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Mysteries remain a month after Russian man reportedly swam to Hokkaido

A person believed to be Vaas Feniks Nokard is seen on security camera footage in Shibetsu, Hokkaido, on Aug. 19, 2021. (Photo courtesy of a resident of the town)

NEMURO, Hokkaido -- The Mainichi Shimbun followed the tracks of a 38-year-old man who claims he swam from Kunashiri Island, one of the four disputed islands of the Northern Territories controlled by Russia, to Japan's northernmost prefecture Hokkaido for asylum.

    Nearly a month has passed since Vaas Feniks Nokard, who applied for refugee status, was taken into custody in the prefectural town of Shibetsu. But many questions remain unanswered, including why he came to Japan in the first place.

    Nakashibetsu Police Station's Shibetsu residential police box, where a Russian man claiming he swam from Kunashiri Island was taken into custody, is seen in Shibetsu, Hokkaido, on Aug. 21, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroaki Homma)

    Nokard turned up in front of Nakashibetsu Police Station's Shibetsu residential police box around 5:45 p.m. on Aug. 19. A man residing in the area spoke to Nokard, and he replied in broken Japanese, "I swam," "from Kunashiri," and, "no passport."

    Upon receiving a call for service, the police station sent Nokard by helicopter to the prefectural capital Sapporo, and handed him to the Sapporo Regional Immigration Services Bureau.

    Tomari, in the southern part of Kunashiri Island, is about 24 kilometers from Shibetsu. The Nemuro Strait's tidal current is fast, and the water temperature is only around 15 degrees Celsius. A low-pressure system also passed over Hokkaido on Aug. 18 and 19, and the sea was somewhat stormy.

    Items including a wet suit believed to be Nokard's were found on the coastline about 6 kilometers north of the town center on Aug. 24. He was captured by several security cameras in Shibetsu.

    According to Russian media, Nokard is from Izhevsk, central Russia, and applied to a Russian government program offering people 1 hectare of land in the Far East region free of charge in 2017. He moved near to Tomari, where he worked as a caretaker and a tractor driver. He was learning Japanese after watching anime, and hoped to make friends with Japanese women. Before moving to Kunashiri Island, Nokard allegedly came to Japan in 2011, but was deported due to overstaying his visa.

    Nokard, who swam to Shibetsu early on the morning of Aug. 19, reportedly asked a friend on Kunashiri Island via social media to sell his motorcycle he left on the island, and to send the money. A Russian newspaper speculated the reason for the man swimming to Japan based on his friend's remark, stating that Nokard wanted to go to Hokkaido's capital city Sapporo, but exchange programs were halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

    (Japanese original by Hiroaki Homma, Nemuro Bureau)

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