Nemuro: The frog chorus sings, “Give ’em back! (please)”

Marshal Stalin said that he would like to discuss the political conditions under which the USSR would enter the war against Japan. … The President (Roosevelt) said…that there would be no difficulty whatsoever in regard to the…Kurile Islands going to Russia at the end of the war.

Charles E. Bolen, Memorandum: Yalta discussions concerning the Kuriles, US Department of State records (1953), quoted in Boundary and Territory Briefing Vol. 3 No. 6., Towards a framework for the resolution of the territorial dispute over the Kurile Islands, Seokwoo Lee, International Boundaries Research Unit, Durham University

History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon

W. H. Auden, Spain

The first inkling of what was to come at Cape Nosappu came far away on the western outskirts of Kushiro, where I snagged this brace of ultra-rightist sound trucks.

Their presence here startled me; while they’re a familiar enough sight on the streets of Tokyo, hurling insults at the Russian embassy or trolling up and down Yasukuni Dori, belting out scratchy recordings of patriotic anthems that are audible even from where I write this, a couple of hundred meters away from the thoroughfare, on their way to and from Yasukuni Shrine on key dates in the patriots’ calendar, I hadn’t been expecting to run into them in a backwater like Kushiro.

Let’s pause awhile to unpack the messages of the vehicle on the right. It’s operated by a political association that goes by the name of Seiyu Koshikai, which might be translated as “the society for political friendship and imperial spirit”. Seiyu Koshikai, as far as I can tell, is just one of many hundreds of more or less obscure rightist factions, known as “uyoku dantai”, dedicated more or less to the same causes: ultra-nationalism, rabid anticommunism, and implacable hostility to what was historically the last hotbed of socialism, the Japan Teachers’ Union.

The iconography is standard issue. Seiyu Koshikai might even be classified as moderates, as they prefer the conventional flag, the Hinomaru, and eschew the naval ensign of the Imperial Japanese navy or the war flag of the Imperial Japanese Army, which differ from the Hinomaru in having rays radiating from an offset or central sun. The golden emblem on the casing housing the speakers is a single-petal variant on the double-petal chrysanthemum seal of the imperial family, the use of which by commoners such as these rightists would in times past have led to the swiftest of summary justice. The rear of the truck carries a map of Hokkaido, with a rising sun positioned squarely behind the contested Northern Territories (Amusingly, this is identical to the cover of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ propagandist cheat sheet on the islands, except their sun, strangely enough, is blue, perhaps to emphasize the cold).

The slogan above the windows on the side reads:

呼び返そう 祖先の築いた 日本の宝 北方領土

Let’s bring them back, the lands our ancestors built, Japan’s treasure, the Northern Territories

The slogan on the rear below the lights bears a jarring ecological message:


Treasure the water and the air

The rightists inadvertently in their blinkered asininity provide the impartial observer with the single best practical reason to oppose the return of the Northern Territories: while the Russians may be no gentle stewards of the earth, the Northern Territories are for the world’s largest nation such an insignificant speck, so far from the centers of population and power, that no serious and sustained efforts have ever been made to develop them. Return the islands to Japan and their coastlines would swiftly be clothed in concrete, their rivers dammed and their forests denuded.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here; what are the Northern Territories and why have they come to be one of the cherished causes of the far right? What follows is as potted a summary of the unruly bush of their history as I can manage.

The Northern Territories consist of three islands and a collection of islets off the northeastern coast of Hokkaido.

Etorofu (択捉島, Итуруп or Iturup in Russian, derived from the Ainu for “place with capes”) is the northernmost of the South Kurils and the largest island in the Kuril archipelago. About 200km long, it is slightly smaller in area than Majorca, and currently home to very roughly 6,500 people, versus the wartime Japanese population of around 3,500. The strike force armada that attacked Pearl Harbor assembled at Hitokappu, a port on the southeastern flanks of the island, on November 23, 1941, a fortnight before the “date that will live in infamy”, as Roosevelt put it. The island is about to be blessed—or cursed—with an all-weather 1,500m international airport near the main town of Kurilsk, the centerpiece of the Russian government’s desultory plans to provide the islands with something akin to a modern infrastructure.

Kunashiri (国後島, Кунашир or Kunashir in Russian, derived from the Ainu for “black island”), separated from northeastern Hokkaido by the Nemuro Strait and the Notsuke Channel, lies at its closest only some 17km from the Japanese coast, from which it is visible at many points. About 120km long, it is roughly the same area as Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands but bigger than the main island of Okinawa, and like Etorofu, home to roughly 6,500 people, with all but a handful of them clustered in the main town and port of Yuzhno Kurilsk, very different to the prewar days, when the coasts were reportedly dotted with countless fishing and kelp-harvesting hamlets.

Shikotan (色丹島, also Шикотан or Shikotan in Russian, derived from the Ainu for “big village”) is the north-easternmost and largest of a string of islands that lead directly off the Nemuro Peninsula and Cape Nosappu. With an area of only 225 square kilometers, it’s a relative tiddler. The current population is reputed to be around 3,000 people. Shikotan has a particularly dark history, even by the morose standards of the Kurils, as it was to here many Kuril Ainu were forcibly moved in the early years of Japanese sovereignty, amid fears that they had become too Russified, so they could be more easily monitored, and here that they perished in large numbers, unable to live off the tiny plots of farmland they were allotted.

The Habomai islands (歯舞群島 or 歯舞諸島 in Japanese, Хабомай or Khabomai in Russian, derived from the wonderful Ainu for “the place where the little islands are when the ice floes depart”) are a tiny archipelago of six—or seven, depending on which authority you consult—principal islands, of which the largest, Shibotsu, is about 45 square kilometers in area, and many minor islets, skerries, crags, and shoals. Kaigarajima (“seashell island”), a rocky outcrop with a lighthouse built by the Japanese in 1937, is just 3.7km from Cape Nosappu and the closest to which Russian-held territory comes to Japan. The Habomais had a wartime population of around 4,500 people, but as far as I can tell have no permanent residents now.

These, then, are the Northern Territories, the fog-shrouded haunt of bears and sea-lions, albatrosses and sea-eagles, whales and dolphins, set in one of the richest and least exploited fisheries on the planet. The Kurils are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, and Etorofu and Kunashiri are studded with active volcanoes. The Okhotsk Plate has been responsible for some of the largest megathrust earthquakes ever recorded—an October 1994 M8.2 earthquake 200km east of the Nemuro peninsula and attendant three meter tsunami, while not claiming many lives, caused massive damage on the Northern Territories and reportedly led to the evacuation of some 10,000 people, many of whom never returned, thereby accelerating the population decline that had begun with the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the system of special privileges granted to those that lived on the fringes of the Soviet empire was dismantled. By some estimates, the Northern Territories have lost a third to a half of their inhabitants over the last couple of decades.

The first peoples to wash up on the shores of the Kurils were the Kuril Ainu, and they might be considered to be more deserving of the Northern Territories than either Russia or Japan; they are to all intents extinct, however, and their sad story plays no further active part in our tale.

The question of whether this eighteenth-century Japanese adventurer or that Russian explorer got to any given island in the archipelago first is of consuming interest to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for one, but the issue of sovereignty has become far more bound up with treaty upon overlapping treaty, so I’ll elide over the embryonic origins of the dispute.

The official version of events runs something like this: on February 7, 1855, Russia and Japan signed the Treaty of Shimoda, in which the Russo-Japanese border in the Kurils was drawn between Etorofu and the island to the north of it, Uruppu; the islands to the south, that is to say the present day Northern Territories, were assigned to Japan, Uruppu and the islands to the north, to Russia. Ill-advisedly, the two countries agree to shared sovereignty over Sakhalin.

Shared sovereignty resulted in repeated clashes, and on May 7, 1875, Japan and Russia signed the Treaty of St Petersburg, by which Japan ceded control of Sakhalin and Russia the whole of the Kuril archipelago, an elegant enough solution—would that it had endured.

Japan and Russia contrived to pack five wars into the four decades between 1904 and 1945, impressive going even by the bellicose standards of the early 20th century, even more so when you consider that neither World War I nor II are strictly speaking included. As part of the spoils of victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, Japan picked up Sakhalin south of the 50th parallel, to which it (sort of) added the northern half in its 1918-1922 intervention in the Soviet Far East following the Russian Revolution.

On April 13, 1941, Russia and Japan signed the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact, resulting in there being no conflict between the two powers until the very dying days of World War II.

On December 1, 1943, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek, looking toward the post-war order, issued the Cairo Declaration, which reads in part as follows:

The Three Great Allies are fighting this war to restrain and punish the aggression of Japan. They covet no gain for themselves and have no thought of territorial expansion. It is their purpose that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914 … Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed.

The February 1945 Yalta Conference between Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill resulted in a necessarily secret protocol regarding Japan:

The leaders of the three great powers—the Soviet Union, the United States of America and Great Britain—have agreed that in two or three months after Germany has surrendered and the war in Europe is terminated, the Soviet Union shall enter into war against Japan on the side of the Allies on condition that…

2. The former rights of Russia violated by the treacherous attack of Japan in 1904 shall be restored, viz.:

(a) The southern part of Sakhalin as well as the islands adjacent to it shall be returned to the Soviet Union; …

3. The Kurile Islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union. …

The heads of the three great powers have agreed that these claims of the Soviet Union shall be unquestionably fulfilled after Japan has been defeated.

In Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa perceptively notes the following:

The wording reflects Stalin’s careful maneuvering. Article 3, which dealt with the Kurils, was separated from Article 2, which stipulated the restoration of Russia’s former rights “violated by the treacherous attack of Japan in 1904”. The islands were to be “handed over” to the Soviet Union rather than “restored”, as were the items in Article 2. By indicating that this independent article was as important as the others and by carefully using the expression “handed over” rather than “restored”, Stalin precluded the possibility that the Kurils would be taken away later as a violation of the Atlantic Charter and the Cairo Declaration that proclaimed the principle of the integrity of all nations.

On July 26, 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek issued the Potsdam Declaration, or the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender:

5. Following are our terms. We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay.

8. The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out and Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.

13. We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.

The Soviet Union abrogated the neutrality pact with Japan on April 5, 1945, and declared war on August 8, 1945, two days after the bombing of Hiroshima and three months to the day after the surrender of Germany, as Stalin had promised at Yalta.

The order to start the Kuril Islands landing operation, in all likelihood from Stalin himself, came on August 15, hours after Japan’s unconditional surrender. The operation was poorly planned and hurriedly executed as the Soviets rushed to occupy the archipelago before Japan formally inked the instruments of surrender. Arriving at Shimushu, the northernmost Kuril island, on August 18, the Soviet landing forces ran into fierce resistance by Japanese defenders, who initially were unsure if they were facing the Russians or the Americans, in a battle that left some 2,500 soldiers dead—the very last major engagement of World War II. Etorofu was not occupied until August 28 and Kunashiri and Shikotan not until September 1, the day before Japan signed the instruments of surrender on the USS Missouri. The occupation of the Habomais was not completed until September 5, three days after the formal surrender—the very last act of the Pacific War. The Cold War had begun.

In a little known footnote to World War II, Stalin planned to occupy a swathe of northern Hokkaido, from Kushiro in the east to Rumoi in the west, as well as to demand a Soviet zone of occupation in Tokyo akin to East Berlin. The Hokkaido invasion plans were fairly advanced until a stern missive from President Truman on August 18 caused the Gardener of Human Happiness and Father of Nations, unaccountably and uncharacteristically, to stall. What may ultimately have blown the plans off course were the delays in occupying the Kurils—it took Soviet forces four days just to find a place to land on Uruppu, the island north of Etorofu, and two battalions were wasted in the occupation of Harumukotan, where no Japanese forces were garrisoned. The time available for a Hokkaido invasion before the September 2 surrender simply ran out.

The Allied Powers and Japan finally concluded a peace treaty at San Francisco on September 8, 1951. Chapter II, Article 2 pertains to the Kurils:

(c) Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Kurile Islands, and to that portion of Sakhalin and the islands adjacent to it over which Japan acquired sovereignty as a consequence of the Treaty of Portsmouth of 5 September 1905.

The speech to the peace conference by Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, delivered the day before the signing of the treaty, contains the following passages:

The Japanese Delegation gladly accepts this fair and generous treaty. … But I would be remiss in my obligation to my own people if I failed to call your attention to these points. In the first place, there is the matter of territorial disposition. … With respect to the Kuriles and South Sakhalin, I cannot yield to the claim of the Soviet Delegate that Japan had grabbed them by aggression. At the time of the opening of Japan, her ownership of two islands of Etoroff and Kunashiri of the South Kuriles was not questioned at all by the Czarist government. But the North Kuriles north of Urruppu and the southern half of Sakhalin were areas open to both Japanese and Russian settlers. On May 7, 1875 the Japanese and Russian Governments effected through peaceful negotiations an arrangement under which South Sakhalin was made Russian territory, and the North Kuriles were in exchange made Japanese territory.

But really, under the name of “exchange” Japan simply ceded South Sakhalin to Russia in order to settle the territorial dispute. It was under the Treaty of Portsmouth of 1905 concluded through the intermediary of President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States that South Sakhalin became also Japanese territory.

Both Sakhalin and the North and South Kuriles were taken unilaterally by Russia as of September 20, 1945, shortly after Japan’s surrender. Even the islands of Habomai and Shikotan, constituting part of Hokkaido, one of Japan’s four main islands, are still being occupied by Soviet forces simply because they happened to be garrisoned by Japanese troops at the time when the war ended.

[What Yoshida has to say about South Sakhalin is surpassingly strange, because there is no doubt at all that Japanese control over it was eventually won by the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, unambiguously a war of Japanese aggression, but Sakhalin is outside our immediate remit].

Our focus, in light of future developments, is on a seemingly inconsequential phrase, “two islands of Etoroff and Kunashiri of the South Kuriles”. Yoshida’s position, and the subsequent signing of the treaty by the Japanese delegation, leaves little room for ambiguity: while he is protesting the Soviet interpretation of events, he accepts that Etorofu and Kunashiri are part of the Kurils and, implicitly, that Japan has forsaken them.

Former Australian diplomat Gregory Clark, the fiercest (perhaps the only) critic of Japan’s current negotiating position writing in English, has this to say about San Francisco:

At the time it was well known that the Japanese prime minister, Shigeru Yoshida, was unhappy about having to sign away the Kurils—especially the southern portion, which historically had long been under Japanese control. He had done so under strong US pressure, with the chief US delegate, John Foster Dulles, going no further than to admit that there could be some dispute over legal ownership of a small group of rocky islands called the Habomais at the very southern end of the Kurils and which together with another small island nearby, Shikotan, had traditionally been part of Hokkaido. It was taken for granted that the main southern Kuril islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri were included in the Kurils that Japan had to renounce.

But today, Tokyo insists that the “Kurile Islands” it renounced in 1951 never included these four southern Kuril islands or island groups, now called the Northern Territories. This, despite the fact that the media, Yoshida’s memoirs and published maps at the time all confirm the loss of this territory. Even more convincing is the fact that on October 19, 1951, the then head of the Foreign Ministry’s Treaties Bureau, Kumao Nishimura, in response to a Diet question directed at Yoshida, admitted on the record that Etorofu and Kunashiri were included in the Kurils that Japan had renounced earlier that year.

On the face of things the case was closed and dismissed. But Tokyo today is so certain of its claim that it refuses not only a peace treaty with Moscow but also a range of business and other contacts with its northern neighbor, some of which would do much to revive the weak Hokkaido economy. As for the Nishimura statement, various Japanese authorities later claimed it was a “mistake,” or “made only for domestic purposes,” and, in any case, withdrawn 10 years later.

The Soviets did not sign the San Francisco Peace Treaty, with Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who led the delegation, raising a number of objections, one of which was that the treaty did not explicitly recognize Soviet sovereignty over South Sakhalin and the Kurils. Japan and the Soviet Union remained technically in a state of war.

In summer 1955, Japan and the Soviet Union began talks to conclude a peace treaty. The Soviets offered to hand over Shikotan and the Habomais and this initially looked as though it would be enough for a successful conclusion to the talks, until orders came from Tokyo to demand Kunashiri and Etorofu as well. What caused the newly uncompromising stance by the Japanese government? Here is Gregory Clark again:

To break the deadlock Tokyo then sent Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu to Moscow to negotiate the long-delayed peace treaty. Shigemitsu came to realize the weakness of Japan’s four territories demand and backtracked to the original two territories demand (Shikotan and the Habomais), only to be told by [then US Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles, who in 1951 had forced Yoshida to renounce Japan’s claim to all the Kurils, including the southern Kurils, that the United States might not have to return Okinawa to Japan if Tokyo dropped its claim to Etorofu and Kunashiri. That, plus the nationalist reaction in Tokyo when news of the shift back to the two territories demand was leaked, forced Shigemitsu to backtrack once again.

This is the same John Foster Dulles who, as leader of the delegation at San Francisco, had gone on record as saying the only vagueness in the definition of the Kurils lay in whether the Habomais were included:

Some question has been raised as to whether the geographical name “Kurile Islands” mentioned in article 2 (c) includes the Habomai Islands. It is the view of the United States that it does not. If, however, there were a dispute about this, it could be referred to the International Court of Justice under article 22.

The duplicity of Dulles, which also played into the hands of the hardliners in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, only formed in November 1955 and more disposed to take a hawkish tack on the disputed territories, ensured “more than half a century of Japanese hostility to Moscow and hence continued permission for [US] bases in Japan”, as Clark writes. Which brings us to the most delicious irony of all: that the ultra-rightist dupes in their sound trucks, although convinced they are serving the nationalist cause, are actually acting in the now superannuated interests of an inveterate Cold Warrior from a foreign power who died more than 50 years ago.

In the 1950s the territorial dispute was known in Japanese as the “Kuril Islands problem”, but as it became the official position of the Japanese government that Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and the Habomais were never regarded as part of the Kurils, the problem had to be renamed, and the expression “Northern Territories problem” gained currency in the 1960s.

A glance at the map of the Northern Pacific would lead even the most fervent of Japan well-wishers to wonder at the wisdom of the current Japanese position: from Shimushu in the north to Kunashiri in the south, the Kurils are as clean and handsome a naturally occurring archipelago as any on the planet. The exclusion of Kunashiri and Etorofu from the definition of the Kurils would surely strike a disinterested observer as even more ludicrous than, say excluding the Orkneys and Shetlands from a definition of the British Isles.

The current Japanese claim that Kunashiri and Etorofu have never been deemed part of the Kurils (and please be so kind as to not look too closely at what Yoshida said at San Francisco above) appears to rest on a misreading, deliberate or otherwise, of Article II of the Treaty of Shimoda, which states that the island of Etorofu belongs to Japan and that the island of Uruppu and the Kuril Islands to the north of it belong to Russia.

This is tortuously construed in official circles to mean that “the Kuril Islands” begin north of Uruppu. Best not to ask why Japan does not stake a claim to Uruppu as well. The Treaty was originally written in French and Dutch, only then to be translated into English and Japanese. The French (apologies for the lack of diacritical marks) states:

La frontiere entre la Russie et le Japon passera desormais entre les iles Itouroup et Ouroup. L’ile Itouroup appartient tout entiere au Japon, et l’ile Ouroup, ainsi que les autres iles Kouriles situees au nord de cette ile, appartiennent a la Russie.

The critical phrase is “et l’ile Ouroup, ainsi que les autres iles Kouriles”—“and the island of Uruppu, as well as the other Kuril Islands”. The Dutch and English versions likewise refer to the “the other Kuril Islands”, only the Japanese translation—which as I understand has no legal force—is ambiguous.

Game over. Instead of the sophistries of its present position, the Japanese government might be better served taking an entirely different tack:

– that the Northern Territories were never—until World War II—claimed by any other nation

– that islands were categorically not, as the Cairo Declaration put it, “territories which she has taken by violence and greed” (other than from the Ainu, that is)

– that on the Allies’ part, World War II was not supposed to be a war of territorial aggrandizement—although Churchill, among others, later backpedalled on the Atlantic Charter, which outlined the goals of the Allies in the conduct of the war and which rejected territorial expansion, stating that the concept of unconditional surrender meant that the Atlantic Charter would not apply to the defeated

– that the violation of the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact, which although it had been abrogated, was still in force, was a gross breach of international law (whatever that may construed to be now and to have been at the time)

– and that the Soviets, as non-signatories at San Francisco, are not allowed to benefit from the treaty provisions

Article 25

For the purposes of the present Treaty the Allied Powers shall be the States at war with Japan, or any State which previously formed a part of the territory of a State named in Article 23, provided that in each case the State concerned has signed and ratified the Treaty. Subject to the provisions of Article 21, the present Treaty shall not confer any rights, titles or benefits on any State which is not an Allied Power as herein defined; nor shall any right, title or interest of Japan be deemed to be diminished or prejudiced by any provision of the Treaty in favour of a State which is not an Allied Power as so defined.

If Japan were to take this tack, and it would be a brave government that took it, then it could reasonably make a natural law claim for the whole of the Kurils, as they were peaceably signed away by Russia in 1875, although the likelihood of their restitution is as close to zero as certainty gets. (Entertainingly, this is the official position of the Japanese Communist Party—history sometimes makes for the strangest of antagonists).

That is the generous interpretation; the less generous side of me screams from the shallows, “What part of ‘unconditional surrender’, what part of ‘there are no alternatives’, what part of ‘Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine’ do you not understand?”

We, acting by command of and on behalf of the Emperor of Japan, the Japanese Government and the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters, hereby accept the provisions in the declaration issued by the heads of the Governments of the United States, China, and Great Britain 26 July 1945 at Potsdam, and subsequently to by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which four powers are hereafter referred to as the Allied Powers.

We hereby proclaim the unconditional surrender to the Allied Powers of the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters and of all Japanese Armed Forces and all Armed Forces under Japanese control wherever situated.

Japanese Instrument of Surrender, Signed at Tokyo Bay, Japan, at 09.04 on the second day of September, 1945

Soviet/Japanese relations remained on ice from 1956 until the collapse of the Soviet Union; cheekily, in 1981 Japan declared February 7, the date of the Treaty of Shimoda, “Northern Territories Day”, and this has become one more date in the deluded calendar of the ultra-rightists. Endless talks have been held in the couple of decades since the Soviet Union imploded, with rapprochement at times appearing close at hand, at others unimaginably distant. A welter of ingenious solutions have been proposed, but all face the same stumbling blocks—Russian public opinion, especially in the Far East, having been so long suckled on the teats of Soviet propaganda, is resolutely disinclined to any territorial concession, and the Japanese government is similarly hamstrung by the Frankenstein’s monster of fanatical Paisleyite no-surrenderists that it did so much to spawn. As Seokwoo Lee notes, “Reference of the dispute to a third party adjudicative body such as the International Court of Justice, Permanent Court of Arbitration, or ad hoc international arbitration, is unlikely due to the unpredictability of the outcome and the highly sensitive nature of the domestic politics of both claimants”.

The dispute thus seems destined to fester unprofitably on for many more decades. Fascinating though the rights and wrongs of the tussle are, for the moment they are academic; it is just as interesting to turn inward to the way the issue is framed and shaped in Japanese domestic discourse.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the Northern Territories issue: it is at or very close to the top of the agenda in any bilateral meeting between the Russians and the Japanese and exists as a perpetual background rumble in the news, whether it is of Japanese fishermen accused of straying into Russian waters and being shot up or arrested for their pains, of Putin slashing crab quotas, of exchange arrangements allowing former Japanese residents of the Kurils—some 7,000 are allegedly still alive—to enter the islands without Russian visas, or of a Hokkaido politician, Muneo Suzuki, masterminding the erection of a “Friendship House for the Peoples of Russia and Japan” (popularly known as “Muneo House”) on Kunashiri and coming close to hijacking Japanese foreign policy in the process, before being felled by construction bid-rigging and assorted scandals that resulted in the convictions of a dozen people. The issue can manifest itself in the weirdest of ways, inject itself into the strangest of situations—I am not wholly convinced of the truth but am in tune with the truthiness of this hilarious story, which alleges that a macron was added over the initial letter “o” in the Yokoso! Japan (“Welcome to Japan”) logo, part of the government’s Visit Japan Campaign, by bureaucrats eager to assert Japan’s claim to the Northern Territories.

The dispute also colors perceptions of Russia and the Russians throughout Japan but particularly on Hokkaido, where Russian entrepreneurs have been active since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most prominently in the export of second-hand Japanese cars to the Russian Far East—at least until Putin and Medvedev made the petulantly infantile and nakedly protectionist decision recently to throttle the trade through prohibitive import taxes and legislation barring right-hand drive vehicles. (We’ll come face-to-face with bristling anti-Russian Hokkaido sentiment in a later post).

Whether the average man or woman on the Kunitachi omnibus cares more or less about the Northern Territories is a hard question to answer: in an utterly unrepresentative straw poll of a dozen people in my office, I found that everyone could name at least one and around half all four of the disputed territories. Whether the issue ever crops up at the dinner tables of those who are not on the vociferous but tiny ultra-rightist fringe in Kawasaki or Kobe is an entirely different matter. One suspects rarely.


I navigated my way through Nemuro (peak 1967 population around 50,000, estimated 2009 population 30,130, projected 2035 population 18,542) and out along the southern flanks of the Nemuro peninsula, desolate even in midsummer, studded with stands of stunted, wind-wracked trees and pockmarked with ugly little fishing villages, one of which I was curiously delighted to discover was called Habomai.

The closer one gets to Cape Nosappu, the more signs such as this one start to appear at the roadside.

Give ’em back, say the seals. “The four islands return – broadening exchange – deepening friendship”. Why, it’s almost a haiku.

Having parked up at the cape, my attention was distracted by a sea otter lolling in the swell.

Sea otters, once hunted to the brink of extinction up and down the Kurils, have only recently returned to the Nemuro peninsula. When I returned the next day, a pair of them frolicked in the same spot, and I scanned them through binoculars for an age, rapt in their antics.

Little did I know then what was to await me on the north side of the cape: the most extraordinary and eclectic collection of statuary, monuments, and exhibitions, assembled by motley coteries of irredentist moonbats and chauvinist fruitcakes from every corner of the land.

Led by the mythical kappa water-sprite conductor perched on the left of the plinth, the frog chorus sings, “Give ’em back! (please)”. The inscription in large lettering on the not particularly distinguished lump of rock reads “A prayer: The restoration of the Northern Territories”. To the left, smaller lettering reveals that the organization behind the frog ensemble is Nihon Seinensha (“Japan Youth Association”). A glance at Wikipedia Japan reveals that the association is a bunch of ultra-right sound truckers under the auspices of the second-largest yakuza gang in Japan, the Sumiyoshikai. The inscription is signed in the name of Kusuo Kobayashi (1930-1990), the one-time boss of the Sumiyoshikai and founder and first chairman of Nihon Seinensha. You can buy a Nihon Seinensha strap for your mobile phone at their website here, although I would personally advise against it. In Yakuza: Japan’s criminal underworld, David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro have this to say about Kobayashi:

Until his death, for years Kobayashi ran his own paramilitary troop that trained each month on the streets of Tokyo. Kobayashi’s gang was deeply enmeshed in drug-dealing, extortion, and gambling, but that did not stop him from flaunting his views on Japanese politics. “This I say as a warning to politicians”, he told an American TV crew in 1988. “If the difference between the rich and poor were really great, we would not hesitate to assassinate the Prime Minister”.

Just a touch of yakuza Robin Hood braggadocio for the foreigners, I’m sure.

Oh yes, I nearly forgot. The frogs? They’re there because the Japanese for “frog”, “kaeru” (蛙), is a homonym of the infinitive form of the verb “return” (還る, in this case). Whoever said that good old punning fun and lashings of the old ultra-nationalism don’t mix, my dear droogs? As the Japanese like to say—in English—“Japanese joke”.

This rather elegant trilingual—Japanese, English, and Russian, of course—map guides visitors to those parts of Kunashiri and the Habomais visible from shore. For much of the summer, though, dense sea fog keeps even the nearest islet in a modest cloak, and this afternoon was no exception. The English, which is more florid than the Japanese, reads:

“With the Four Islands peacefully returned.
Let us have long-expected days of peace.”

Ring the bell and bring them back! I wonder if on a windless day the Russian lighthouse keeper—if there is one still—on Kaigarajima, only 3.7km distant, can hear the occasional peal.

Yet more miscellaneous statuary and verse:

一億の切なる願ひ島返れ この間近なる岬に叫ぶ

Return the islands!
The ardent wishes of a hundred million
Shout them to this nearby cape

With the hundred million being the (127.5mn or so) people of Japan and the nearby cape being anyone of your choosing on Kunashiri or one of the Habomais. This particular monument is anonymous.

A verse that was beyond my ability to decipher in funereal obsidian by an obscure shipbuilding engineer and part-time tanka poet, Tokuju Hashimoto (1894-1989).


And there was still more; this is the “Road of Hope”.

この道は、全国各地から寄せられた石を敷きつめてつくられた島への道であり、島が還る時の道です。 石の一つ一つに、北方領土返還の祈りがこめられています。

“This road is a road to the islands, inlaid with stones brought from every part of the nation. This is a road for the time when the islands are returned. Prayers for the return of the Northern Territories are embodied in every last stone”.

A memorial for Ichiro Suetsugu (1922-2001), described innocuously enough on the plinth as someone who was passionately devoted to the return of the Northern Territories. Suetsugu seems to have been a right-wing post-war quintessence of what the Japanese call a “kuromaku”, the “black curtain” scene changers of kabuki—the shady back-room fixer, the eminence grise, the godfather. While never holding elective office, he appears to have been instrumental in the establishment and activities of a number of penumbral rightist organizations whose profiles are all but invisible in the mainstream media—Japan Congress (日本会議), the successor to The People’s Congress to Protect Japan (日本を守る国民会議), and the Japan Youth Council (日本青年協議会), to name but three—the briefest investigation into which lays bare a frankly alarming web of networks between business, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the military, the mainstream right, and perhaps more thuggish elements to the far right, and the further examination of which lies beyond the scope of this post. The dedicator of the memorial is then Nemuro mayor Hiroshi Fujiwara, so the suspicion has to be that it was paid for with the taxes of the good burghers of Nemuro.

The Shima no Kakebashi (“Bridge to the Four Islands”) is the most official of all the monuments at the cape; standing 13m high and 35m wide and weighing 171 tonnes, it was completed in 1981. According to the Northern Territories Issue Association, an “independent” administrative corporation under the jurisdiction of the Cabinet Office, “it brings together the powerful hopes and prayers of the people of Japan and was created to symbolize their unyielding determination to continue with activities to demand the return of the Northern Territories until they are indeed returned”.

Between the arch and the sea is Inori no Hi (“Fire of Prayer”), an eternal flame; the inscription on the guidepost reads, “Let’s keep the Fire of Prayer burning until the day that the Northern Territories are returned to the motherland”.

The flame was burning brightly when I first encountered the monument; a circumnavigation later, it had been extinguished, and I later learned the bathetic news from Wikipedia Japan that, while it had once burned 24 hours a day, it is nowadays only lit between 9am and 5pm, to save on gas. Whatever happened to the unyielding determination of the people of Japan?

Adjacent to the arch is the Hoppokan (“Northern Hall”), run by the Northern Territories Issue Association. Above the entranceway the uncompromising message runs: “The Northern Territories are Japanese territory”.

The Hoppokan is armed with dozens of telescopes for surveying the lost lands.

We’re watching you!

Inside, the stuffed animals and birds on the industrial linoleum are all, likewise, maintaining a vigilant watch over the Northern Territories.

Is it me, or is there something disturbingly Soviet Realist about the mural on the Nemuro City Tourist Produce center?

In front of the center, a seal rests atop the ice floe of a telephone box.

The public toilet was inspired, a sign revealed, by the King Crab, a local specialty. At least if the Russians do ever invade, thanks to the trilingual sign, they won’t get caught short.

As a tourist attraction, rather than as a locus of rightist yearning, Cape Nosappu was not faring so well. A scattering of visitors strolled aimlessly around or loafed in cars and camper vans. A straggle of gift shops—the one on the left proclaims that it only sells kelp—led out toward the lighthouse.

This crab restaurant had bitten the dust.

As had what had once been the only accommodation at the cape, this minshuku.

The shadows’ lengthening reminded me that I had no accommodation for the night and resolving to pay the cape a final visit the next day, I headed back into Nemuro along the slightly more pleasant northern rim of the peninsula.

A room arranged, I wandered down to the center of Nemuro, where I stumbled across a welcoming Bass Beer sign outside Beer Café Will. Initially I was the only customer, but was soon joined by the nine male and two female members of the Nemuro darts team. Like darts teams the world over, they were as passionate about their beer as their darts.

What struck me most was that the shouts of teammate encouragement were entirely in English, unleavened by any Japanese whatsoever.

“Hei! Kamu on!”
“Naissu tucchi!”

I ordered Jamaican jerk chicken with escallions, and I dare say it was the very best Jamaican jerk chicken on offer in Nemuro that night.

There was one place left on my Cape Nosappu to-do checklist, the Heiwa no To (“Tower of Peace”). I brooded over it all evening. What on earth was it? Who had commissioned this monstrosity at the end of the world?

There were no other vehicles in the gullshit-splattered parking lot when I pulled up the next morning; there were no other visitors in the hour or two I spent in the Tower of Peace.

I paid my Y900 admission (discounts for members of the Self-Defense Forces) to the sulky pair of young women who were the only other signs of life—and not much of that—and cast an eye around the free exhibition. The crude hand-drawn signs, naked light bulbs, and ashtrays that had gone unemptied for months were of more interest than the exhibits.

The gift shop was a treasure trove of the bizarre: “ice-cream” dolls, pink penguin ashtrays, “My Fairly Tale” cork-backed mirrors, and a dungareed hobo bear on a fake plastic blind (Y250) that I just had to have.

Where IS here? I have to concede, though, that my bear blind was outdone hands down by the not-for-sale napalm kitten jigsaw.

In one corner of the gift shop, below the lonely glass float and the cassettes (cassettes!) of “Nosappu Monogatari” (“A tale of Nosappu”), was a row of books, and suddenly everything—except the shabbiness and the air of quiet desperation—became clear.

The book is titled “Jinrui wa kyodai” (“Humans are brothers”) and the “author” (the odor of a ghost-writer hangs heavy) was the late Ryoichi Sasakawa (1899-1995). Don’t be fooled by the hippyishly fraternal (though sexist) sentiments of the book’s title; Sasakawa was no tie-die revolutionary. For a biographical vignette, an excerpt from a 1974 Time magazine profile will suffice.

The son of a sake brewer, Sasakawa made a fortune before he was 30 by speculating in Osaka’s grain and stock markets. He also was—and is—a dedicated right-wing superpatriot who decries the social changes that are moving Japan away from traditional manners and mores. In traditional fashion, he likes to boast of his conquest of more than 500 women, ranging from “a distant relative of Emperor Taisho to almost all the top geisha.” His unbridled admiration for Benito Mussolini—”the perfect fascist and dictator”—lingers to this day. Indeed, Sasakawa sometimes boasts that he is the “world’s wealthiest fascist.”

In 1931 Sasakawa established the fascist Nationalist Masses Party and was elected to the lower house of the Diet during World War II, a political fling that landed him in Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison for three years while US officials tried unsuccessfully to prosecute him as a war criminal. Protesting his innocence, Sasakawa hired a big brass band to blast martial songs as he strode proudly into the clink. Behind bars, he became fast friends with [LDP Prime Minister Nobusuke] Kishi and other imprisoned Japanese officials who later returned to power. He also got the idea of how to increase his fortune when an American guard threw a copy of Life into his cell. In it, he saw an advertisement for a motorboat.

After the US gave up its attempt to prosecute him, Sasakawa fast-talked the government into letting him set up a series of motorboat races on which the public could legally bet. The races proved to be a big hit and also provided more cash with which Sasakawa could pile up giri [favors]. As head of the monopoly that controls the races even today, Sasakawa dispenses 3% of ticket sales ($105 million this year) to favored causes, including charities and research into shipbuilding technology.

The ridiculous trajectory of Sasakawa’s career, from fascist goonsquad organizer to garlanded philanthropist, from being photographed with Benito Mussolini in full military regalia to being snapped out jogging with Jimmy Carter, is worthy of a full-length muckraking English-language biography. What sparked my curiosity most at this point, though, was not Sasakawa’s life story, much of which I was anyway familiar with, but how the Tower of Peace had ended up in such a state of colossal shabbiness when it was one of the signature legacies of the self-professed “world’s richest fascist”.

Sasakawa, it seems, may never have been as wealthy as he proclaimed and may indeed have given away much of his dubiously-gotten gains in his lifetime, dying in 1995 aged 96 with only Y1.6bn (around $20mn these days) in net assets, according to the tax authorities, with much of that tied up in illiquid assets such as forests, shares in unlisted companies, and property. Facing inheritance taxes of around 50%, Sasakawa’s two eldest sons spurned their rights to inherit, leaving the third son struggling to settle the accounts of the estate.

I took the elevator up to the observation deck; in the elevator  this poster asserted Japan’s claims regarding one of its two other boundary disputes, the battle for the Liancourt Rocks, known in Japanese as Takeshima and in Korean as Dokto.

The fog had lifted a little and the additional hundred meters of elevation allowed me to gain my first glimpse of Russia—I’m sorry, I’ll read that again—“Russian-held territory”.

The lighthouse on Kaigarajima is just discernible off to the left, while heading right are the Otoke rocks and Moemoshiri Island; all are part of the Habomais. Through binoculars it was possible to pick out lighthouses and an old Soviet observation post on Suisho Island, the second-largest of the Habomais.

It felt overpoweringly strange, looking out over this almost unknown relic of a border. My reveries were soon interrupted by the mechanical throb of dozens of diesel engines, spanning the horizon, the boats still shrouded in fog. “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” I thought to myself. “What a moment to be here!” But it turned out only to be the local kelp fleet, returning from their morning trawl in Russian-held waters.

Looking north-west along the peninsula, kelp—along with the fisheries, the other staple of the local economy—had been laid out to dry on the asphalt.

Descending, I noticed that on the second floor there was a final attraction in the Tower of Peace, the intriguingly named “Mysterious Land”. Undaunted by the fetid smell of the mildewed carpets, I investigated.

“Thank you for boarding the Nosappu Maru”, the disembodied female voice said, “You’re setting off on a journey of fear. We’re praying you come back safely”.

The experience was based conceptually on a haunted “fun house”; it had, however, been put together with spray-painted Styrofoam and Sellotape for about fifty yen and represented the most laughable attempt to scare that I have ever encountered.

Things started off prosaically enough, with sunset over the cape, some sepia scenes of life in the days of yore on the Northern Territories, and the kelp boats returning from around Kaigarajima.

Passing through a “time tunnel”, the traveler is catapulted back hundreds of millions of years. Please try and ignore the speakers and the daylight flooding in through the red curtain.

Cross the bridge, which rocks leisurely back and forth ever so slightly when stepped on, to blood-curdling roars as fierce beasties from prehistory leap out from their polystyrene foam lairs on wheezy mechanical arms.

The experience climaxed with an elderly talking bear couple. The acid had really begun to kick in hard.

The audio tape was of sufficiently poor quality that it was hard to make out the ursine whining, but this much was clear: they wanted the Northern Territories back before they headed to the great bear den in the sky. Their peroration, addressed—if to anyone—to the Russians, pleaded: “Don’t make us wait forever! We beg of you!” Putin must be quaking in his little fur-lined boots.

I stumbled blinking out into the sunshine. Collecting myself, I headed back into Nemuro and out the other side, on my merry way west.

Postcript: It’s cruel, I know, but here is an extract from one of my very favorite Bad Japan Books, The sun in my eyes: Two-wheeling east, by Josie Dew, about her experiences at Cape Nosappu—with a few parenthetical interjections of my own.

“Give us back the occupied islands” was the non-messing message of the hoardings that sprouted at intervals from the verges on the road to Nemuro—a city and area famed for its large variety of crabs, including the king, the short-legged king, and the hairy crab. Nemuro itself was on a clawed [it barely arcs at all, but I know you’re trying hard with the crab metaphor] peninsula at the end of which lay Cape Noshappu [sic], the easternmost point of Japan. [Not according to the Japanese government, at least.] From there I spotted Kaigara, one of the much squabbled-over islands of the Kuril chain, which sits only 3.7km off the coast. Looking through the Noshappu [sic, again] lighthouse telescope [no, no, no, your telescope was at the Hoppokan, there’s no public access to the lighthouse], it was possible to espy Russian soldiers at their monitoring posts. [On the rocky lighthouse outcrop of Kaigara? I don’t think so.]

It was bitterly cold at Cape Nosappu. [She got the name right!] It was also very noisy, thanks to a profusion of tannoys around the crab stalls and the tourist centre, blaring out an incessant supply of slushy, sugar-sick Japanese boy-loves-girl pop songs. A short distance away stood a spectacularly ugly eternal-flame memorial, its vast arch of dirty rust-coloured concrete [ah no, you see Josie, it’s rust colored because it’s made of steel—concrete doesn’t rust—in fact it’s made of weathering steel, a steel alloy that renders painting unnecessary and produces a rusty sheen after a few years—trust me on rust] ruining an otherwise pleasantly wild and scenic spot. By the time I’d had a mosey around the cape, my fingertips were numb with cold. I rode back along the north coast of Nemuro’s claw.

8 responses to “Nemuro: The frog chorus sings, “Give ’em back! (please)”

  1. Thanks, this is the best summary of the ongoing idiocy over the Kurils I’ve ever seen. Who in their right minds would go to war over those miserable, cold, volcano-studded islands? Is the kelp and the crabmeat that magical? I can no longer tell who’s crazier, the Japanese right wing or Putin’s thugs.

  2. The big white and shining elephant in the room is that the Russians and the Russian Federation are NOT FREE or have the liberty even TO GIVE AWAY land, territory and territories, to the Japanese, to the South Koreans, or even to Canadians or the Americans, or others, anyway and anyhow, WITHOUT Chinese LEAVE of CONSENT, of ASCENT, of ENDORSEMENT and of DISPENSATION (leave of permission).

    Anyone who can actually read AND study a map and maps, would be expected to know that the Russian City of Vladivostok/Vladivastok and the Port thereof, which give and allow Russian access to both the Pacific Ocean in general and specifically to the Sea of Japan in particular, and the de facto Russian Capital City of the Far East for all seasons,

    Is and has always been, at least in the and since the year 1945, effectively a DE-FACTO Russian ENCLAVE both influenced by, and effectively surrounded by, if not co-controlled by, China and by the Chinese.

    What a way to let the Russian and the Russians commit his and their own suicides by letting them open his and their own Russian Pandora’s Boxes?! As, I mean, WHY STOP AT THE Islands?! Or even, WHY STOP AT Islands, Islands WITHOUT a “the” or the Article?! And WHY NOT the whole and the entire Russian Pacific Far East as well?! Why the whole and the entire Russian Pacific Far East anyway and anyhow has to be Russian, but not be Chinese, be Mongolian, be Korean, North or South, be Canadian, be American, or even be Japanese?!

    • For your own good, please seek the assistance of a mental health care professional immediately.

      • Not-An-Economist

        Or what?! ‘Gonna make me?! Send in the Kempeitai Gendarmes of the Kempeitai Gendarmerie, or in the JSDF, I’d say!

        (My and one’s point, be that as it may, and care to like it or not, and nothing too not-to-your-liking or offensive of course, is that the love by the Japanese for the late Admiral Togo of the Satsuma of the Yester-Year of their own perhaps is for a little bit far too much. ‘Enough’ve been said.)

        (It also ought to be as “Assented” rather than as “Ascented” [Sic.] with apologises.)

      • You have me intrigued. Who are you? In a really basic name, age, date of birth, current residence, background, job kind of way.

  3. Fascinating, inspirational. I wish I could understand that comment by SE962582C, because I feel I’d enjoy it almost as much as the article iteslf…

    • I wish I could too! I have had other exchanges with him that I’ve deleted, but he won’t, sadly, answer a direct question. I *guess* the basic theory is that Russian power in the Far East has atrophied and the whole of Russia east of the Urals is ripe for Chinese takeover, but…

    • A postscript:
      You can find our man at The Economist here:
      simply by cutting and pasting some of his comments here into Google. But his identity remains a mystery. I like to picture him as a gone astray MI6 officer with a few too many mistresses in foreign ports of call for his own good and a little too much independence o thought who was pensioned off young and then went further off the rails. But that’s just me.

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