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For Japan’s ultraright, Feb. 7 is the holiest day of the year. The thuggish men in their loudspeaker-laden, slogan-painted vans will be out in force on “Northern Territories Day,” once again testing the nation’s aural-pain threshold.

But the voice official Japan pays attention to isn’t crackling from the sound trucks; it belongs to a diminutive, middle-aged former bus guide named Taiko Kodama. For most of her 55 years, Kodama has waged a sometimes lonely battle to keep the islands dispute in the public eye and on the front burner of foreign policy. Now, as secretary general of the national island reversion lobby, Kodama is universally acknowledged the de facto “ambassador” to the disputed islands, which she has visited over a dozen times in the last six years.

“She’s influential,” says Shigeki Hakamada, a Russian specialist and government adviser.

For Kodama, born in 1944 to a “kombu” fisherman on the tiny isle of Shibotsu, the fight is a highly personal one. Shibotsu — part of a group of isles known as Habomai — is deserted now. But in Kodama’s day, Shibotsu and the other contested islands supported a thriving trade in seaweed, crab, salmon and other marine products shipped to the rest of Japan and around the world. (Miso-pickled sea lion, served sashimi-style, remained a local delicacy.) Island life was primitive. Horse power was literally the only means of transport, and for refrigeration islanders had to bury food underground. Still, families such as Kodama’s considered themselves well-supplied with just about everything but rice, which had to be ferried in from Hokkaido.

Kodama was a mere toddler when Josef Stalin swept through the southern Kurils at war’s end and deported the nearly 17,000 Japanese residents. Brutally hauled onto cargo ships and transported in holds like fresh tuna, many died during the voyage or shortly after.

Settling like most former islanders in Nemuro, the mainland town overlooking the islands, Kodama’s family never managed to pull itself together. A housing shortage forced them to live in three separate homes; and a few years later, Kodama’s father died in a traffic accident. He had just spent his meager savings on a new boat, in hopes of sailing back to Shibotsu. “The islands have always been associated in my mind with home and our family, united and living an idyllic life,” she says.

Kodama’s crusade began at the front of a Nemuro tour bus. Tourists in search of a good crab dinner were also treated to the fiery 23-year-old’s impassioned sentiments toward the Northern Territories. A few years later, convinced that she had to take her message to Tokyo to be effective, Kodama took to spending the tourist off-season in the capital, supporting herself by waiting tables in a pub.

Her timing, in the early 1970s, couldn’t have been better. Okinawa had just reverted back to Japan and attention now turned toward retrieving the Kuril Islands from Russia. Kodama found a powerful mentor in Ichiro Suetsugu, who had had played a key role in the return of Okinawa and now was refocusing his think tank on defining Japan’s Russian policy, including the Kurils. Suetsugu helped the former bus guide and bar lady polish her rhetoric and build a national movement. By 1981, a coalition of housewife organizations, youth groups and former islanders was formed; the following year, Feb. 7 was officially dubbed Northern Territories Day to commemorate the day in 1855 when Russia and Japan set their border north of Etorofu. (Japan renounced its claim to the Kuril Islands after World War II, but argues the southernmost four Kurils were never part of the deal.)

“We made a conscious decision not to make the event a platform for anti-Russian propaganda, but to review our activities and form policy for the coming year,” Kodama says. “Unfortunately, the rightwing uses this occasion to stage demonstrations, and that’s the only picture the Russian media sends back home.”

Outspoken on anything to do with the islands, Kodama is scathing on the subject of the extremists. “The rightwing is a huge liability for us, because the public always assumes, wrongly, that we’re one and the same.” Rightwing organizations, she asserts, have exploited the territorial issue less out of genuine concern than as a membership-bolstering tool. “They think they’re cool,” she says, only a trace of sarcasm in her voice. “But then, some people think the Aum Shinrikyo cult and tanned girls are cool, too.”

Kodama was able to revisit her birthplace at last in 1994, when Russia and Japan inaugurated brief, visa-free trips to the islands for former residents. Kodama’s Russian handlers were taken aback by her Biblical gestures — she gulped a mouthful of seawater “to recall the bitterness of our deportation” and crammed her pockets with beach pebbles to take home, toting one around with her to this day. But the chatty Kodama, known simply as “Taiko” to the Russian islanders, has since become something of an island institution. A few years ago she began publishing notes from her annual visits, a highly subjective but useful guide to everything from the latest popular hobby, to the price of butter, to the state of the islands’ decaying infrastructure.

While many Russians living on the Kurils remain distrustful of Japan and are adamantly opposed to reversion, Kodama’s brand of “auntie diplomacy” has clearly softened the image of Japan on the islands. Kodama has personally helped ship and distribute disaster relief and school supplies to the Russian islanders, and escorts islanders around Japan each summer on Japanese government-subsidized tours. She is now lobbying for an expansion of the visa-free program to allow fishing and agricultural experts to help advise the islanders, and to construct a fish processing plant. “Most of the fish imported into Nemuro now have been caught illegally,” she says. “Building a factory on the islands would help ensure some of these marine resources benefit the islands’ economy.”

Japan’s aid to the islands — it has spent millions building a new port on Kunashiri, a clinic on Shikotan and other facilities — are clearly calculated to win local support for reversion. But it’s hard to write off Kodama’s professed sympathy for the Russian islanders as pure PR. When Kodama was invited to address a high-powered meeting in Moscow last year, even the Russians said they were visibly moved by her passion, says Aoyama Gakuin University’s Hakamada.

Her first contact with Russians was in early 1946, when homeless Russian civilians began drifting down to the southern Kurils from the mainland. Feared at first by the resident Japanese, the Russian newcomers were gradually welcomed into the community. Kodama herself was befriended by a Russian military officer, who carried her around the island on his horse.

This brief period of amity ended as soon as Stalin had refocused on his newly acquired islands. Every last Japanese home was torched. Gravestones were broken off and used for housing foundations; all that remains of the original Japanese settlements are a post office and a former fish processing office on Etorofu Island. But Kodama says her own feelings toward the Russian islanders remain unchanged. “These people have been thrown away by Moscow,” she says. “They’re stressed out about losing their homes after reversion. For their sake, this issue has to be settled soon.” (The deadline for reversion and signing of a Russo-Japanese peace treaty is the end of this year.) Equally anxious for a settlement, of course, are Kodama’s aging constituents, about 9,000 of whom are still alive.

For the islands, Kodama envisions not a return to fishing villages, but an economy based around ecotourism, similar to the whale-watching tours set up on Ogasawara. Windswept Shibotsu is a far cry from Miami or Spain, but if the reversion issue is settled, that’s where Kodama dreams about building her retirement home.

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