The Southern Kurils are three islands and a cluster of rocky outcrops that lie off the north-east coast of Hokkaido. The Japanese collectively refer to them as the Northern Territories. At the start of the Second World War the entire Kuril chain as far as Kamchatka belonged to Japan however in August and September 1945 the Soviet Union swept down the chain, imprisoning the Japanese soldiers and a few years later repatriating all the Japanese civilian residents. Today, the Japanese government claims the Southern Kurils (Northern Territories) but they remain de facto part of the Russian Federation, falling under the administrative jurisdiction of Sakhalin region. As both sides tirelessly assert their rights to the islands according to geography, first-discovery, development, and international law, the dispute remains as far as ever from being solved. This unresolved territorial dispute has so far prevented both sides signing a post-war peace treaty.
Most Russian visitors to Japan, and Japanese visitors to Russia, require a visa. However, for the Russian residents and former Japanese residents of these wind-swept, fog-bound and disputed islands off the coast of Hokkaido, an unusual status prevails. Almost nine thousand Japanese have visited the Southern Kuril Islands, and some seven thousand Russians who live there have travelled to Japan on the visa-free exchange programme existing between the two countries since 1992. For the Japanese, the process of regularly visiting and tending ancestral graves on the islands became possible and the Japanese guests were also invited into Russian homes and were able to introduce Japanese culture to the local residents. Japanese humanitarian assistance also became an important part of the visa-free programme, particularly after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the island’s infrastructure in 1994.
The official aim of the exchange programme is to promote mutual understanding and friendship between the Russian and Japanese participants, and reflecting on its successes in 2005 the then Sakhalin Governor, Ivan Malakhov, explained that it had permitted an ‘increasing number of citizens of both countries to meet with the habits, culture and way of life of their neighbours and in this way they further the development of friendship and good neighbourly relations’. Many Kuril islanders participating in the exchange also relish the chance to visit Japan and stock up on consumer goods and food products which are usually cheaper and more available than on the islands themselves. As one commentator has summarised, there is no doubt that the visa-less exchange programme contributed to a breakdown of outdated stereotypes and increased mutual understanding amongst its participants – now the participants on the programme ‘invite each other into their homes as friends, not enemies’ which is a remarkable achievement when a few years earlier this was one of the front lines of the Cold War.
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* Published in the Second Issue of Political Reflection Magazine (PR).