TOKYO — Under normal circumstances, the Feb. 18 meeting between Japanese Prime
Minister Taro Aso and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev should be a cause for celebration.

On Wednesday, the leaders will launch a massive development that will one day supply liquefied natural gas from Sakhalin, in the Russian Far East, to Japan and other parts of the Asia-Pacific as the region’s major economies continue their desperate search for new sources of energy.

But this summit, like so many between Russian and Japanese leaders in recent years, will be overshadowed by a piece of unfinished business that stretches back to the dying days of World War II, and which has cast a pall over bilateral ties ever since.

Days before Japan’s surrender in August 1945, Soviet troops began one final push in the Far East. Their target was a group of islands located in the freezing waters between the Japanese island of Hokkaido and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.

There was little resistance as Moscow’s army seized Etorofu, Shikotan, Kunashiri and the Habomai islets after the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 8th, 1945.

In the months that followed, thousands of Japanese residents were forced to flee their homes, many of them settling in Nemuro on Hokkaido’s eastern coast.

Today, the Russians refer to the territories as the Southern Kurils, but to the Japanese they will always be the Northern Territories, grabbed by their former enemy in a final, audacious act of wartime recklessness.

The fate of the sparsely populated islands, the closest of which lies just 15 kilometers (about 9 miles) from  Hokkaido, has been a perennial thorn in the side of bilateral relations. More than 60 years after the end of the war, Japan and Russia have refused to sign a peace treaty until the issue is resolved.

Both countries claim to have international law on their side. Tokyo cites an 1855 friendship treaty in which Russia recognized the islands as Japanese, while Moscow insists that Japan relinquished sovereignty under the terms of the Potsdam and Yalta agreements.

About 8,000 of the 17,000 Japanese who fled the islands in the months after the war are still alive, with an average age of 75. They have since been replaced by about 16,000 Russian citizens.

Hirotoshi Kawata was just 11 years old when the Soviet army landed on Taraku, a tiny island off Habomai, where the 1,500 residents made a living from fishing and kelp cultivation.

“We were one big family,” he said. “We never expected the Soviets to invade our island. They came into our homes to search for American and Japanese soldiers and weapons. When they couldn’t find any, they took our belongings — matches, sake and watches — anything they could lay their hands on.”

Fearing for their safety, Kawata’s family decided to flee two months after the invasion and, like many other displaced islanders, settled in Nemuro on Hokkaido’s eastern coast.

He has since made just three short visits to Taraku, and always accompanied by Russian officials. “There are no civilians there now, only security guards,” he said. “My house is gone. All I found was the gravestone of our old neighbor.”

Earlier this month the dispute flared up again after Russia detained the crew of a Japanese fishing boat for allegedly intruding into its exclusive economic zone.

The 10 crew members were among an estimated 10,000 Japanese fisherman to have been detained since the end of the war. In 2006, bilateral tensions heightened after a Russian patrol opened fire on a Japanese crab boat, killing a 35-year-old fisherman.

In the most recent incident, the fishermen were finally allowed to return home, but only after their employer paid the Russian authorities 14 million yen (about $151,000).

On the same day, another anxious standoff ensued when Japanese officials on an aid mission were sent home after refusing an unprecedented request to submit immigration cards. Under a 1992 agreement, Russia is supposed to waive visas for Japanese officials and former residents returning to visit the graves of their ancestors.

While Aso and Medvedev may be able to settle the documentation row, few expect them to make much progress on one of the Pacific War’s bitterest legacies.

The territorial dispute is, after all, about much more than rich fishing grounds and a proximity to Russian oil and gas fields. At stake is nothing less than national pride.

No Japanese leader, and certainly not one with Aso’s nationalist credentials, can afford to make concessions and risk the domestic political fallout that would inevitably follow.

More than a decade ago Boris Yeltsin and Ryutaro Hashimoto tried, and failed, to resolve the dispute. A 2001 proposal by the then-President Vladimir Putin to return two of the islands went nowhere.

And even the slightest hint of capitulation by Japan could send the wrong message to other countries with which it is embroiled in territorial spats: Taiwan, South Korea and, crucially, China.

Describing Russia as “an important neighbor for building peace and stability,” Aso last week vowed to resolve the sovereignty dispute at a rally on Feb. 7 — the anniversary of the 1885 treaty and designated as Northern Territories Day in Japan.

He added: “I want to solve the issue of retrieving the four islands and sign a piece treaty.”

That they are meeting at all is a cause for optimism, but given the abject failure of previous attempts to decide the islands’ fate, Kawata faces a long wait before he is finally allowed to live on the windswept little island he once called home.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t look out across the sea and tell myself never to give up,” he said. “The day the islands are returned will be the day I finally forgive the Russians for what they did to me and my family.”


Other GlobalPost dispatches from Japan and Russia:

Weak economics and aging demographics trigger a surge in elderly crime.

A chilly visit to Moscow.

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