PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATSKY, Russia -- When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in December, the two leaders agreed to begin talks to promote joint economic development of four islands that Japan calls the Northern Territories and Russia calls the Southern Kurils. They also shared the idea to work toward allowing former residents to have unlimited access to the islands.
Working level discussions are soon expected to go full tilt. But the future of the Ainu, the islands' native people, is not on the agenda.
Speaking with The Nikkei recently, Alexei Nakamura, who leads the Ainu community on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, insisted that his people should be able to participate.
Q: What is the current status of the Ainu in Russia's far north?
A: The Russian government has not recognized us as indigenous people of the islands, perhaps because it is convenient for the government to say there weren't natives in the Southern Kurils, in terms of resource development, for example. Under the Soviet regime, efforts to restore ethnic traditions were practically prohibited. And many Ainu people nearly lost their identity.
Since we established the Ainu civil group on Kamchatka about a decade ago, we have been trying to revive our culture, as well as look for Ainu descendants. The group now has 217 members. We are currently planning to build an ethnic village in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the center of the peninsula, where visitors can experience the typical lifestyle of the Ainu of old. The development of a dialect dictionary of the Ainu language is also underway.
Q: How did the Ainu people on the islands reach and settle in Russia?
A: One of my ancestors was a Japanese samurai who came to Iturup Island (or Etorofu in Japanese, one of the four islands) and married a daughter of an Ainu tribe leader in the early 18th century. He later became a leader of the Ainu revolts that emerged in the Southern Kurils. But the group was eventually defeated, and he and many other Ainu people had moved to Kamchatka by 1705. When the sovereignty of the entire Kuril Islands was handed over from Russia to Japan in 1875, many island residents moved to Kamchatka.
Q: Does your group have any link with the four islands or Japan today?
A: We communicate with Ainu people and research institutes in Japan's Hokkaido Prefecture. People here travel to Japan sometimes, but hardly any have moved and settled in Japan recently, largely due to language and cultural barriers.
Ainu descendants here regularly visit the Kuril Islands to visit their ancestors' graves. As far as I know, five families have moved there.
Q: Russia and Japan have long remained divided over issues concerning the four islands. Do you have any suggestion?
A: I would suggest to allow Ainu people in Japan, who are also indigenous of the Kuril Islands, visit and settle there. The islands' population is so small. I believe that the Japan-Russia joint economic efforts will have room to bring benefits to all of Japan, Russia and the Ainu people.
Place names that can be found on the Kuril Islands often have their origins in the Ainu language. "Iturup" means big salmon, for example.
Between the two large countries, the Ainu people have historically suffered bitter treatment from the both nations. I now hope that the international community will increasingly recognize the necessity to appreciate our fertile culture, history and language.