Japan's dream of an island deal with Russia appears to slip out of reach

An old ship thrown by a storm onto a Yuzhno-Kurilsk beach in the Kurile Islands, as seen on March 16, 2019. Ownership of the four Kurile islands is disputed between Japan and Russia.


By SIMON DENYER | The Washington Post | Published: June 22, 2019

RAUSU, Japan  — Kimio Waki remembers the day in 1945 when Soviet soldiers burst into his home, "machine guns in their hands, and with their shoes on." He was just 4 years old. "They ransacked the house," he said. "I'm left with my memory of fear."

Waki and his family were among of 17,000 Japanese living on the southernmost Kurile islands - known in Russia as the Kurils - when Soviet troops invaded after Japan had announced its surrender in World War II. Over the next four years, all of them either fled or were forcibly evicted.

More than seven decades later, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has embarked on a quixotic dream to persuade Moscow to return at least some of the islands, with President Vladimir Putin first dangling - then seemingly withdrawing - the prospect of a deal.

There had been hopes the two leaders might have signed a framework agreement on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit, which begins June 28 in Osaka. But that dream has died, experts say.

"A deal to settle the territorial dispute - that's really not on the table anymore," said James Brown, an associate professor at Temple University's campus in Japan.

Instead, Russia is now proposing to deepen economic cooperation by introducing visa-free travel for residents of the Russian island of Sakhalin and Japan's island of Hokkaido, which lie west of the disputed smaller islands.

The idea has met a mixed reception in Japan, experts say. Japan's Foreign Ministry fears it might be seen as recognizing the disputed islands as part of Sakhalin, and reduce pressure to resolve the dispute over sovereignty.



Waki, now 78, is one of a dwindling number of elderly Japanese people who remember life on islands referred to by Japan as its Northern Territories.

At a viewpoint above the Japanese town of Rausu, Waki points out the nearest island - Kunashiri in Japanese, Kunashir in Russian - and the mountain at the base of which his family lived and harvested seaweed from the seashore. It is just 16 miles away, clearly visible across the water.

In the first few years of Soviet occupation, he remembers playing with Russian children, kicking stones and catching fish with their bare hands in a local river, and sharing their bread and canned food.

Then the order came: Gather by the shore and wait. He and his family were to be evicted. Packed into a Russian cargo boat, they went first to Sakhalin, before finally being sent to Japan. He remembers talk of babies dying and being dumped in the latrines. He recalled being so ill and malnourished that his parents nearly left him behind.

In 1951, Tokyo renounced all rights to the islands as part of the San Francisco Treaty that brought an end to the U.S. occupation.

But Japan's government says that treaty didn't apply to the four southernmost islands of the chain, and the dispute has dogged relations with the Soviet Union and Russia ever since.

Last year, Putin and Abe reignited hopes of a deal, and negotiations have been going on ever since. Japan promised economic engagement and investment in Russia's Far East as part of the package.

For Abe, it's personal, a legacy handed down by his father, Shintaro, who was Japan's foreign minister in the 1980s, one of the main diplomatic quests of his premiership.

He has even agreed to negotiate on the basis of a 1956 deal between the two countries: a promise made by the Soviet Union that it would eventually hand back the smallest islands - Habomai and its surrounding rocks, and the island of Shikotan.

That offer was rejected by Japan at the time, because it would leave the two largest islands, and 93 percent of the disputed territory, in Russian hands. Brown says Abe's willingness to consider a "two-island solution" is a major concession.

But as Japan's position has softened, Russia's has hardened, experts say.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeatedly demanded that Japan begin by recognizing de facto Russian sovereignty over all of the disputed islands. Late last month, the foreign and defense ministers of both countries met, only to trade accusations about military buildups.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kano called Russian missile exercises and its deployment of fighter jets to the disputed islands "unacceptable," while Lavrov complained that Japan's plans to deploy the U.S.-made Aegis Ashore missile defense system on other islands pose a "potential threat."



If a treaty were ever signed, Japan might lose interest in political and economic engagement, Brown argued, while Putin could well suffer a domestic backlash from nationalists and a blow to his reputation as the "gatherer of Russian lands."

"Putin has been playing a well-thought-out game here - to give Abe the impression a deal is possible," Brown said. "That gives [Abe] an incentive to promote economic cooperation, but also creates a divide" with Japan pursuing a pro-Russian policy while other industrialized nations take a harder line with Moscow.

When Waki arrived in Japan, he remembers the neon lights: He had never seen electricity before. Steadily, his family built themselves new lives here, and he now has two daughters and two grandchildren living in Japan's northern prefecture of Hokkaido.

With their families settled here, and no prospect of work on the islands, he acknowledged that the 6,000 surviving former residents would be too old now to permanently return to their former homes. Meanwhile, over seven decades, the Russians have settled in. There are now more than 17,000 living on the islands, and many were born there.

On each of his six trips back, Waki says the infrastructure there gets a little better. Next month, Russia will open a seafood processing plant on the island of Shikotan.

Waki has seen his hopes raised and dashed over many decades. Despite all the talking, the two sides don't seem to get any closer on the fundamental issues.

"It's just like railway tracks," he said. "They don't cross."

The Washington Post's Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.

A view from the window of a residential building in Yuzhno-Kurilsk of the Tyatya volcano, in the Kurile Islands, shown March 18, 2019.

Kimio Waki, 78, points out where he was lived as a boy on the island of Kunashiri before being evicted by Soviet troops shortly after the end of World War Two. The island, visible on the horizon, is still claimed by Japan and the dispute is a major bone of contention with Russia. Waki is shown June 6, 2019 at an observatory in Rausu, Japan.

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