and shops in the rain, the streets were not crowded. Food prices at the stores were not that different from those in Tokyo. The island also has a sports facility and day care center for children that were completed earlier this year.

“Economically, the four islands make no sense,” said a local man in his 50s, an immigrant from the Caucasus region.

“I sincerely hope (Japan and Russia) will sign a peace treaty, but if the islands are returned (to Tokyo), the territory would be under the (military) influence of the United States, so this is a global issue,” he said.

At the next destination, Shikotan Island, where about 3,000 people live, the roads were unpaved and there were fewer pedestrians than in Kunashiri.

An official of a local fish processing company that plans to build a factory there said that when the construction is completed, more jobs will be created.

At a gathering on the island, one member of the Japanese group claimed that Shikotan is supposed to be transferred to Japan after the conclusion of a bilateral peace treaty. Displaying his anger, local Russian official Sergey Usov hit back, saying, “The question should be asked to politicians of the central government and is not fit for an exchange session.”

In 1956, Japan and the Soviet Union signed a joint declaration aimed at ending wartime hostilities and restoring diplomatic ties. In the declaration, Moscow agreed to return Shikotan and the Habomai group to Tokyo once a formal peace treaty was signed.

The territorial dispute has prevented the two countries from concluding a postwar peace treaty, but Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise proposal earlier last month that the two countries sign a treaty by the end of the year “without any preconditions.”

But Tokyo maintains its position that they seek to resolve the issue of the islands’ sovereignty before concluding a peace treaty. In an attempt to break the impasse, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed forward bilateral economic cooperation in Russia’s Far East region and joint economic activities on the contested islands.

On our way back to Japan, some of my fellow travelers had mixed feelings when interviewed aboard the ship.

“The development of the islands makes me feel a little sad,” said Chizuko Yamaguchi, an 82-year-old from Toyama Prefecture who used to live on the Habomai islets. “It makes me believe my hometown will never be returned to Japan.”

Osamu Okada, 65, whose mother is from Kunashiri Island, said he felt more resigned to not seeing the reversion of the islands after his third visit.

“Whether Japan has the sovereignty or not, it would be all right if Japanese and Russians can learn each other’s culture, language and interact,” said Okada, a Yokohama resident who is studying Russian.

“There were a lot of new facilities on Kunashiri Island,” said Kakeru Nemoto, 19, a student of Hosei University in Tokyo whose grandmother used to live on the island.

“I want the island back, but at the same time, I understand it is the hometown of many Russians,” said Nemoto—on her second visit.

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