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Home, to Karafuto
February 22, 2006 | More from Dan Hilton
Dan Hilton is a freelance writer and photojournalist from Victoria, BC now living in Sapporo, Japan. He is a regular contributor to several Japanese publications and his articles about politics, culture, travel, and daily life in Japan have appeared in magazines and newspapers in Canada, Japan, and the United States.
It's a five-hour journey that spans 60 years. Standing on the deck of the Eins Soya, a sparkling white Japanese passenger ship marked with conspicuous orange and red stripes, I listen as seventy-year old Kanari Yoshikatsu explains that this is no simple vacation. “We're coming home,” he says, gazing out over the Okhotsk Sea towards Russia's Sakhalin Island.
Sakhalin Island is a rugged Russian outpost that cuts southward towards Japan like a Samurai sword, stopping just 40 kilometres from the tip of Hokkaido. A former czarist penal colony, Sakhalin Island – known as Karafuto in Japan – might seem like an unlikely vacation spot for elderly Japanese tourists, and it is. An estimated five million Japanese visit Hokkaido each year, but only about five thousand make short trip from there to Sakhalin. But those who do aren't on vacation – they're on a journey.
Russian students returning home to Sakhalin wave goodbye to Wakkanai, Japan
Judging by the melancholy tone on board the ship, for many Japanese it's not an easy journey to make. Elderly Japanese men and women, some accompanied by their adult children, sit quietly in groups or stare out over the expanse of ocean. There is little conversation and less laughter on board, and those who speak do so in a pensive tone. The past, all six decades of it, hangs in the air.
As he recalls his family's flight from Soviet troops in August, 1945, Yoshikatsu's eyes grow misty. Over several cigarettes, he tells how thousands of Japanese were killed, disappeared, or taken to Siberian labour camps. “Many Japanese families left everything behind, and most didn't make it back to Japan,” he explains. “Our family was very lucky.”
Ownership of the narrow, 948-km-long island has been long in dispute. In 1845, Japan unilaterally declared sovereignty over Sakhalin but ceded the northern half to Russia in the Treaty of Shimoda ten years later.
Japan held the southern half of the island until the 1875 Treaty of Saint Petersburg, when it was traded back to Russia in exchange for the nearby Kurile islands. Then in 1905, with the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese war, both countries signed the Treaty of Portsmouth which saw the southern part of the island return to Japanese control, where it remained until the closing days of the Second World War.
Emboldened by Imperial Japan's impending defeat, Soviet troops disregarded a non-aggression pact signed with Japan and advanced on southern Sakhalin in 1945. After a fierce resistance, the vastly outnumbered Japanese defenders surrendered and all of Sakhalin became Russian territory once again, one hundred years after Japan first claimed the island as its own.
Many Russians view the partition of Sakhalin as a temporary and embarrassing occupation by a foreign power; Japanese, in contrast, consider it a fair division of a long-disputed territory. Today the dispute continues with many in Japan calling for the return of both the Kurile Islands and southern Sakhalin, which is unlikely.
Russia has suggested it might be willing to return half of the Kurile islands, but this falls far short of appeasing those Japanese who long to see Sakhalin reunited with Japan. “Sakhalin is much closer to Japan than Moscow, and many people in Japan are talking about this possibility to end the dispute.” explains Yoshikatsu. “But this will probably never happen. Russians are very proud of their past, and of Sakhalin.”

Today, the dispute over ownership of Sakhalin Island has less to do with pride, patriotism, than oil, fishing, and gas. Sakhalin is home to vast offshore energy reserves that are only now being exploited, and the waters surrounding Sakhalin teem with dozens of species of sea creatures, many caught by Russian fishermen and sold in Japanese ports.

Because of its growing energy-economic importance, Sakhalin has changed much in the post-Soviet period. Just over a decade ago, residents stood in long lines for meager rations handed out at poorly stocked government grocery stores, and foreign visitors weren't permitted on the island.
Today, in Sakhalin's capital city, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, new hotels, shopping centres, and restaurants stand alongside decrepit concrete apartment buildings and crumbling wooden cottages. Thousands of tourists visit Sakhalin every year, and the island has attracted more foreign investment than any other region in Russia.
But despite the current pace of change and the past six decades of Russian administration, Japan's history remains etched on Sakhalin Island. Japanese bunkers can still be found on remote beaches, the narrow-gauge railway built by the Japanese army is still in use today, and Japanese buildings still stand in the capital.
Much of Sakhalin's past also remains deeply etched in the memories of the Japanese who were born here and still call it home. “I come to remember the past, but also to help build something for the next generation,” says Yoshikatsu. Although his family lost everything fleeing the Red Army in 1945, he doesn't hold any historical grudges.
“Many of my friends are Russian,” he says. “In Soviet times, they were people suffering under a terrible system, and that system did terrible things. But that system is gone, and today we can focus on the future.”
He's been doing just that. In 2000, together with a partner, he established a Japanese-language school in Yuzhno for Russian students of all ages. “We're trying to build bridges, with our homeland, with Russians, and with our past. Language is the best way for us to do that,” he explains.
It's unlikely the Japanese and Russian governments will ever build a bridge between Hokkaido and Sakhalin, but in the meantime, people like Yoshikatsu are building bridges between two cultures and countries that may just last.

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