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Since the Soviets invaded this archipelago in 1945, Moscow and Tokyo have struggled to agree on who controls what. Now, seeing the militarization of their former home, ex-islanders and their descendants in Japan fear for the future

Shikotan island appears through a telescope at Cape Nosappu, on the east coast of Japan's Hokkaido region. Shikotan is part of the Kuril archipelago disputed by Japan and Russia.Photography by James Griffiths/The Globe and Mail

More belowRussia’s military buildup in the Kuril Islands, as seen from space


As his fishing boat pushes out into the frigid waters off Hokkaido in northern Japan, Tsubasa Ito keeps his eye on the radar.

It’s just before midnight, and he is heading about 20 kilometres from shore with his crew, looking for flatfish and cod. But Mr. Ito, 25, isn’t hoping to spot a catch – he’s worried about being caught himself. These waters, despite being within sight of the Japanese coast, are controlled by Russia.

“I’m always conscious of the Russian boats, even if we’re not in the territory they claim,” Mr. Ito tells The Globe. “Every night, my mother worries I won’t come home.”

Tsubasa Ito speaks with The Globe and Mail in his living room in Nemuro, a city in Hokkaido across from the Kurils.

RUSSIA

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Sapporo

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Lagunnoye

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Malokurilskoye

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MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

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MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

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The family lives in Nemuro, on the eastern tip of Hokkaido, but they trace their roots to Shibotsu, an island near the fishing grounds, in the rich waters where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Okhotsk.

Shibotsu is one of the Kurils, a chain of islands stretching 1,300 kilometres from Japan to Kamchatka in the Russian far east.

The Soviet Union invaded the southern part of the chain in August, 1945, and the islands have been controlled by Russia ever since.

Thousands of Japanese were expelled after the seizure, and a dispute over sovereignty has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from ever signing a peace treaty officially ending their war.

And with the war in Ukraine souring relations between Japan and Russia, the already slim chances of a settlement are now vanishingly small.

For the former islanders and their children, and for those Japanese who rely on the waters around the islands for their livelihood, the breakdown in relations has been devastating. Russia has cut off access to the chain, making fishing in the area far more difficult and even potentially dangerous.

It has also increasingly militarized the islands – though a large portion of the garrison has been sent to fight in Ukraine – and some in Japan are concerned about having a substantial force of hostile foreign troops on their doorstep, particularly in a region where Tokyo has enough belligerent, nuclear-armed neighbours to worry about already.

Cape Nosappu is the closest many Japanese people can get to the Kurils. The paths feature painted maps of the area and markers of the distance, seven kilometres, to the disputed island of Suisho. A bridge-like monument calls for the return of four islands to Japan.

Hirotoshi Kawada was 11 when the Russians invaded tiny Taraku, one of the Habomai Islands at the southern tip of the Kuril chain. Days earlier, the local population had heard on the radio that Japan had formally surrendered, and that the war was over.

“Even though we had lost, the islanders all encouraged each other – we said we could rebuild,” said Mr. Kawada, now 88. “But then the Russians came.”

The troops landed in the northern part of the island, roughly two kilometres from Mr. Kawada’s house.

He climbed up onto the roof to look, watching people walking toward the coast to find out what the commotion was. Something felt wrong though, and he went to hide inside.

Peeking out through the shutters, he saw a Russian soldier for the first time.

“He was less than two metres away from me,” Mr. Kawada said. “I can still remember his face.”

Hirotoshi Kawada remembers the day the Russians came to the Kurils, his childhood home.

The troops went house to house, searching for Japanese soldiers and weapons. Later they hunted for alcohol too. Mr. Kawada remembers feeling outraged when the Russians did not remove their shoes before coming inside.

“If I had done that, my mother would have told me off,” he said.

But the Russians were not violent, or even particularly threatening, though they tried to stop people from leaving the island. Many did nevertheless, pushing boats out to sea at the dead of night when the sentries couldn’t see them. Soon, Mr. Kawada found himself among the only children left.

“One Russian, an officer called Alexei, used to play with me,” he said. “He urged me to go to school because not to do so would be foolish.”

There were no teachers left on Taraku, however, and so Mr. Kawada too was forced to leave for the mainland.

The Russians allowed him to go, with some soldiers even bringing him a desk from the school, on which was written a message of encouragement, and a note to bring it back after he graduated.

In Nemuro, Mr. Kawada points on a map to the island where he grew up.

Mr. Kawada did not feel too out of place in Nemuro, where he often visited before the war, and assumed he would return home soon enough.

This hope was dashed when, two years later, Mr. Kawada’s parents joined him – and not by choice. In late 1948, the Soviets forced the remaining 17,000 or so Japanese living on the Kurils to leave, packing them onto a large container ship and taking them to Sakhalin, a vast island off Russia’s east coast. There, they had to wait for months in increasingly dire conditions until a Japanese ship could make it through the frozen ocean and bring them back to Hokkaido.

“When my parents arrived in Nemuro, my aunt would not let them in the house because they were so ragged and smelly. She made them wash themselves outside, even though it was freezing,” Mr. Kawada said.

His father had been a respected figure and community leader on Taraku. The family had lived well, employing seasonal workers from across Japan to come and help harvest the bountiful kelp that washed up on shore.

“My parents felt like foreigners in Nemuro, they had nothing here,” Mr. Kawada said.

They never truly settled in, always hoping they would be allowed to return to the island. Before they died, they were able to visit twice, but only for short periods, and they could not visit the site of their old house because the Russians did not allow them to venture that far from the port.

In Nemuro, a map of Asia denotes territories claimed by Japan. The local museum also has a mockup of a Russian living room, complete with nesting dolls and bottles of Stolichnaya vodka.

Today, the Japanese government maintains that Taraku and the rest of the Habomai Islands, as well as Etorofu, Kunashir and Shikotan in the southern Kuril chain, “are inherent territories of Japan that continue to be illegally occupied by Russia.” This is despite Tokyo renouncing “all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands” when it signed the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty with the victorious Allies. According to Japan, this agreement does not cover the southernmost islands, which it calls the Northern Territories. Russia’s argument is, essentially, yes, it does.

For decades now, the dispute has held up a bilateral peace treaty formally ending hostilities between the two sides. At times, Moscow has seemed willing to consider returning those islands closest to Japan, and both sides agreed to a joint statement in 2003 that said they would “resolve the issue of the attribution of the Four Northern Islands and conclude a peace treaty as soon as possible, thereby completely normalizing relations between the two countries.”

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who took power in 2012, made a concerted effort to push the issue over the line, reaching an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018 to “accelerate negotiations on a peace treaty.”

James Brown, an associate professor of political science at Temple University in Tokyo, said many in Japan thought Mr. Abe would be able to pull it off. But he was skeptical about how genuine the Russian promises were, saying Moscow benefited from encouraging false hope on the Japanese side, using it to boost economic and political engagement with Tokyo. “I don’t think they’ve ever been really close to a deal.”

The Russian public views the islands’ sovereignty as a settled matter. They were seized during the Second World War, apparently renounced by Japan in the 1951 treaty, and have been home to tens of thousands of Russians ever since. (Japan says if it regains sovereignty it will “duly respect the rights, interests and wishes of the current Russian residents on these islands,” but what this actually means remains unclear.)

“As well as the historical national pride, there’s a strategic side to it. The Sea of Okhotsk is a bastion for Russia’s nuclear submarines, and the Kuril Islands form a border around it,” Prof. Brown said. “The Russian military would be dead against giving any of this territory to a U.S. ally.”

Russian ICBMs fire from a nuclear submarine in the Sea of Okhotsk in December, 2020.Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

In July, 2020, Russia amended its constitution, making it illegal to give away any part of its territory to a foreign power – essentially making an agreement on the Kurils impossible without another amendment first removing this clause. The following year, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin visited Etorofu, called Iturup by the Russians, and promised Moscow would set up a special economic zone that would bring “unprecedented” gains to the islands.

And since the invasion of Ukraine, and Tokyo’s decision to join other governments in sanctioning Moscow, Russia-Japan relations have deteriorated significantly. In March, Russia pulled out of peace talks and froze economic projects related to the Kuril Islands, citing Japan’s “openly unfriendly positions and attempts to damage the interests of our country.”

Days later, Russia’s Eastern Military District conducted military drills on the islands with more than 3,000 troops and hundreds of pieces of army equipment. These exercises included testing skills for destroying defence aircraft carrying troops and operating fire-control systems of anti-tank guided missiles, according to Russian news media.

An analysis by The Globe of satellite imagery shows Russia has expanded its military footprint on the islands in recent years, while expanding settlements across the chain, including development of a port on Shikotan, and the expansion of two bases on Kunashir. (Some of this construction was first noted by Ike Barrash, a researcher with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.)

“It’s a strain on Japan’s already very stretched military resources,” Prof. Brown said. “They want to be transferring them to watching what North Korea is up to, or ensuring China can’t seize any Japanese islands. Instead they have to dedicate a lot of resources to observing the Russians.”

Pedestrians in Tokyo pass a screen showing live footage of Ukraine's President addressing the Japanese parliament this past March.CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images

Japan has gained one new ally in the dispute: Ukraine itself. On Oct. 7, President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree recognizing Japanese sovereignty over the Kurils. “Russia has no right to these territories. Everyone in the world knows this well. And we must finally act,” he said. “We must de-occupy all the lands that the Russian occupiers are trying to keep for themselves.”

Meanwhile, the deterioration in relations has made things incredibly difficult for Japanese fishermen, most of whom operate in Russian-controlled waters, and pay a steep fee to do so.

While this arrangement has always had its problems, local officials and fishermen told The Globe that there has been a major uptick in snap inspections and fines for perceived infractions.

“We always try to keep our distance, but often they will approach us without warning and board us, inspect the ship,” said Mr. Ito, the Nemuro fisherman. “We’re not inspected every day, but we’re worried about it every time we go out.”

Nishiyama Kazma, a municipal official in Shibetsu, a town up the coast of Hokkaido, said the Russians set the quota for how much fish can be caught, and it’s easy for them to say ships have gone over their limit, or caught the wrong fish, and impose fines or even detain crews.

Mr. Ito’s mother, Seiko, whose husband and father were both jailed in the past, said the Russians “encourage Japanese fishermen to come to the waters they control so they can force them to pay and then get extra money from fines and threats.”

“I hate the Russians,” she said. “They always break their promises, they can’t be trusted.”

Kunashir, one of the Kurils, can be seen across the water from Rausu, a northeastern port city in Hokkaido.

This sentiment isn’t widely shared. The Globe visited all three main towns on the eastern coast of Hokkaido, interviewing residents and local officials. The Northern Territories issue is inescapable – literally, the large island of Kunashir is visible on the horizon except on the foggiest days – but there was a general sense of resignation when it came to Russian occupation of the Kurils.

“When I was younger, I did not think about the Northern Territories issue a lot, it was not something emotional for me,” said Hiroaki Nomura, a tourism official in Nemuro. He added most people are more concerned about the fishing dispute than the territory itself, and frustrated by the missed economic opportunities.

This attitude is concerning to former islanders such as Mr. Kawada, who said he hoped “the younger generation can take up this issue. We must continue until the islands are given back.”

It is unclear how much appetite there is to keep fighting, however. Mr. Ito, despite being a third-generation islander, told The Globe he isn’t concerned about the islands themselves: He just wants to be able to fish the waters around them without being harassed.

Throughout Nemuro, road signs are printed in three languages: Japanese, English and Russian. Mr. Nomura said these are “a symbol of better times,” when many Russian tourists used to come to the town, and former Japanese islanders could visit the Kurils visa-free, a scheme that Russia scrapped in September.

This theme is echoed in the local museum, which, unlike many in Hokkaido, focuses not so much on the territorial dispute as the centuries of interaction and co-operation between Russian and Japanese populations in the north Pacific. One display consists of a model Russian living room, replete with matryoshka dolls, the national flag and a bottle of vodka.

“We used to have educational and economic exchanges with Russia, share our culture,” said Mr. Kazma, the Shibetsu official, who helped arrange many himself. “Ukraine has made everything more difficult.”

With a report from Reuters


What has Russia’s military been doing in the Kuril Islands? The view from space

In the years leading up to President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, researchers have noted that Russia has been busy expanding its military installations in the Kuril archipelago. The Globe and Mail analyzed satellite images to see what’s changed in four areas of interest.

Recent construction can be seen in the town of Golovnino in the south of Russian-controlled Kunashir Island. According to public Russian maps, they include new fisheries, medical and government buildings. Satellite images ©Google Earth
Since 2017, eight large, three-storey buildings have been built at a development near the tiny settlement of Otrada and north of Yuzhno-Kurilsk, the main administrative centre for Russian-controlled Kunashir Island. Dozens of cars can be seen in the parking lot and the area appears to be fenced off. Public Russian maps have no listings for these buildings. Satellite images ©Google Earth
Some of the most extensive recent development can be seen at Malokurilskoye, on Russian-controlled Shikotan Island. Shipyards have been expanded, and new housing and engineering infrastructure constructed, according to public Russian maps. Satellite images ©Google Earth
At Lagunnoye, a settlement in the centre of Russian-controlled Kunashir Island located between two lakes, extensive development can be seen in recent years. This includes building large warehouses, the construction of two new helipads, new roads and houses. Little information is available about Lagunnoye on public Russian maps. Satellite images ©Google Earth