Photo/IllutrationParticipants at a Feb. 7 rally in Nemuro, Hokkaido, seeking the return of the Northern Territories join in a collective shout of their demand. (Masafumi Kamimura)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Long-standing demands against Russia were softened into pleas for accelerated negotiations, while calls for peace replaced cries of “illegal occupation.”

A number of noticeable changes were seen at the government’s annual rally in Tokyo on Feb. 7 concerning the Japan-Russia dispute over the Northern Territories.

The toned-down version this year reflected the agreement reached by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin in November to speed up the pace of negotiations for a peace treaty based on the 1956 Joint Declaration.

Japan’s position had long been to seek the return of all four of the disputed islands that make up the Northern Territories off eastern Hokkaido. The isles were seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II.

Although Abe has not publicly acknowledged a switch in negotiating strategy, basing the negotiations on the 1956 document calls for the initial return of just two of the territories--the Habomai islets and Shikotan--after a peace treaty has been signed.

Most participants at the rally held at the National Theater in Tokyo’s Hayabusa-cho district appeared resigned to go along with the new government posture.

The common practice had been to approve an appeal at the end of the rally. Unlike past documents, this year’s appeal did not state that the four islands “were being illegally occupied” by Russia.

Sources said the associations of former residents of the Northern Territories that co-organized the rally played a key role in creating this year’s appeal.

“A neutral and comprehensive judgment was made with the aim of providing support for the signing of a peace treaty,” one source said about the wording.

The toning down was an attempt to avoid antagonizing Russian officials, who have increasingly said in recent months that Russia has sovereignty over the four islands.

Russian officials have even shown resistance to referring to the islands as the Northern Territories. Their preferred name is the Southern Kurile islands.

The rally in Tokyo attracted about 1,800 participants, about 20 percent more than in past years, reflecting growing hopes for some sort of peace treaty based on the November agreement.

One speaker at the rally raised doubts about the change in negotiating stance to focus first on the return of Habomai and Shikotan.

“I cannot but feel that there has been a weakening of the message to seek the return of the four islands,” said Kimio Waki, 78, who chairs the league of former residents of the Chishima and Habomai islands.

However, his comment drew only scattered applause.

A rally held in Nemuro, Hokkaido, which has long been the main base for calling for the return of the Northern Territories, followed the trend of Tokyo.

In past rallies in Nemuro, participants wore headbands that said, “Return the Northern Territories.”

The headbands this year only said, “Seek an early signing of a Japan-Russia peace treaty!”

Also absent this year were collective shouts of “the Northern Territories are Japan’s territory.”

Former residents on the disputed islands were not in total agreement, but most seemed to accept the government’s new stance on hopes of seeing a breakthrough during their lifetimes.

Tsuruyuki Hansaku, 76, who was born on Shikotan and now operates a fishing company in Nemuro, said the return of only the two islands would still greatly expand Japan’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone in the Pacific.

“The possible resources we would be able to harvest, including seaweed, scallops and sea urchins, would increase by several hundreds of times,” Hansaku said.

He said he would support the government if it changed course to seek the return of two islands.

“We insisted on four islands until now, and not a single stone has been turned over,” he added.

Until he was 12, Kengo Uematsu, 83, lived on Etorofu, which, along with Kunashiri, would not be part of the early return package.

Uematsu said Nemuro’s economy would improve even with the return of only two islands.

While he felt some resistance to the change, he added, “I am now old, so part of me has all but given up hope.”

Tadaichi Takaoka, 83, of Rausu in Hokkaido, wants the government to stick with its original demand for all four islands.

Takaoka, who was born on one of the Habomai islets, said Kunashiri has special significance to all former islanders.

He has spent about 20 years talking about his experiences on the island and describing what happened when Soviet troops invaded.

At the end of World War II, 17,291 Japanese were forced to leave the four islands, and only one-third of that total came from Habomai and Shikotan.

“What does everyone think about the other two-thirds?” Takaoka asked. “I will continue to insist on the return of all four islands.”

(This article was written by Naoki Matsuyama, Yuka Takeshita and Masafumi Kamimura.)