The Northern Territories: So close, yet so far away The Northern Territories: So close, yet so far away
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The Northern Territories: So close, yet so far away

    NHK World
    Correspondent
    NHK World
    Senior Producer
    It was a trip that Yuzo Matsumoto had been waiting a long time for. The 78-year-old once lived in the Northern Territories, but was forced to leave when Russia occupied his homeland. And he's been dreaming of a return.

    Japan's government maintains that the four islands are an inherent part of Japanese territory, and that they have been occupied by Russia illegally since the end of World War Two.

    NHK's Shin Watanabe and Takahira Natsume joined some former residents on a visit to the islands this summer.

    A Russian chartered plane carrying the group landed at an airport on the island of Kunashiri on the morning of August 10. It was just a one-hour flight from Nakashibetsu Airport in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. Yuzo Matsumoto said the flight was easy. "I realized again how close the islands are."

    Japan and the former Soviet Union agreed in 1964 to allow Japanese people to visit the graves of their ancestors.

    Ancestral visits to the islands by airplane was agreed at a Japan-Russia summit in April 2017. The former islanders are now over 80 years old on average. The visits by sea took much longer, and the mainly elderly group had to transfer to a barge to land, which was hard on them physically.

    A group of 38 former islanders or relatives made the trip, accompanied by government officials. Some stayed on Kunashiri, while others headed to the island of Etorofu.

    The flight to Etorofu took 35 minutes. In the town of Rubetsu, local residents had mowed the grass around the graves on a hilltop, and had set up chairs and portable toilets for the visitors.

    "On this trip, I was able to stand firmly on the ground of my beloved hometown and enjoy the pleasant smell of the beach and sea breeze," said Matsumoto at the memorial service. "My wish for the return of the islands has grown."

    A memorial service was held for Japanese visiting their ancestors' graves at Rubetsu.

    Rubetsu is a special place for the Japanese people. Soviet forces landed there on August 28, 1945 after Japan had declared an end to the war on August 15. By September 5th, the Soviets occupied Etorofu, Kunashiri and two more islands -- Shikotan and Habomai.

    Masayuki Ichinohe was visiting from Hakodate City in Hokkaido. The 55-year-old said his father was from Rubetsu and told him that Soviet troops first occupied a post office and then intruded into peoples' homes. He said his father did not want to board a Russian plane and refused to participate in the delegation this time.

    Ichinohe carried photographs of his late grandparents close to his chest. "They died after leaving here, unable to return. I'm glad I could bring them back."

    Masayuki Ichinohe visits Etorofu, the home of his father.

    Another visitor, 83-year-old former islander Masako Sasaki, now resides in the city of Sapporo in Hokkaido. She joined the visit last year too, but the visit to Rubetsu was canceled at the last minute.

    "I have finally made it to Rubetsu," she said, choking back tears. "My mother's father was laid to rest here, but no one has been able to visit for years. I think he's happy now," she added. "I have mixed feelings, but I'm grateful to the local people for mowing the grass and setting up chairs."

    Masako Sasaki, 83, returns to her home island of Etorofu.

    The trip went smoothly, but the visitors couldn't escape the territorial issue. Since Japan doesn't recognize Russia's administration of the islands, the group had to take care not to show any deference to Russian authority. They weren't carrying passports, because Japan doesn't see it as part of another country. And they moved around carefully in groups to avoid any encounters that would involve recognizing Russian administration of the islands.

    All visa-free visits to the islands are carefully managed to avoid incidents that could undermine the legal positions of Japan or Russia.

    The Japanese government has been pushing for joint economic activities on the islands. A trial sightseeing visit is scheduled for next month. If more Japanese people visit, then direct contact with local communities will increase, and it will require the creation of a new legal framework and rules of behavior. But that could be tough to achieve with two countries still locked in territorial disputes.