Banishing ghosts of the Kuriles quarrel: Terry McCarthy, on the island of Kunashiri, found that the folklore which has fuelled suspicion between Japanese and Russian is finally being overcome

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JAPANESE ghosts are said to roam the Kurile Islands. Bleak, isolated and shrouded in mist for most of the year, the imagination wanders easily across a territory merely scratched by civilisation. Mountain peaks emerge from clouds without warning, only to disappear as the weather comes down again. Bears roam the forests, sometimes attacking humans. At the end of the day, there is little else to do but sit around drinking vodka and telling stories. The nights are long.

Igor, a young Russian soldier from northern Siberia who has served nearly two years on the Kuriles, says he does not really believe in ghosts. 'But many things happen here which are hard to explain.'

There is the Japanese railway on Kunashiri, for example. Built before the last war by the Japanese who then lived on the island, it fell into disuse when the Russians moved in from 1945, because Russian trains have a larger wheel gauge. 'But parts of the steel track are still shiny, despite all the humidity. And sometimes when we are on patrol in the forest at night, it seems like we can hear trains moving. The first time I heard this I was very scared.'

From 1948, when Stalin expelled the last of the 17,000 Japanese who had lived on the Kuriles, until two years ago when Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet president, began to make positive sounds about resolving the Kuriles dispute, the Russians on the islands and their Japanese neighbours only a handful of miles away across the Nemuro Straits, lived in mutual fear and ignorance of each others' lives.

The Russians were fed on stories of Japan's wartime atrocities, while the Japanese were led to believe that the heartless Communist usurpers of the islands were desecrating the graves of their ancestors.

But since 1990 the worst of these mutual suspicions have begun to disappear, as more information is exchanged between the two peoples. The process has been accelerated by an agreement to allow visa-free visits between the Kuriles and the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido for Russians and former Japanese residents. The first such visit was in April this year, and the human contact was a welcome surprise for both sides.

'Until two years ago, I was absolutely against the return of the islands to Japan,' said Anatoly Shuliatev, 60, a teacher who has lived on the island of Shikotan since 1953. 'But after meeting some Japanese, I told them I couldn't see any difference between them and me. They say their relatives are buried here, but my children were born here and my wife is buried here - now more Russians are buried here than Japanese.'

Mr Shuliatev said the islands could be shared between Russia and Japan, although he is still against giving sovereignty to the Japanese.

Frictions are still there - mostly over fish poaching. Yevgeny Gert, who is in charge of protecting the islands' rich fisheries, said he had personally caught 40 high-powered Japanese boats in the last three years. The Russians fine the Japanese, sometimes confiscate their boats, and sometimes the captain goes to prison for one or two years.

'But they keep coming back, because it is so profitable. Some have had two or even three prison terms. They always try to bribe me with money, but I say work is work,' said Mr Shuliatev.

Ghost stories and poaching notwithstanding, there is one place where the Russians and the Japanese co-exist peacefully. Just outside Yuzhno Kurilsk, the capital of Kunashiri island, is a small graveyard, ringed with yew trees. Here are Japanese tombstones from 50 years ago alongside more recent Russian graves. 'The Japanese chose a good place with plenty of sand to dig graves,' said German Potatov, a lawyer. 'So the Russians joined them.'

(Photograph omitted)