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Russian man fixes fallen Japanese gravestones on occupied island

Sergay Kvasov, left, shakes hands with Masami Igeta in the city of Nemuro in Hokkaido on Oct. 15, 2018. (Mainichi/Hiroaki Homma)

NEMURO, Hokkaido -- Sergay Kvasov, a 63-year-old Russian resident of Etorofu Island claimed by Japan but occupied by Russia, reinstalled four fallen gravestones belonging to former Japanese residents of the island as he thought it was the right thing to do.

"Every time I visited my mother's grave nearby, I saw those fallen Japanese gravestones and felt uneasy," said Kvasov in mid-October when he visited here in the northernmost Japanese prefecture of Hokkaido. "I cooperated because we are friends." He then shook the hand of Masami Igeta, 58, who was leading a project among Japanese descendants of past Etorofu residents to rebuild the headstones. "I didn't imagine he would do all the work," said a grateful Igeta.

Etorofu and three other islands off Hokkaido were occupied by Soviet Union forces shortly after the end of World War II. Called the Northern Territories, the islands are a focus of intense negotiations in which Tokyo demands their return from Moscow. Descendants of former residents like Igeta only have limited opportunities to visit the land of their ancestors.

Igeta, a resident in Tokyo's Nakano Ward, began thinking about propping up the four gravestones including one belonging to his great-grandfather Ikujiro Kashiwaya when he visited the island's Shana graveyard 12 years ago. The visit was part of an exchange program sanctioned by both Tokyo and Moscow for former Northern Territory residents and people seeking their return as well as Russian residents of the islands, in which passports and visas are not used to avoid sovereignty issues.

Over the next several years Igeta gradually built up his plan. The project actually kicked off in July this year when a group of people including him visited Shana. Igeta and 10 others began fixing the gravestone of Naotaka Takahashi, who died on Etorofu in 1912. They created a concrete foundation, and intended to put back the headstone next year. Kvasov helped with the work in July.

According to Kvasov, who came to Nemuro on a government-approved tour without a visa on Oct. 15, he reinstalled Takahashi's gravestone, which weighs 350 kilograms, on its concrete foundation using a small crane in August. And he fixed other fallen stones one after another.

Kvasov said it took him three days to put back the tombstone of Kashiwaya, which weighs 1.3 tons and was lying skewed on a slope. "I always place flowers in front of it," he added.

The Russian visitor handed some plates he found underneath the gravestones to Igeta who thanked him saying, "I heard residents buried many things near the grave when they left the island. I guess the plates were among such items." A happy Igeta added that he wanted to take his aunt, a former resident, and cousins to show the reinstalled tombstones.

Kvasov said his mother felt close to Japanese residents when she was alive. The mother came to Etorofu with her mother and six siblings in 1945 shortly after the war from Saratov in central Russia along the Volga River. "I attended the same school with the Japanese, and thought that they are friends since when I was a child," the mother was quoted as saying by the son.

The Shana elementary school is one of few wooden structures still remaining in the Northern Territories. "I attended the school when I was a first grader (in 1961)," said Kvasov. "It's not used anymore, and will be demolished eventually," he added sadly.

According to Kvasov, his mother also told him that his uncle was successfully treated by a Japanese doctor. She also told the son, "Japanese people were not enemies but friends."

The mother died several years ago and was buried at the Shana graveyard. The cemetery has both Japanese and Russian graves.

"We used to live side by side with Japanese people," said Kvasov. "I think we can live together in the future."

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