The long wait of Nemuro's displaced islanders
IT WAS freezing when I visited Nemuro, Hokkaido, late last month. The wind chilled me to the bone as the temperature hovred around zero, while I walked through Bokyo-no-Misaki Park in Cape Nosappu. Suishojima Island of the Habomai group of islets loomed just 7km beyond the Shima-no-Kakehashi, a monument to the desire that the northern territories be returned.
Many of the former islanders, driven from their homes by the former Soviet Union when it occupied the northern territories, continue to wait for the return of the islands after the end of World War II.
On Aug 9, 1945, the Soviet Union renounced the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Treaty and declared war on Japan.
On Aug 18, after Japan agreed to the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, Soviet forces launched a series of attacks on the Kuril Islands, occupying them one after another - Etorofu on Aug 28; Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets from Sept 1 to 5.
The islanders, initially fearing occupation by United States forces, were suddenly faced with a new threat.
Hiroshi Tokuno, 81, from Shikotan, remembers how several Soviet soldiers came into the classroom of his primary school with weapons in their hands.
"Our female teacher bravely continued teaching math, but I was so scared I couldn't look up," he said. "I thought we were going to be killed."
The fates of the 17,291 islanders were divided largely in two. A little more than half of them fled the Soviets and escaped the islands in fishing boats. Those who remained lived under the command of the Soviet military for two years, after which they were forced to temporarily move to Maoka in southern Sakhalin (current Kholmsk) before finally relocating to Hakodate, Hokkaido Prefecture.
Mr Tokuno's experience of remaining behind on Shikotan with his family was portrayed in the anime film Giovanni's Island, released in February last year.
It was in Nemuro and Rausu that many of the islanders sought refuge. About 70 per cent of Nemuro was destroyed in US air raids conducted just before the end of the war. The fleeing islanders lived in horse stables or built barracks with wood charred from the raids to keep the rain out. Then they rebuilt their lives.
Reflecting back, Ryoichi Miyauchi, 72, from Kunashiri, said: "My grandfather and father told us that the islands would be returned before long and that we had to stay in Nemuro."
Since then, 70 years have passed. According to the federation of residents of Chishima and Habomai group of islets, the number of islanders that once lived on the occupied islands dwindled to 6,774 (as of the end of March), less than 40 per cent of the total at the end of the war. Of them, 1,341 - the largest number - live in Nemuro.
The displaced islanders have alternated between anticipation and disappointment over the years, but they have not let go of the hope that the islands will be returned.
"They could be suddenly returned. We cannot give up," said Kimio Waki, 74, the director of the federation.
A former facility for submarine cables that once spanned the 38km between Nemuro and Kunashiri Island remains as proof that Japanese people were living on the four islands. The facility is located on Hattarihama beach, facing Nemuro Bay, in the Nishihamacho district of Nemuro. From Nemuro, the island of Kunashiri can just be discerned.
According to Nemuro city government and other sources, the facility - a discharge and storage unit called Rikuageko - was built in 1900 by the then Communications and Transport Ministry to make signal switches for submarine and overland telegraph cables. The cables used to extend to Etorofu, but were cut off after the war.
The facility was then sold to the private sector. However, after serious damage from exposure to wind and rain, a number of people called for the preservation of the former facility.
In fiscal 2013, the city launched a preservation project. Although the project has been suspended due to high tides, the facility is testimony to the efforts to secure the return of the northern territories.
The average age of the former islanders is now over 80, and memories are gradually fading.
Mr Miyauchi said: "We former islanders used to think that the movement for the return of the islands would end with our generation. But we must consider passing the torch."
HISTORY IN HOPPOKAN
Historical materials, including old documents, are on display at Hoppokan, a museum dedicated to the northern territories issue within Bokyo-no-Misaki Park in Cape Nosappu, Nemuro, the easternmost point on the four main islands of Japan.
Kaigarajima Island, an uninhibited reef, and Suishojima Island, both part of the Habomai islands, 3.7km and 7km off the cape respectively, can be seen from Hoppokan. The Nosappu Lighthouse near Hoppokan watches over the ships navigating nearby.
More than 12.6 million people have visited Hoppokan since it opened in 1980. About 600,000 visitors came annually in the early 1990s, when interest in the islands increased following then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Japan. But there have only been 100,000 visitors or so in each of the past several years.
Recently, Hoppokan's website has distributed live images of the northern territories. Hideo Odajima, the 64-year-old curator of the museum, said: "The role of Hoppokan - for visitors to witness the northern territories with their own eyes - will continue until the islands are returned."
Next to Hoppokan is Bokyo-no-Ie, another museum introducing the history of the northern territories, established by an organisation of former islanders. Maps showing the distribution of houses of the islands at the end of the war, reproduced based on memories, are displayed there. They are filled with the emotion of former islanders who were forced to leave their homes.
THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
BUS RIDE TO NEMURO
It takes about 100 minutes by bus from Nakashibetsu Airport to Nemuro. The round-trip fare is 3,390 yen (S$40). It is 45 minutes by bus from Nemuro to Bokyo-no-Misaki Park where Hoppokan is located. The round-trip fare is 1,930 yen.
Admission is free for Hoppokan and Bokyo-no-Ie. The Russian border patrol facility on Suishojima Island of the Habomai islets is visible through a telescope at Bokyo-no-Ie.