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Edo period Japanese graves found on Northern Territories island in landmark discovery

The gravestone bearing the name "Fujiwara Shozo (or Seizo/Masazo)" found on the island of Etorofu, part of the Northern Territories, is seen in this photo provided by Sergey Shtarev.

NEMURO, Hokkaido -- A Japanese gravesite has been found by a Russian resident near Furubetsu in the central part of the island of Etorofu, part of the Northern Territories claimed by Japan but occupied by Russia.

The names and death dates engraved on the stones match late Edo period historical records from the Matsumae feudal domain, which controlled northern Japan and was responsible for contacts with Ezo (present day Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture). It is believed that the graves belong to warriors and others of the domain dispatched to protect Japan's northern approaches against Russians moving south.

The gravesite is the first of the Matsumae domain to be confirmed in the Northern Territories, four islands off Hokkaido occupied by Moscow since the end of World War II. The discovery is gathering attention as it may open the way for researchers to uncover what life was like for Japanese living there at the time.

The graves were discovered by 61-year-old Sergey Shtarev, who operates a marine products firm on the island, in May 2016. In June 2017, he handed over images of the gravesite to a Japanese national visiting the island under the visa-free visitation agreement between Japan and Russia. The site is said to be on elevated ground, with cobblestones laid out around the gravestones and pine trees planted like landmarks.

The names and dates of death were visible on six stones. The dates ranged from 1826 to 1851. This predates the 1855 Treaty of Commerce and Navigation between Japan and Russia that established the borders between the two countries and designated the area south of Etorofu, which was then called by its Ainu name Etuworop, as under Japanese sovereignty. At the time, Furubetsu was also home to Etuworop's Matsumae domain security station as well as a facility for the management of fishery and trade.

From the latter half of the 18th century, Russian and other foreign ships began to appear more frequently around the eastern part of Hokkaido. Then, in 1807, Russians attacked a fishery management facility in Shana, Etuworop. The Matsumae domain was tasked with the protection of the island from 1821 to 1856.

Isao Kikuchi, a Miyagi Gakuin Women's University professor emeritus specializing in the history of the Northern Territories, said a comparison between Matsumae domain records brought up a match for the death dates and other information on three of the graves. "

Akashi Sueyoshi (or Suehiro)," who died in 1826, appears to have been the top official at the security post. Firearms expert "Fujiwara Shozo (or Seizo, Masazo)" died two years later, and a low-ranked "kachi" soldier named "Murata Kamenojo" died in 1851. According to domain records, all three men died on the island during the winter, apparently because of illness.

According to records left by explorer Takeshiro Matsuura, who visited Etuworop in 1849, about 30 people were deployed at the Matsumae domain base, armed with three cannons and multiple guns. Surviving the harsh winter there was a real challenge, and one Matsumae domain record said those assigned there "tend to develop disease." It said that "enduring the extreme cold is no easy task."

A prewar record shows that a man was buried in Shana after he killed himself following the 1807 Russian attack. However, the status of his burial site is unknown.

Hokkaido Museum principal curator Hiroshi Ushiro said, "This is important evidence to back up the claim that there were (Japanese) guarding the northern border. This is a landmark discovery."

(Japanese original by Hiroaki Homma, Hokkaido News Department)

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