Putin’s war in Ukraine has opened a 76-year wound for Japan. This time he is unwilling to appease Russia
In the final days of World War II, Chuhei Yamamoto gathered alongside dozens of other villagers to take one last photo together.
Residents of Etorofu Island, located just north of Japan’s main islands, had been spared the worst of the conflict due to their remote location.
But now the Soviet army was advancing rapidly and the community was gripped with fear and uncertainty.
Weeks earlier, Chuhei’s father had been killed in a US airstrike as he traveled to nearby Hokkaido to replenish dwindling stocks.
“The villagers were ready to die rather than surrender,” he recalls.
“That’s why we all took a picture together in front of the government building.”
For most of World War II, Japan and the Soviet Union were not adversaries, signing a neutrality agreement in 1941.
But in August 1945, the Soviet Union saw an opportunity to attack a crippled and nearly defeated Japan.
Moscow violated the neutrality pact and attacked Japanese positions, taking territory even after Tokyo announced its intention to surrender.
Four islands were seized and never returned: Etorofu, Kunashiri, Habomai and Shikotan.
“We were kicked out,” Mr. Yamamoto said.
Now, decades later, the islands are again embroiled in a conflict, but thousands of miles away: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Used as a pawn by Moscow in the face of Japanese sanctions, Mr. Yamamoto agreed never to see his homeland again.
“When I see Ukrainians suffering and fleeing to Poland, I feel like it’s similar to what we experienced,” he said.
“It’s worse than what we’ve been through.
“I have no words.”
Japan tried to woo Putin to hand over the islands
Japan and Russia never signed a peace treaty after World War II, with the return of the islands remaining a sticking point.
For Japan, the land is an integral part of their territory, while Russia considers it legitimate war booty and of strategic importance for access to the Pacific Ocean.
When Russia invaded Ukraine this year, there were doubts that Japan would react strongly, fearing it would undermine any hope of reclaiming the islands.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried to establish a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, signaling that Japan would be happy with only two of the four islands under a formal peace deal.
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Japan was relatively quiet. The tactic ultimately failed.
“[Mr Abe] put it all in there,” said James Brown, an expert on Russian-Japanese relations at Temple University in Tokyo.
“He met Putin 27 times, he invited him to his hometown, he even tried to give him a pet dog.
“And yet Russia’s position, instead of softening, has actually hardened.”
Mr Abe’s successor as prime minister, Fumio Kishida, pleasantly surprised many observers when he took a very different approach to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
He condemned Moscow’s actions, imposed a series of sanctions alongside other G7 countries, expelled Russian diplomatic staff and gave his support to Ukraine.
“It is important to make it clear that the costs will be high for action that violates international law,” Kishida said shortly after the invasion began.
As expected, Russia responded by announcing that it would no longer pursue peace talks with Japan, and a program allowing visa-free travel for former residents of the island was suspended.
Dr Brown thinks Russia was never likely to return the islands to Japan.
“President Putin is ready to invade a neighboring country,” he said.
“It doesn’t really fit the idea that he would be willing to voluntarily transfer territory to an American ally.”
The move also demonstrated a stronger commitment to human rights, which Mr Kishida had spoken about before, Dr Brown said.
“[Fumio Kishida] does not share Abe’s enthusiasm for relations with Putin’s Russia,” he said.
“He obviously decided there was not much to lose because the territorial issue was going nowhere.”
“They invaded their brother’s country with tanks and guns”
Despite a campaign by former residents to see the islands returned, Chuhei Yamamoto believed his homeland was out of reach long before the peace talks were suspended.
When the Soviets arrived, residents were forced to share their homes with Russian officers, their property was snatched on a whim, and anyone over the age of 17 was subjected to forced labor.
Food was scarce, but the occupants didn’t care, Yamamoto said.
After two years, the residents were deported after refusing to adopt Soviet citizenship.
Decades later, Mr. Yamamoto and other former residents were finally able to see their home island again in the dying days of the Soviet Union.
“Even though it was my homeland, it was like someone else’s country,” he said.
Russia has been waging war games on the islands in recent weeks and fired a cruise missile from a submarine into the Sea of Japan as a show of force.
Tokyo has, for the first time since 2003, called Russia’s grip on the islands an “illegal occupation”.
Although relations between Russia and Japan are at an all-time low, Yamamoto supports Japan’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“They invaded their brother’s country with tanks and guns,” Yamamoto said.
“It’s unthinkable as human beings.”