Why Japan’s prime minister pines for four desolate islands

Feb 06, 2019

AS ALWAYS IN early February, ice floes are starting to clog the strait between Nemuro, a fishing port in northern Japan, and Kunashiri, a volcanic island hanging on the horizon. And as always on February 7th, Nemuro’s residents clogged a local cultural centre to mark “Northern Territories Day”, when they pine publicly for Kunashiri and three other nearby islands—the Northern Territories—sundered from Japan in the final days of the second world war.

In 1945, two days after America bombed Hiroshima, Joseph Stalin declared war on Japan and Soviet troops attacked Japanese-held territory. They grabbed the southern Kuril islands, even though Russia had acknowledged them as Japanese since 1855. For two years the islanders lived alongside the occupiers. A touching photograph in an exhibition in Nemuro shows Russians and Japanese enjoying a game of go. Japanese women helped deliver Russian babies. Then, suddenly, the fraternising was...

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