Updated: 03/08/2014 01:36 | By Agence France-Presse

Ukraine crisis stirs Japan memories over disputed islands

Scenes of Russian troops in southern Ukraine are stirring up grim memories half a world away among Japanese islanders who were forced off their home by Soviet forces in the last days of World War II.


Ukraine crisis stirs Japan memories over disputed islands

Russian forces block access to the Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile military unit on the Cape of Fiolent in Sevastopol on March 7, 2014 - by Viktor Drachev

The two sides remain at odds over the sliver of an archipelago in Russia's far east and on Japan's northern border, with the nearly 70-year-old dispute long stalling a post-war peace treaty between Tokyo and Moscow, despite warming diplomatic and economic ties.

The Ukraine crisis has also created a big diplomatic headache for conservative Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he tries to reach a deal with President Vladimir Putin on the island dispute, while joining Western allies in condemning the deployment of Russian forces into the southeastern Crimea region.

The move evoked strong memories for Japanese people such as Kajiko Odajima.

"When I watch the Ukraine situation on TV, I don't feel this is someone else's trouble," said the 82-year-old, who once lived on one of the four disputed islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan which Moscow calls the Kurils.

"Victims are always the local people. I don't want anyone to repeat what we experienced."

Odajima recalls her shock when Soviet soldiers burst into her classroom and rounded up local Japanese people who had lived on the islands for generations. 

More than 17,000 were booted from their homes just days after Japan's 1945 surrender, as Russian forces seized the territory.

Some were immediately sent to mainland Japan while others were forced to work in Russian labour camps. Most never returned to the islands.

Among the deported who are still alive, numbering some 7,000, many still hold out hope for one day returning to their ancestral homeland. 

The feelings of estrangement remain raw in Japan, which marks February 7 as Northern Territories Day.

"I can't help but link our situation with what is happening to Crimea," said retired schoolteacher Isamu Nakata, 85, who now lives in Japan's northernmost Hokkaido, just south of the disputed territory.

"We have had hard time since then and I still hope to die on my home island. I have good feelings toward Russian people, but I can't get rid of my resentment toward the country."

- Seeds of conflict 'similar' to Crimea -

Links to the Crimea crisis are not total -- there has been no bloodshed so far or forced movement of the local populace and and politics surrounding Moscow's move are starkly different.

But experts in regional politics see parallels with the long-running territorial dispute that still colours Japan-Russia relations.

"The seeds of conflict in the Crimea issue are similar to that of the Northern Territories," said Shigeki Hakamada, emeritus professor at Tokyo's Aoyama Gakuin University.

Hakamada, a leading expert on modern Russian politics, said both conflicts underscore Moscow's bid to expand its sphere of influence along its vast borders.

"Putin will never compromise over the Ukraine issue as Ukraine is critically important for his goal" of expanding Moscow's influence, Hakamada said.

Japan has joined the United States and other allies in ramping up the pressure on Moscow, but the crisis has created a tricky balancing act for Abe, who has held multiple summits with Putin since coming to office in late 2012.

Abe was one of the few pro-Western leaders who attended the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi as many others stayed away amid disquiet over Moscow's anti-gay laws.

The Japanese leader has been pushing to expand the two countries economic ties -- as Tokyo finds itself embroiled in separate territorial disputes with China and South Korea -- but isolating Putin over Crimea threatens to derail sensitive talks for a deal in the islands' dispute.

"Prime Minister Abe is facing a dilemma," Hakamada said.

"On the one hand, he has to keep step with the West as a G7 member. On the other hand, he wants to maintain the Japan-Russia dialogue as Japan-China and Japan-South Korea relations are deadlocked."

That worries former islanders like schoolteacher Nakata who still holds out hope he could someday return to this birthplace.

"The current talks between Japan and Russia appear to be going well but I'm afraid that the Ukraine problem may derail that," he said.

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