Nemuro, Hokkaido – Takashi Kawata sees a growing importance in passing on to young people his experiences as a former resident of one of the Russian-controlled islands off Hokkaido.
“The significance of telling our stories to future generations is increasing year by year,” Kawata, 83, said of the former residents’ wish to realize the return to Japan of the islands at the center of a territorial row between Tokyo and Moscow.
Three-quarters of a century after the end of World War II, there is still no prospect in sight of resolving the dispute, which has prevented the two countries from concluding a peace treaty to formally end their wartime hostilities.
Kawata started his storytelling activities about five years ago to raise public awareness about the territorial dispute.
“Even 75 years after (the seizure of the islands by Soviet troops), I want people not to forget the fact that the Northern Territories are an inherent part of Japan’s territory,” he said, using the Japanese government’s term for the group of islands.
In the closing days of the war, Soviet troops started invading the Chishima island chain, north of the disputed islands, on Aug. 18, 1945, overwhelming Japanese troops.
Kawata clearly remembers the day when some 30 Soviet troops came to Taraku Island. The island is part of the Habomai group of islets, which is one of the four Russian-held islands.
When the war ended, Taraku Island had some 1,400 Japanese residents.
“As Soviet troops showed no signs of fighting, I did not feel much fear,” said Kawata, who was 8 years old at the time.
Soviet troops occupied schools on Taraku Island and barracks of the Imperial Japanese Army there, intruding into houses and stealing watches and other items from Japanese people.
Meanwhile, some Soviet soldiers visited Kawata’s home, seeking help with laundry and treatment of their wounds. Some of the soldiers gave him konpeito sugar candy and dry biscuit.
Opportunities to share the history of the territorial row and the experiences of former Japanese residents of the disputed islands are decreasing.
The number of former Japanese islanders has fallen to some 5,700, from about 17,000 in the past, according to the Hokkaido government. Their average age is now 85.
This year, the coronavirus crisis is currently creating an additional obstacle for the activities of the former residents.
The city of Nemuro and four towns that are located near the disputed islands are making efforts to invite school trips in and outside Hokkaido, aiming to raise awareness about the territorial issue.
But 15 of 19 junior high and high schools have canceled plans to visit the municipalities amid the coronavirus crisis.
“More schools may cancel their school trip plans,” a Nemuro city government official said.