KUSHIRO, HOKKAIDO – The Hokkaido Museum in Sapporo has been surveying historical artifacts on the four Russian-held isles claimed by Japan through a bilateral arrangement that lets Japanese former residents make visa-free visits.
Hiroshi Ushiro, the chief curator, used the program to make visits from 2005 through 2018 with Russian specialists and other experts. The group discovered 82 historical objects on Kunashiri, 15 on Etorofu and 22 on Shikotan that ranged from stone implements made in the Paleolithic Age to dwelling sites from the Jomon Period and remains of Ainu, Japan’s indigenous people, the museum said. The fourth area is the Habomai islet group.
The surveys concluded that the islands’ residents conducted exchanges with eastern Hokkaido and formed virtually one cultural area with it.
“Hokkaido developed unique cultures in each age and the remains of them can be seen on the four islands,” Ushiro, 59, said.
The government maintains the four islands off Hokkaido were illegally seized by the former Soviet Union after Japan surrendered in World War II.
Also among the artifacts are ruins of buildings used by the former residents. Some of them were demolished by Russian authorities for development or because they were too old. For example, the Shana Post Office building on Etorofu, erected in 1930, was dismantled in 2015.
Older ruins were discovered at the site after demolishing the building, yielding five earthenware pieces recovered by Japanese experts. But the architectural site was nearly wiped out by a construction project there. On Etorofu, school buildings and a meteorological station are also in a state of disrepair.
Since preservation efforts must be conducted according to Russian laws and regulations, this might give rise to the perception that Japan recognizes Russian sovereignty over the disputed islands, said Norio Taniuchi, a former official with the Hokkaido Prefectural Government who is involved in the surveys.
“We discussed with Russian officials whether we can promote preservation by shelving the sovereignty issue, but we could not find specific solutions,” Taniuchi, 61, said.
The government has requested that Japanese not visit the isles without using the visa-free framework until the territorial issue is resolved. Japan also cannot allow any economic activities, including those by a third party, that could be regarded as submitting to Russian “jurisdiction.”
Nevertheless, at the grass-roots level, former Japanese islanders have cooperated with the Russian residents to repair the gravestones of deceased Japanese. This involved repeated exchanges between Japanese and Russian experts and reports from Russian residents on the discovery of the gravestones.
“Japan and Russia are being called on to make efforts to hand down this heritage to future generations from a historical perspective of human activities without worrying about the question of sovereignty,” Ushiro said.