Ben Hills

Akiko Iwasaki kneels in prayer beside the lichen- covered headstone, a smooth grey boulder cast up by the sea half a century ago and inscribed in rough-hewn characters with the names of her ancestors.

She unpacks bags of lollies; she arranges a posy of plastic daffodils; she drenches the rock with a flask of water, brought from across the sea. Fragrant smoke from smouldering sticks of incense drifts up into the warm spring air.

“All these years I have felt as though there was something stuck in my throat,” she gasps, the tears coursing down her cheeks. “Now it is gone … now I feel at peace.”

It is 45 years since Iwasaki was able to worship at the grave of her grandparents and her younger sister; 45 years since the Soviet soldiers banged on the door one morning and told her family to pack their bags and get out. She was just 19 years old, the third generation of her family to live on this small island in the remote and stormy reaches of the North-West Pacific. And the last – the family farm, the livestock and the stream where they used to catch fat salmon were seized.

The Iwasaki family was on the last evacuation ship out of the island of Iturup in 1948, the last of the 16,500 Japanese residents of the Kurile Island chain to be rounded up and deported to Japan with only the clothes they stood up in and a 25 kg swag of belongings to show for generations of hard work. It is one of the most tragic, untold tales of ethnic cleansing, one which still poisons relations between the world’s biggest country and its richest.

In their zeal to obliterate any clue that Japanese once lived here, Stalin’s soldiers looted the houses, pulled them apart for their timber, and burnt what they couldn’t use. En- tire villages marked on old Japanese maps no longer ex- ist – they are just fields of waving grass and panda bamboo.

The soldiers tore down the gravestones, smashing some for building material, and they dynamited the family tombs. Only last year, with the signing of an agreement to allow former residents to return to the islands on no-visa visits, did the local authorities search out the surviving gravestones.

Akiko Iwasaki is one of the lucky ones. Only the day before she visited the grave, a gang of burly Russian labourers was busy re-erecting the Buddhist stones among the Orthodox double crosses and the atheist communist memorials in the little cemetery overlooking the town. The cement is still wet.

Of the town itself, which for 19 years was her home, nothing is as she remembers – not even the names. Shana has metamorphosed into the rather less euphonic Kurilsk, the snow-covered cone of the volcano which dominates the town is now, for some reason, named after Bogdan Khmelminsky, a Ukrainian statesman.

They can destroy the history. They can rewrite the geography. But they cannot wipe out the memories of the Iwasakis and their compatriots, driven from their homes half a century ago. “For me, the town is still Shana, the mountain is still Chiripo, and this is still my homeland … the Russians are thieves, they have taken our land and they should give it back,” says Iwasaki

“HIDEOUS … uninhabitable … dreary rocks destitute of verdure.” Thus wrote the famous French navigator Jean Francois de Galaup, Comte de La Perouse, who charted the Kuriles in the 18th century but didn’t deem it worthwhile to land and raise the tricolour. It’s easy to understand how he could get it so wrong.

At first glance this 1,000-kilometre chain of islands, linking the icy wastes of the Kamchatka Peninsula with Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, seems an ideal place in which to exile people – as Russia’s tsars once did. Na Krai Sveta, they called it, “the end of the earth”.

Geologically part of the Pacific “rim of fire”, the Kuriles are scattered along the fault line where the Pacific and Eurasian tectonic plates grind together, shaking them with an earthquake every two or three days, and occasionally devastating them with tsunamis, gigantic tidal waves up to 30 metres high.

The islands have 39 active volcanoes. On the backbreaking trip by four-wheel-drive Toyota from the Iturup airport, you traverse the foothills of the 1,500- metre Ivan the Terrible, still gushing superheated steam after an explosion four years ago that shook the earth and terrified residents 50 km away. A popular hit plays on the tape deck: “America – Stop Fooling Around -Give Us Back Alaska.”

“Very mild climate, really,” says our guide, Ivan Sanzharov, an economist working for the local administration. “In winter, it’s never below minus 12.”It is less than a month before midsummer, and snow lies beside the dirt track that passes for a road.

In area, the Kuriles cover 15,600 sq km – slightly smaller than the islands of Hawaii, but slightly larger, it should be pointed out, than another disputed cluster of rocks, the similarly desolate Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic where Margaret Thatcher sent in the gunboats in 1982.

Like the Falklands the Kuriles have a complex his-tory, with both sides bran- dishing yellowing parchments to advance their claims to sovereignty. The only neutral historian to have studied both cases is the British scholar John Stephen. In The Kuril Islands (Oxford University Press), Stephen concludes that by the middle of the 17th century three countries had some sort of claim to the islands: the Dutch, who came looking for gold and first mapped the Kuriles; the Russian Cossacks who came in kayaks looking for “living gold”(the fur of the sable and sea otter) and who first explored them; and the Japanese, who had been writing about and trading with the islands for centuries.

This ignores the people who had the best historical claim of all to sovereignty: the original Ainu inhabitants, of whom (after the ravages of syphilis, smallpox and sake) nothing now remains bar a collection of stone axes and arrowheads and a few faded photographs in the museum in Kurilsk. The last full-blooded Kurile aborigine, a middle-aged woman, lives out her life in exile on Sakhalin, the great frozen island to the north.

In 1855, after skirmishes between Japanese and Russian settlers, the Treaty of Shimoda partitioned the Kuriles, giving Japan the four southern islands, and Russia the rest. These four islands are the key to the dispute still rumbling nearly 150 years later: Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, and the Habomai group, the most westerly of which would be close enough to walk to from Japan in half an hour if the winter floe ice were

thick enough.

The Soviets occupied the islands in August 1945 after the last battle of World War II left 3,000 men, mainly Russians, dead on the ice. At Yalta, Roosevelt agreed to return to Stalin what the Tsar had given away, in a session that lasted just 15 minutes. “Nobody would have them as a gift,”commented Newsweek at the time.

But now after slumbering for half a century – everywhere but in Japan – the issue of the Kuriles is back on the international agenda with a vengeance. The Japanese owned the islands for 90 years, and want them back. The Russians have held them for 48, and want to keep them.

Unless there is some sort of compromise, Japan says it is not going to”normalise relations” with Russia – code for finally signing a peace treaty after the longest technical state of hostilities in recent international history. Nor will it provide the tens of billions of dollars the world expects it to stump up for reconstructing the former Soviet economy.

So why, in the spring of post-Cold War detente, are the islands suddenly so important? What do Russia and Japan want with these four “dreary rocks”?

YOU SHOULD come here in summer time, in August.” The editor of Red Beacon, the voice of the Kuriles, Gennadiy Simonov, is sinking another shot of vodka and gesturing with a slice of brown bread thickly trowelled with a layer of glutinous red globes of caviar. Outside, at 10 o’clock at night, the sun is just setting behind the dilapidated wooden barracks which house most of the 2,000-odd residents of Kurilsk, Iturup’s ramshackle capital.

“The salmon come in their millions, so many that when they try to force their way up our streams, they create traffic jams and are crushed to death.”A laugh of general disbelief arises from the visitors seated around the table. “It is true,” he protests. “I have seen 100 tonnes of salmon killed in this way.”

What is indisputable is that the frigid, frightening waters of the Sea of Okhotsk, which lash the western shores of the Kuriles, are some of the richest fishing grounds on earth. Cod, tuna, mackerel, Kamchatka crabs a metre across and, above all, the mighty silver salmon of summer – last year, on Iturup alone, 25,000 tonnes were landed.

The fish are so abundant that at the huge cannery down the road, they slit open the salmon, empty out the caviar, and throw the rest away. The hospitable islanders embarrass visitors with gifts of sheaves of whole smoked salmon and three-litre jars of caviar which would sell for $300 or $400 in Tokyo.

On the drive from the airport, the Land Cruiser splashes along kilometres of spectacular black beaches holding millions of tonnes of mineral sands. The islands have deposits of sulphur and gold, and reservoirs of 29 different types of mineral water. Boiling thermal springs fill a battered concrete bath on the beach beside a rusty shipwreck and under the shadow of a snow-capped volcano – surely one of the most dramatic settings in the world for a spa resort.

Vladimir Kashpruk, chairman of the council respons-ible for the four central islands in the chain (not the same four that Japan claims) and a biologist, estimates that more than $2 billion of marine products alone could be fished out of the waters

of the Kuriles.

Fleets from Korea, Japan, Canada and as far away as Poland flock to take part in this marine gold rush. “But we do not see one cent of the royalties,”he grumbles. Although 600 violations of Kuriles territorial waters were detected last year, no arrests could be made because the coast guard has run out of fuel for its boats.

“We have the finest resources, but we do not have the infrastructure,” says Kashpruk. “Like everywhere in Russia, we need investment. From Japan, from Australia, from anywhere.” The bad news is that after 70 years of communism and five years of chaos, Iturup has no sealed roads, no deep-water port, an erratic power supply, and a military airstrip that is regularly shut by fog or crosswinds for up to 20 days on end.

The place is virtually bankrupt and reduced to pre- industrial barter, with the US dollar the only credible currency. The battered white Mazda station wagon we rode in was registered in Sapporo, Japan; Olga, the driver, explained that her ex-husband had traded it for some crabs when his fishing boat called in at a Japanese port.

Mikhail Bugayev, a Russian journalist who regularly travels through the islands, says now that the rouble has collapsed, the poverty is so chronic that “people can’t live, and they can’t leave – they can’t afford the air fare”.

Bugayev believes that the population of the islands – officially 30,000, of whom about half are military – is actually less than half of this. An abandoned military camp, derelict machine-gun posts, and the departure of most of the squadron of MiG-23s from the Iturup airport support his testimony. To add further misery, in April, the power station ran out of fuel, plunging the island into frigid darkness. The provincial governor on Sakhalin couldn’t help. Moscow didn’t reply to Vladimir Kashpruk’s urgent appeals. So he took the unprecedented step of begging the governor of the Japanese island of Hokkaido for help.

“The people of Iturup have no electricity. The power station has stopped working. We have no money to buy fuel … I ask you for urgent help for the people of Iturup. We need 50 million yen ($A625,000) to buy fuel, and our bank account number is …” said the telegram.

Six weeks later the Japanese Government did charter a Russian tanker to take fuel oil to the power stations on adjoining Kunashir and Shikotan islands- but nothing for Iturup.

“I am sure Japan is not going to help us,” says Kashpruk. “The Kuriles are just a playing card for the politicians, Japan’s as well as Russia’s.”

In fact, the Japanese Government has been doing its best to starve the Russians to the negotiating table. It declares that any investment in the disputed islands, by Japan or anyone else, is legally invalid. In the past few months it has moved to scare off a Taiwanese company which wanted to build a casino (complete with, of all things, a cock-fighting pit) and an Austrian company which thinks that what the Kuriles really needs is a golf course.

However, there are some encouraging signs. Boris Yeltsin, the first Russian leader to have visited the Kuriles, signed a decree last December declaring the islands a “Free Economic Zone” where foreign investment would be welcomed with tax breaks and other incentives.

Already there are signs that the ingenuity of Japan’s mighty trading houses is finding a way around the official sanctions.

Mysterious joint ventures are appearing with American and Korean frontmen. A trader is seized at the airport carrying 17 million yen in cash. An abandoned trading post on the uninhabited island of Urup is discovered to be the registered address of a Japanese-Russian joint venture company.

“If they are waiting for us to hand the islands over, then they will miss the boat,” says Kashpruk. “We would like Alaska returned, and Port Arthur, but it’s not going to happen, not in my lifetime. The Japanese can launch a war if they want – go ahead. Russia has never lost a war in its history.”

Kashpruk, in fact, won some local fame last year when he announced that he even opposed the “no visa” exchanges, and threatened to take up his rifle and personally shoot the first Japanese to land.

Fighting words, but what do the ordinary citizens of the Kuriles – not those with an eye on a political career in the new Russia – think of Japan’s claim to their homeland?

SHE FOLDS her arms across her ample bosom, up to her boots in cow dung. Cats, dogs, crowing cockerels and cages of grey rabbits scamper around. Sophia Sotnikova is your Russian earthmother from central casting.

She has been up until the wee small hours drinking vodka toasts over a banquet of chicken soup, sour cream, wild garlic and bottled berries and yarning with her homestay guests, some of Akiko Iwasaki’s companions, the group of former residents making their first visit back to Iturup since they were deported in the 1940s.

Sotnikova came here 32 years ago as a girl of 17 chasing an army boy who had been transferred to the islands. They married and have never left Iturup: her mother is buried here, her sons and daughters grew up here, now her grandchildren have been born here.

“It is my motherland, but it is their motherland, too, and I understand how they feel. Why can’t we all live together in peace – my friends say they are afraid the Japanese are racist and will treat them like second class-citizens, but the Russian Government treats us like no-class citizens, so what’s the difference?”

Officially, the people of both countries lay overwhelming claim to the islands. A poll last November showed that 87 per cent of Russians wanted to keep the Kuriles, and 84 per cent of Japanese thought they should be returned. In Japan, right-wing groups have erected huge billboards around the coast of Hokkaido demanding the return of the “Northern Territories”.

But only once have the people of the Kuriles themselves been asked the question. In April, in conjunction with Boris Yeltsin’s national referendum, the 1,500 people of Shikotan’s main town, Malokurilsk, were asked who they wanted to rule them … and 83 per cent said Japan.

Vladimir Kashpruk believes that the fishing folk of Shikotan were just trying to send a message to Moscow, and certainly none of the scores of Kuriles people we spoke to on a three-day visit – fishermen, farmers, labourers as well as officials – wanted to give up their “motherland”.

Says Kashpruk, “For months they have had electricity only three hours a day. The pay at the fish cannery is 4,000 roubles ($A6) a month. The State can only insist on patriotism if it provides people with the minimum conditions for life … if people cannot buy normal food because of their low wages, then who can blame them for wanting to try chopsticks.”

But the decision, of course, will not be made on the Kuriles. It will be made in the backrooms of Boris Yeltsin’s White House, eight time zones away, and in the drab, grey offices of Japan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry in Kasumigaseki which are considerably closer. In both Tokyo and Moscow there is a remarkable degree of consensus that it would be instant political death for either side to abandon its claim.

As if on cue, as I enter the office of a senior official of Gaimusho(Foreign Affairs) in Tokyo, a convoy of sound trucks flying Japanese Navy flags and blaring martial music pulls up three floors below and begins blasting out a stream of propaganda. “Don’t sell out the Northern Territories”is the theme.

The official smiles. What more does he need to say. “Any government that abandons Japan’s claim (for the return of the Kuriles) stands a good chance of being toppled,” he says. “Has the issue of the islands been delinked from the issue of aid for Russia? In spite of what you may have read, the answer is no.”

Next week, Yeltsin and Japan’s diminutive, ever-grinning Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, are due to sit face-to-face to discuss Japanese aid for rebuilding the Russian economy. “The islands will be on the table,” declares the official. “There cannot be any major bilateral assistance until this is settled and we (he quotes from a speech by Miyazawa) ‘eliminate this vestige of Stalinist expansionism’.” As for Yeltsin, “it would be his political death”, says Gennadiy Simonov, Red Beacon’s editor, bluntly.

Yeltsin’s new man in the Far East is Yvegeny Krasnoyarov, a former Sea of Okhotsk fishing boat skipper who in April was appointed governor of Sakhalin, the boomtown territory crawling with Texan oilmen which some say will be the next Alaska.

“Of course, we would like Japanese investment, or any other investment,”says Krasnoyarov. “But not at the price of the Kuriles. A change of sovereignty could lead to further wars. This is an issue which we can leave to our great-grandchildren in 50 or 100 years’ time.”

As for Akiko Iwasaki … well, she wouldn’t actually want to go back there to live, she confesses after her emotional reunion with her ancestors, even if the islands were given back to Japan. “I am too old, and there are no medical facilities,” she says.

She is happy that her host family has agreed to put an occasional bunch of fresh flowers on the grave.

The rest, she will leave to the politicians in Moscow and Tokyo.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 3 July 1993
Edition: Late
Section: Good Weekend
Sub section:
Page: 8
Word count: 3423
Photography: Mayu Kanamori; Philip Gordon / Fujifotos
MAP: Kurile Islands
Caption: 8 Illus:
A million miles from detente: Hokkaido is in clear view of Kunashir Island.
Opposite, Hokkaido’s port cities proclaim local sentiment.
Opposite below, Boris Yeltsin on Kunashir in 1990.
Below, Akiko Iwasaki, with her cousin and another ‘exile’, prays at her family’s grave. The Kuriles are coveted for the rich marine life: a fisherman snares a Kamchatka crab. Desolation and stark scenery belie the hotbed of diplomatic manoeuvring:
Top, rusted ships dot the islands’ rocky coastline;
Above, the volcano Cha-Cha soars above Kunashir.
Long-time resident Sophia Sotnikova empathises with the Japanese exiles.