Event at sea amid no Northern Territories visits

Former residents of Japan's Northern Territories and their families have held a memorial at sea, as programs allowing them to visit the islands are canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Russia controls the four islands of the Northern Territories. Japan claims them. The Japanese government maintains the islands are an inherent part of Japan's territory. It says the islands were illegally occupied after World War Two.

A chartered vessel left a port in Rausu Town, Hokkaido Prefecture in northern Japan on Wednesday morning with 38 former residents and their families on board.

The vessel stopped just before the median line in waters between Rausu and Kunashiri Island, one of the Russian-controlled islands.

The participants offered a minute of silent prayer and burned incense at an altar on the deck. They then put their hands together and prayed in the direction of the islands.

The event was organized by an association of former residents. An association official said former residents and their families have felt pain as they have been unable to visit their family graves on the islands for the past two years. He said he felt relieved that they paid tribute to the deceased from the sea.

All programs between Japan and Russia involving the islands, including visits to graves and visa-free exchanges, have been canceled due to the pandemic for two straight years.

A similar memorial event is planned for Saturday in nearby Betsukai Town, also in Hokkaido.