How a war in Ukraine crushed the hopes of thousands of elderly Japanese

Washington Post photo by Michelle Ye Hee Lee.
Yasuji Tsunoka, 84; Hirotoshi Kawata, 87; and Hiroshi Tokuno, 88, former residents of the Northern Territories look at photos from their home islands.

NEMURO, Japan – Soviet soldiers barged into Hirotoshi Kawata’s home on Sept. 4, 1945, searching for hidden Japanese soldiers and valuables. Kawata, then 11, remembers understanding only two words they said: tokei, or wristwatch; and sake, which they went on to loot from the home.

It was the beginning of the Soviet takeover of a resource-rich chain of islands in northern Japan, to the terror of families who had thought the worst of the war was over after Japan’s surrender. Japanese were soon forbidden to work or move freely, and women and children were detained for forced labor.

Many families fled on boats in the middle of the night, rowing at first until they were far enough from the coast to turn on their engines. Kawata’s family was among thousands displaced during that time.

“All these years later, I still can’t forget everything I saw right before my eyes,” Kawata, 87, said. Now, “seeing the Ukrainians . . . it just hits so close to home. It doesn’t seem like something happening in the distance.”

Thousands of miles from Ukraine, in this city in the far northeast of Japan where many of the roughly 17,200 former residents of the Northern Territories resettled, the Russian invasion and the plight of millions of Ukrainian refugees resonate deeply.

Washington Post photo by Julia Mio Inuma.
View of the islands from a lookout point in Nemuro on March 29, 2022.

The war has crushed their hopes of ever seeing their homeland again after Russia broke off the post-war negotiations over the the islands in response to Japan’s sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine.

For these former residents, whose average age is nearly 87, the hope of returning home in their lifetimes has vanished.

“The only ones left to tell these stories are just the recollections of some fifth-graders. The rest have all passed away unable to share their stories,” said Hiroshi Tokuno, 88, who fled Shikotan island at 13.

Washington Post photo by Michelle Ye Hee Lee.
Photo of Hiroshi Tokuno and his siblings when they lived on Shikotan.
Washington Post photo by Michelle Ye Hee Lee.
Hiroshi Tokunu, 88, points to the part of the Shikotan island where he lived until he was 13.

For years under former prime minister Shinzo Abe, Japan sought to improve relations with Russia and prioritize the peace treaty and territorial settlement in an effort to make Moscow a strategic partner and keep it from drawing closer to China. When Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, concern over negotiations for the islands shaped Abe’s tepid response.

But in a dramatic turn away from its years of pursuing rapprochement with Russia, Japan has imposed wide-reaching economic sanctions over the invasion. Although negotiations had stalled since 2020, Moscow said last week that it had no intention of returning to talks and planned to end visa-free trips by Japanese citizens to the islands. It also threatened to withdraw from joint economic projects there.

What Japan calls the Northern Territories, the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Habomai and Shikotan, lie off the coast of Hokkaido, and some are visible from Nemuro on a clear day. They were part of Japan before World War II, but soon after its surrender in August 1945, the Soviet Union claimed the islands, which it called the Kuril Islands.

These volcanic islands southeast of Russia’s Sakhalin island separate the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean and are at the heart of postwar Russo-Japanese relations. The two countries made a joint declaration in 1956 ending the state of war between them but have not signed a peace treaty. That has been awaiting a resolution of the dispute over the islands.

From Japan’s perspective, the Soviet seizure of the islands was a betrayal, because Japan had already surrendered and the islands had been Japanese territory since the first treaty between the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan in 1855, said James Brown, an expert in Russo-Japanese relations at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo.

For Russia, the islands are its rightful territories, obtained in exchange for joining the United States against Japan in World War II. Giving up the islands is considered a betrayal of Soviet soldiers and citizens and Russia’s World War II legacy, Brown said. The islands are also of strategic interest to Russia, because they make it easier for Moscow to get its ships into the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Okhotsk, and have valuable natural resources, including a rare-earth metal used in aerospace construction.

Tokyo and Moscow have held peace negotiations on and off since the 1956 declaration, but there has not been any significant movement. Unlike Japan’s territorial disputes with China and South Korea over largely uninhabited islands, the scale of the dispute with Russia is different, because the islands are bigger (Etorofu is nearly 2,000 square miles) and thousands of people’s lives are directly affected.

Washington Post photo by Julia Mio Inuma.
In Nemuro, it’s hard to travel a few blocks without seeing a massive statue or sign demanding, in uncharacteristically forceful Japanese language: “The Northern Territories, give it back!”

In Nemuro, it’s hard to travel a few blocks without seeing a massive statue or sign demanding, in uncharacteristically forceful Japanese language: “The Northern Territories, give it back!” Road signs and street names are written in Japanese and Russian, for the benefit of the Russian fishermen who do business in Nemuro.

Here, Russia’s announcement of its withdrawal from negotiations carries consequences. It prevents the former residents from visiting the gravesites of relatives on the islands. It also ends cultural visits to the islands’ Russian residents by Japanese hoping that the two populations could one day coexist if the dispute were ever resolved.

“It is extremely unfair and unacceptable, undermining the efforts of the residents of both countries who have been working hard to promote an exchange,” said Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki in response to Russia’s announcement.

With Russia considering shutting down its economic agreement with Japan, the fishing industry is also on edge, because it relies on the waters between Japan and Russia – considered one of the best places on the planet for fishing, where 3 million tons of fish and other seafood are caught annually.

Fewer than 5,500 former residents of the Northern Territories are still alive. They are clear-eyed about what Japan’s tougher response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means for the future of the negotiations over the islands, but some still support Japan’s standing up to Russia. At the museum in Nemuro dedicated to the dispute, residents and visitors left messages bashing Russian President Vladimir Putin and expressing solidarity with Ukraine.

Some residents said they hope to see Prime Minister Fumio Kishida take a tougher approach with Russia to resolve the Northern Territories dispute.

“What Russia is doing in Ukraine, trying to change the status quo by force, can never be justified,” said Yasuji Tsunoka, 84, who was 8 when Soviet forces took over the tiny island of Yuri, a part of the cluster of Habomai islets that had 70 homes.

“Kishida made strong sanctions, and we understand this. But we want now, more than ever, for negotiations to be direct and strong, without trying to constantly be sensitive of Russia,” he said. “The situation in Ukraine is once again an issue of territory, just like the northern islands with Japan.”

After the Soviets took over the islands, some Japanese families remained for a few years, living alongside the Soviet families that moved there. Tokuno recalled attending school with Soviet children, and his experience was later turned into an animated children’s film called “Giovanni’s Island.”

But, eventually, to make room for Soviets, Japanese residents were displaced from their homes and pushed into sheds and horse stables. By October 1947, all Japanese remaining in the Northern Territories were taken off the islands in Soviet ships. That group included Tokuno, who recalled that they first withstood grueling conditions in Sakhalin before making it to Nemuro. Some died on the journey.

It wasn’t until 1964 that Russia and Japan agreed to allow limited numbers of humanitarian trips to the islands so that former residents could visit relatives’ burial sites.

The former residents said they hope future Japanese generations, as well as U.S. leaders, will take up the fight.

“We will continue sharing the movement with the next generation to keep it going for as long as it takes,” Tsunoka said. “Japan must never stop.”