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Japanese man who once remained on Sakhalin and now lives in Ukraine to flee to homeland

From left, Hidekatsu Furihata, his grandson's wife Inna, his great-granddaughter Sofia, and his son's daughter Vladyslva arrive at the Japanese Embassy in Poland in Warsaw, on March 10, 2022. (Mainichi/Koji Miki)

WARSAW (Mainichi) -- A 78-year-old Japanese man who grew up in the southern part of Sakhalin, Russia, occupied by the former Soviet Union at the end of World War II, and has since been living in Ukraine, took refuge with his family in neighboring Poland following the Russian military invasion. He and his family will fly to Japan on March 18. What does the man, whose life was changed by two wars, think about the current situation?

    Hidekatsu Furihata was born in central Japan's Nagano Prefecture, but due to his father's work, he moved to south Karafuto (now Russia's Sakhalin), which was a Japanese territory at the time. However, in August 1945, the Soviet Union invaded Japan. Karafuto was occupied and later became Soviet territory. Although Furihata was very young, he still remembers the day when Soviet soldiers came into his house and barked at his family, asking why there were still Japanese people there.

    Most of the Japanese who remained on Karafuto had returned to Japan by 1959. However, permission was not granted to Furihata's father. The reason is unknown, but it is believed that the Soviet Union would not let his father leave because he worked at a paper mill and was competent. After attending a technical university in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Furihata married his Polish wife, and in 1971 they moved to what is now Ukraine, where his wife's sister lived. He then worked as a machinist for many years.

    After 1999, four of Furihata's siblings permanently returned to Hokkaido with the support of a Japanese citizens' group, but Furihata remained in Ukraine, taking into consideration his wife's wishes and other factors. His wife passed away about three years ago, and his son also died last year. He now lives alone.

    On Feb. 24, 2022, the Russian military invasion that Furihata "believed would never happen" began. The western town of Zhytomyr, where he lives, was frequently attacked by missiles. Schools and civilian homes were also bombed, contrary to the Russian military's explanation that they were "only targeting military bases." Furihata was strongly urged by his siblings in Japan to evacuate as soon as possible.

    Since Ukraine is in the midst of fighting, men between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving the country. Under such circumstances, Furihata decided to evacuate with his grandson's wife Inna, 27, his great-granddaughter Sofia, 2, and his son's daughter Vladyslva, 17, and head for Japan via Poland. Furihata believed his home country would accept him and his family

    They left Zhytomyr on March 5 and drove to the border, but on the way, their car broke down in Lviv in west Ukraine. Around the border, they were caught in a heavy traffic jam. They finally arrived in Poland on March 8, three days after their departure. Japan's Foreign Ministry provided full support for Furihata's return to his home country. He and his family obtained a Japanese visa on March 11 and are scheduled to take a direct flight to Japan on March 18.

    From left to right, Hidekatsu Furihata, his grandson's wife Inna, and his son's daughter Vladyslva, are seen being interviewed in Warsaw on March 10, 2022. (Mainichi/Koji Miki)

    Furihata has temporarily returned to Japan in the past, but this is his first long-term stay. He has forgotten most of his Japanese, and while he is anxious about his new life, he said he is also looking forward to it.

    Meanwhile, the future of the war is uncertain. Inna left her husband and Vladyslva left her mother and brother in Ukraine, so there is no end to their worries about them. Furihata has also not made up his mind about the future. While he would like to continue living in Japan with his siblings, he would also like to help Ukraine's reconstruction after the war is over. "It's not an easy decision to make," he said.

    Reiko Hatakeyama, 70, Furihata's sister who lives in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, said, "I watched the news about Ukraine every day, crying. I am so happy to hear that he will be safely returned to Japan."

    The Japan-Sakhalin Association, a nonprofit organization that provides support for Japanese residents who remained on Sakhalin, is asking for donations to help Furihata's family with travel costs and living expenses in Japan. The group's website can be found here: (in Japanese)

    (Japanese original by Koji Miki, Jerusalem Bureau; and Hanayo Kuno, Paris Bureau)

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