KUNASHIRI ISLAND--When our ship approached this disputed island that has been a stumbling point in Japanese-Russian relations for more than 60 years, at first glance, it didn't look much different from any others.
We could see houses painted in blue or green, and there were several boats leaning on shore at the port, with many sea gulls perched on them.
But when we got into vehicles waiting for us and drove off, we saw the first signs that this island was slowly changing.
Our island visit lasted from July 29 to Aug. 1, and we were the fourth group of Japanese citizens this year to visit Kunashiri Island in the visa-free exchange program.
The members of the fourth group consisted of 65 people from throughout Japan, including teachers, education board members and junior and senior high school students.
We departed on a chartered ship from Nemuro in the easternmost part of Hokkaido. It took us four hours to make the voyage to Kunashiri Island, a distance of about 37 kilometers.
In 1992, Japanese citizens were allowed visa-free visits to the group of islands off eastern Hokkaido, which were seized by the former Soviet Union at the end of World War II and claimed by Tokyo. Russian residents on those islands were also allowed to visit Japan without visas starting the same year.
During the 20 years since the visa-free exchange program was started, 9,962 Japanese and 7,336 Russians have participated. The Japanese government has financially supported the program.
However, the prospect of negotiations between Japan and Russia on the territorial dispute of those islands--Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai--is unclear. In such a situation, the Russian government is now making large-scale economic assistance to those disputed islands, called "Northern Territories" in Japan.
On our recent visit, when the members of the fourth group arrived in the port at Kunashiri Island, vehicles were waiting for us. At first our cars ran smoothly on an asphalt road. However, the paved road ended after only about one minute, and then we were driving on an unpaved one.
Still, a Japanese interpreter of Russian who accompanied us, said in surprise, "It is the first time for me to see a paved road here in these 20 years."
A local Russian official in charge of the visa-free exchange program explained, "The construction of the paved road started on July 15. Residents on this island are delighted with it."
In November, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashiri Island, marking the first time the top leader of either the former Soviet Union or Russia visited the disputed islands.
During his visit, Medvedev vowed, "I will make a (paved) road here."
After Medvedev's visit, other political leaders also visited the disputed islands, including Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov.
Changes are taking place on the disputed islands, which have been "forgotten lands" in the Russian Far East.
According to the plan for social and economic development of the Kuril Islands, which stretch from the sea off eastern Hokkaido to the Kamchatka Peninsula and include the disputed islands, the Russian government is expected to invest about 34.4 billion rubles (95.57 billion yen) from 2007 to 2015.
Construction of a port is under way in Furukamappu in Kunashiri Island and is scheduled to be completed in November.
On our four-day tour of Kunashiri Island, Russian officials took us to an airport, a school and a fire station that are also under construction.
A local Russian girl, who became acquainted with the Japanese visitors, said with a smile, "(As the road is paved,) I can walk in heels."
Hiroshi Tanii, 58, a junior high school principal in Osaka, who served as the leader of the Japanese visitors, said that the more economic development and progress the Northern Territories make, the more difficult it will be for Japan to obtain their return.
The 20 years of visa-free exchange programs, however, have produced some results. A 21-year-old Russian woman, who met the Japanese visitors, left Kunashiri Island at 17 and graduated from a university in Sakhalin, a Russian island north of Hokkaido.
The woman, who returns temporarily to Kunashiri Island each summer, has visited Japan under the visa-free exchange program and is now able to speak Japanese.
"I want to go to Tokyo and Sapporo more freely," she said.
For now, the Russian government is reaffirming its position that the visa-free exchange programs have nothing to do with the territorial disputes.
An official that represented the province of Sakhalin, whose jurisdiction covers the Kuril Islands, said in her welcoming speech, "Territorial disputes are political issues. They are not ones that are discussed in visa-free exchange programs."
One of the Japanese visitors, Yuta Fukui, 14, a second-year student of a junior high school in Ehime Prefecture, said, "Even if we say, 'Return our islands,' the return will not solve the territorial disputes if it becomes impossible for the current Russian residents on the islands to live there. The islands are hometowns for both Japanese and Russians."
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