Submerged boats lie in a bay at Yuzhno-kurilsk settlement on Kunashir, part of a disputed chain of islands known as the Southern Kuriles in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, June 20, 2008. Four islands of this sparsely populated chain in the Pacific were seized by the Soviet Union after it declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945. The dispute has prevented Russia and Japan from signing a peace treaty ending World War Two and has overshadowed relations for more than 60 years. Most people in the islands, close to oil and gas production regions of Russia, depend on fishing for their livelihood. REUTERS/Yuri Maltsev (RUSSIA) - RTX76R5
Partly submerged boats in a bay at Yuzhno-Kurilsk on Kunashir, one of the disputed Kuril islands © Reuters

Hiroshi Tokuno was walking to school with his brother when two naval destroyers slid into the bay. It was September 1 1945. Two weeks had passed since the voice of Emperor Hirohito had come over a crackling radio and the islanders of Shikotan, far to the north of Tokyo, heard the unimaginable: that Japan had surrendered, the second world war was lost.

The 11-year-old was terrified; he thought the US had arrived. Shikotan was abuzz with rumours about the vengeful Americans. “But then I saw the red flag with the hammer and sickle and I realised it was not the Americans, it was the Russians, it was the Soviet Union,” says Mr Tokuno.

Kuril Islands map

For three years, the Russians and Japanese lived together uneasily until a ship arrived to gather around 18,000 inhabitants and expel them to the Japanese mainland. Freezing and starving on the two-month journey via Sakhalin, Mr Tokuno’s baby niece died, but he made it to the mainland.

Since then he has dreamt of a return — and now he senses a final chance.

On Thursday, Shinzo Abe will hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a resort near Nagato, the Japanese prime minister’s home town. The two men will try to end a territorial dispute that has prevented the two neighbours — both challenged by the rise of China — from ever signing a peace treaty after the second world war.

Analysts disparage the odds of a deal that would rewire the geopolitics of East Asia. Russian public opinion, in particular, is vehemently against surrendering an inch of territory. But a rare combination of strong leaders in Moscow and Tokyo, strategic interest on both sides and a considerable softening of Japan’s demands means a settlement is at least conceivable for the first time in decades.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meets with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, right, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, Dec. 2, 2016. Putin is to travel to Japan later this month to meet the Japanese prime minister and discuss a territorial dispute over the southern Kuril islands which keeps the two countries from signing a peace treaty formally ending their World War II hostilities. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, pool)
Japanese officials met Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, in St Petersburg earlier this month. Mr Putin meets Shinzo Abe in Japan on December 15 © AP

“In my heart I’ve [always] wanted to return home, and that hope is still not extinguished,” says Mr Tokuno, one of about 6,000 of those expelled who are still alive. “In 10 or 20 years all of the former islanders will be dead. This is our final chance.”

Impeding relations

Mr Tokuno’s fate was set when those destroyers dropped anchor in 1945, but the dispute is rooted in events that took place 90 years earlier, when Russia and Japan divided up the 56 islands of the Kuril chain in the Treaty of Shimoda. The four southernmost islands — Iturup (Etorofu in Japanese), Kunashir (Kunashiri), Shikotan and the Habomai group — went to Japan. The rest initially went to Russia, although later treaties awarded them to Tokyo.

At Yalta in 1945, a summit of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin agreed that the Soviet Union would be given all the Kuril Islands at the end of the war. But Tokyo maintained that the southernmost four are part of Japanese territory. It has persisted with the claim ever since, which has become a totemic issue for Japanese nationalists and a bar to good relations with Moscow.

The chances of a deal rest on a complex blend of political, military, economic and strategic calculations — not to mention the personalities of the two leaders. Mr Abe is a conservative nationalist whose foreign minister father tried and failed to settle the dispute, while Mr Putin is a strongman whose project is to restore Russia’s strength and influence using every tool of realpolitik to hand.

Across the Nemuro Strait that separates the islands from the Japanese mainland, some Shikotan residents believe a compromise can be struck. One of them is Igor Tomason, a Russian fisherman-turned soldier and grocery store owner who has struck up an unlikely friendship with Mr Tokuno.

Mr Tomason is the son of one of the 5,000 people Moscow shipped in from all over the Soviet Union after 1945 to replace the Japanese.

Big Read feature by Kathrin Hille - Kuril Islands - Pacific coast of Shikotan
Shikotan island, one of the disputed Kuril group

“Giving the islands away just like that is impossible — we don’t even give cookies away in our shop,” says Mr Tomason, who was born in the same village as Mr Tokuno 30 years after the Japanese man was deported. “But we are civilised people. If it is explained clearly to people on both sides, of course it can be done. It just needs to be done softly.”

Such feelings are not unusual on Shikotan. “Let them give Shikotan to the Japanese, maybe they can make things work here,” says Elvira, a single mother of two who works at a local kindergarten during the day and in a bakery at night. “Look at this rotten place. There are no proper jobs, no flats, no infrastructure. When the Japanese take over, at least there will be money.”

More than 7,000km from Moscow, Shikotan houses just 2,000 of the 10,000 people who now live on the Kuril Islands claimed by Japan. Apart from fishing, the military presence is the only thing that holds up the economy. Tourism has been stunted by Russian travel restrictions.

But the cynicism seen on Shikotan is rare on the other islands. “Iturup, Kunashir and Shikotan are like three separate countries — the weather is the only thing we have in common,” says Sergei Kiselyov, editor of the only local newspaper. 

KUNASHIR, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 3: Japanese family members shown in a file photo dated 03 September 1989 praying at a Japanese cemetery in Kunashir, part of the Kuril chain, Russian islands in the Pacific between S Kamchatka and NE Hokkaido, Japan. Russia signalled 20 April that it had no plans to abandon sovereignty over the Kuril islands, despite appeals at a Russian-Japanese weekend summit for a solution for the disputed territory. The dispute has blocked the signing of a peace treaty between Russia and Japan, and both leaders called at their informal summit for a solution to the row over the four small islands, which were taken by Soviet forces in the last days of World War II but have been claimed by Tokyo ever since. (Photo credit should read JUNJI KUROKAWA/AFP/Getty Images)
Family members at the Japanese cemetery in Kunashir in 1989 © AFP

Iturup benefits from investments from Gidrostroy, a Russian conglomerate, while Kunashir has new roads, a school and housing under a government programme. “All of Kunashir is one big construction site now, and our economy is growing,” says Konstantin Butakov, the local mayor.

In Kunashir, the talks between Moscow and Tokyo have rattled people. “I think Putin may really hand over the small islands,” says Dmitry Rudomin, a 28-year-old dentist. “If that happens, everyone will leave. What future can there be for us if this becomes Japan’s?”

On the other side of the strait, local people are eager for a deal, and former islanders like Mr Tokuno have greatly softened their demands. 

“For the former islanders, if it’s one island, or two islands — they just want it soon. They want to be able to go freely to their birthplace and visit their family graves. And they want to be able to fish,” says Muneo Suzuki, a politician who has spent his career pushing for a deal.

Search for a settlement

The bigger political problem is national sentiment. Opinion polls show that the Russian public considers holding on to the islands far more important than signing a peace treaty with Japan, but analysts believe that gap can be bridged. One poll this summer showed 71 per cent of Russians were opposed to returning Shikotan and Habomai, the two smallest islands, which the Soviet Union agreed in principle to hand over in a 1956 joint declaration. Although high, that is the lowest level of opposition recorded since 1998. 

KURIL ISLANDS, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 6: Soldiers of the Russian frontier guard carry out routine beach patrol on one of the Kuril Islands, Russia 06 September, 1992. These disputed islands, north of Hokkaido, Japan, will come under the microscope early next week when Russian President Boris Yeltsin visits Japan to discuss the status of the islands which have been occupied by the former USSR since the end of the Second World War. (Photo credit should read Vareriy KISELEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian soldiers on patrol in the Kuril Islands in1992 © AFP

“If Putin were to give away all four islands, there would be big trouble, but if you talk only about Shikotan and Habomai, he could probably afford it,” says Dmitry Streltsov, a Japan expert at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He adds that Mr Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea has strengthened his credentials at home. “If any Russian leader can afford compromise with Japan on this, it is Putin.”

In Japan, Mr Abe has to wrestle with nationalists for whom it is four islands or nothing, but coming from that faction himself means he can afford to defy it. The country at large is hungry for a settlement: only 25 per cent of Japanese now demand all four islands be returned at once. “Mr Abe has to get Habomai and Shikotan at a minimum, then he needs some ‘plus alpha’ to satisfy wider opinion. The question is: what is that plus alpha?” says one adviser close to the prime minister.

While both men have to satisfy domestic audiences, their strategic calculation is not about each other, but rather about Beijing and Washington. Japan wants to move its military south to meet a perceived threat from China; its nightmare is that the relationship between Moscow and Beijing turns into a close alliance, squeezing Japan from all directions. Mr Abe wants Russia’s friendship, or at least its calm neutrality.

The Russian president prides himself on having reached border agreements with big neighbours, including China and Kazakhstan. Japan, from the Kremlin’s perspective, is the last piece of the puzzle of ensuring security on Russia’s borders following a turbulent century marked by revolution, the second world war and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Big Read feature by Kathrin Hille - Kuril Islands - Shikotan's Japanese-era lighthouse, now used by the Russian military
Shikotan's Japanese-era lighthouse, now used by the Russian military

It also offers the chance to drive a wedge between US allies that backed sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine. “I think Russia’s strategy is to try to use Japan as a lever for its conversation with the west, or to use it as a loophole in the sanctions,” Mr Streltsov says.

Tokyo insists that is not open to debate. “We will not contravene sanctions at all,” says Hiroshige Seko, Japan’s minister for economic co-operation with Russia. But Mr Abe could be sorely tempted if a Kurils deal is on the table.

Japan has less invested in Russia than in Belgium or New Zealand. Its trade goes little further than oil and gas imports but Russian officials say Mr Abe has made a shrewd pitch, proposing economic co-operation with Moscow in areas including healthcare, education and urban renewal. “Mr Abe has very good advisers,” says one Russian diplomat. “They are targeting our neuralgic points.” Japanese money and technology could help Russia secure the vast, underpopulated territories near China.

Geopolitical factors

It will not be local economic needs that determine Mr Putin’s decision. Russia has boosted its military presence on the islands. Dilapidated bases are being modernised and the number of military personnel in the archipelago has increased. Moscow announced last month that it was deploying its newest-generation Bal and Bastion anti-ship missiles on the Kurils.

There is no contradiction for most Russians. They view the island chain as a gateway to the Pacific for Russia’s submarine fleet and thus a potential staging post for conflict with the US. “This is not just between Russia and Japan,” says Yuri Kartashyov, a worker at the Kurils national park on Kunashir. “The other factor to consider is America. Unless Japan gives up its alliance with the US, nobody will give an inch of land here to Japan ever.” 

These concerns will shape a potential deal. Under any agreement Habomai and Shikotan would surely return to Japan, as Russia agreed in 1956. Those two islands make up only 7 per cent of the disputed land mass, but such a deal would also give Japan 38 per cent of the ocean rights, and the area’s fisheries are more valuable than its land. 

 Japan Russia trade

Japan would like more territory on Iturup and Kunashir, but that seems impossible. Another mooted idea is joint sovereignty or administration. Russia favours some kind of special economic zone over all four islands and fears Japan is deluding itself by seeking ambiguity over future sovereignty. “From our end, that is not on offer,” says a Russian regional official. “When we talk about management, we are talking about the economy.”

With so many factors at play, the odds that Mr Tokuno’s dream of a return will come true on Thursday look slim. “There is a 20 per cent chance that they will go back to the 1956 declaration,” says Mr Streltsov. “A year ago, it was 2 per cent.” But Mr Abe and Mr Putin have years in office yet. If they can make progress at the summit, an opportunity remains.

Sitting at a table in his Shikotan shop where customers can have tea and snacks, Mr Tomason points out of the window across the bay: “Look, that’s where Hiroshi Tokuno’s house used to be.” On the grassy clifftop plateau over the harbour stand rows of new three-storey blue and white houses. “You can’t go there any more because that’s where the soldiers’ quarters are now,” he says. “It’s long gone anyway.”

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