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Japanese visit Kuril Islands to discuss humanitarian aid

Marking a historical moment, a group of around 530 Japanese people visited the Kuril Island of Kunashir on 27 August 2002. This was the largest group of Japanese to visit the island since the end of the Second World War. The group ignored a request of the Japanese Ministry by Foreign Affairs not to visit Kunashir. By letting Japanese people meet Kunashir residents, Peace Boat hopes to create friendly relations.

KUNASHIR, from the Peace Boat - "Don’t drink too much water, so you don’t have to go to the toilet too often. Some places have no toilets," is the warning by Peace Boat co-founder Tatsuya Yoshioka to the Japanese participants that are about to set foot on the Kuril Island of Kunashir. He adds that the island lacks fuel and power, has no central heating system and a generator with hiccups. His words don’t seem to scare off the participants who will be brought to Kunashir in five groups by a smaller boat as the cruise ship cannot dock at the pier.

The Peace Boat – a ship chartered by an international NGO of the same name - left Kobe Japan on August 15 and arrived on Kunashir on August 27 after it had visited North Korea, South Korea and Sakhalin. The Japanese group met with Kunashir residents to discuss the territorial dispute and humanitarian aid to the island. They enjoyed the natural scenery and visited local facilities, including the Japanese government-funded pier, power plant and ‘friendship house’. The latest is dubbed ‘Muneo House’ after arrested Japanese parliamentarian Muneo Suzuki was charged with rigging bids for building the facility. Some 70 participants stayed overnight in the friendship house, 140 went camping, 30 enjoyed a home stay and the rest spent the night on the Peace Boat.

One of the highlights of the visit was an exchange festival in the evening of August 27. Russian soldiers performed an emotional rendition. "The Kuril Islands, they will never be Japanese, always ours," was the refrain, which many of the Japanese visitors did not understand, as the lyrics were in Russian.

One of the performers of the Japanese side was Oki Kano, an Ainu from the Asahikawa area on Hokkaido. He played the traditional Ainu stringed instrument ‘tonkiri’ for the first time in decades. "I have personal feelings about this visit. Originally these islands were the place where Ainu people fished and lived. When I read the newspapers, the Japanese government is only talking about the border. They don’t care about the people. I’m not interested in political bullshit. I played the music for the people that were born there." He said many people had approached him after the performance, one of them being a Russian man giving him a spearhead of black stone that had belonged to an Ainu living on Kunashir. Kano believes there should be more communication between the Ainu people from Japan and the inhabitants of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands and is trying to build up contacts that can help him to come back again.

Japanese pressure to cancel visit

"This has probably been the most difficult trip to arrange," says Peace Boat representative Daniel Vincent, commenting on the four-month struggle to organize the 38th voyage since 1983. One of the organisers had to wait five days for a calmer sea before he could land on Kunashir to make arrangements for the visit.

Apart from arranging home stays, camping, transportation and excursions the NGO had to deal with the Japanese government. "In the process of organizing the visit, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs repeatedly pressured the Russian government not to let us go to Kunashir," quotes a Peace Boat statement.

On August 27, the press office of the Japanese Foreign Ministry in Tokyo expressed regret that the Peace Boat members visited Kunashir. Since 1989, the Japanese government has urged Japanese nationals not to visit the four disputed islands Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and Habomai – called ‘Northern Territories’ by the Japanese government. The islands were seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II. The long-standing dispute has prevented Japan and Russia from concluding a post-war treaty.

"The government has been urging its citizens not to enter the Northern Territories like this, because doing so while the Russian Federation is illegally occupying the territories will make it appear as if they consider the land belongs to Russia," Kyodo newswire quoted the statement of the Japanese Foreign Ministry from August 27.

However, in 1992, Japan and Russia launched a visa-free exchange programme aimed at promoting ties between Japanese people and the Russian inhabitants of the islands. Through this programme, almost 10,000 Japanese have visited the Kuril Islands and over 5,000 Kuril Island residents Japan. The Japanese Foreign Ministry is of the opinion that the programme should be organised by the government, because civil activities outside the programme may hinder bilateral negotiations over the islands. Peace Boat however, believes its activities on Kunashir have achieved results that would not have been possible in the original framework of the visa-free exchange programme.

Peace Boat decided to go ahead with the journey to Kunashir when the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that the visit violated neither Japanese nor international law. The NGO made an agreement with the Sakhalin authorities that the participants could leave their passport onboard the ship while visiting Kunashir.

This article was published in the Sakhalin Times.

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