Crimea crisis stirs dispute over Russian-held islands off Hokkaido

A high school student prays at the grave of a Japanese resident of Etorofu, off Hokkaido, during a rare visit to the Russian-held island in 2007. |AFP-JIJI

Scenes of apparent Russian troops in southern Ukraine are stirring up grim memories half a world away among Japanese who were forced off their islands by Soviet troops in the last days of World War II.

Tokyo and Moscow remain at odds over the sliver of a Russian-held archipelago off Hokkaido, with the nearly 70-year-old dispute long stalling a bilateral post-war peace treaty, despite warming diplomatic and economic ties.

The Ukraine crisis, now centered on the Crimean Peninsula, has also created a big diplomatic headache for conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he tries to strike a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the territorial dispute while joining Western allies in condemning the apparent deployment of Russian forces into Crimea.

The move evoked strong memories for Japanese such as Kajiko Odajima, 82, who once lived in what Russia now calls the Southern Kurils and Japan refers to as the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan and the Habomai islets.

“When I watch the Ukraine situation on TV, I don’t feel this is someone else’s trouble,” said Odajima. “The victims are always the local people. I don’t want anyone to repeat what we experienced.”

Odajima recalls her shock when Soviet soldiers burst into her classroom in 1945 and rounded up local Japanese who had lived on the islands for generations.

More than 17,000 were removed from their homes just days after Japan’s wartime surrender. Some were immediately sent to the main island of Honshu and others were taken to work in Soviet labor camps. Most never returned home.

Among the deported who are still alive, numbering around 7,000, many still hold out hope for a return to their ancestral homeland one day. The feelings of estrangement remain raw.

“I can’t help but link our situation with what is happening to Crimea,” said retired schoolteacher Isamu Nakata, 85, now a resident of Hokkaido.

“We have had a hard time since then and I still hope to die on my home island. I have good feelings toward Russian people, but I can’t get rid of my resentment toward the country,” Nakata said.

Though the Crimea crisis differs in nature, experts in regional politics say they still see some parallels with the long-running territorial row off Hokkaido.

“The seeds of conflict in the Crimea issue are similar to that of the” Russo-Japanese dispute, said Shigeki Hakamada, professor emeritus at Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University.

Hakamada, a leading expert on modern Russian politics, said both conflicts underscore Moscow’s bid to expand its sphere of influence along its vast borders. “Putin will never compromise over the Ukraine issue, as Ukraine is critically important for his goal” of expanding the Kremlin’s influence, Hakamada said.

Japan has joined the United States and other allies in ramping up the pressure on Russia, but the crisis has created a tricky balancing act for Abe, who has held multiple summits with Putin since coming to office in late 2012. Abe also was one of the few pro-Western leaders who attended the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, while many others stayed away amid disquiet over Moscow’s anti-gay laws.

Abe has been pushing to expand the two countries’ economic ties, especially as his government finds itself embroiled in separate sovereignty disputes with China and South Korea, but isolating Putin over Crimea threatens to derail sensitive talks toward resolving the jurisdiction of the four islands.

“Abe is facing a dilemma,” Hakamada said. “On the one hand, he has to keep step with the West as a Group of Seven member. On the other hand, he wants to maintain the Japan-Russia dialogue, as Japan-China and Japan-South Korea relations are deadlocked.”

That worries former islanders like Nakata, the retired schoolteacher, who still holds out hope he might someday return to his birthplace.

“The current talks between Japan and Russia appear to be going well, but I’m afraid that the Ukraine problem may derail that,” he said.

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