For the first time in five years, fishermen from the Habomai cooperative on the road to Cape Nosappu are being allowed to harvest seaweed from Soviet-occupied Kaigara island.
Every day throughout September, 330 boats sally forth to Kaigara, which is not much more than a bunch of rocks with a lighthouse 2.2 miles offshore from the eastern tip of Cape Nosappu.
The fishermen's houses in the neat village of Habomai (jurisdictionally part of the city of Nemuro) are new and look almost European, with prefabricated arched second-floor balconies and roofs brightly painted red, green or blue. "But I'm in debt for everything you see -- house, boat, car," said one fisherman.
Nemuro and its surrounding towns and villages may look prosperous, but it is largely the result of government subsidies, in one form or another over $60 million this year. When seaweed-harvesting from Kaigara was banned, the gvoernment built a new, articifical island at a cost of some $8 million.
(Konbu, the type of seaweed particularly favored by Japanese, clings to rocks and can be induced to grow under appropriate conditions. Kaigara, one of the Soviet-occupied Habomai islands, is particularly rich in konbu and used to yield an annual harvest of 960 tons, worth nearly $4 million, until the ban five years ago.)
The permission to harvest konbu is the result of years of negotiation between Hokkaido fisheries representatives and Soviet authorities in Moscow. The talks were complicated by the "northern territories" issue -- Japan's claim to the Habomais and to three larger islands to occupied by the Soviets since World War II: Kunashiri, Etorofu, and Shikotan.
Konbu has no economic value for the Soviets. Furthermore, since they were able to charge nearly $300,000 in hard currency for the deal, one might think they would have been eager to go ahead with it.
But the territorial issue seems to take precedence over all else in recent Japanese dealings with the Soviets. Japan insists that Moscow recognize at least that there is a territorial issue between the two countries, and that the fate of the islands in question has not been definitely solved.
The Soviets refuse, and as long as they do so, it is the fishermen of Nemuro and Kushiro who are caught in the middle.
The talks on konbu-gathering from Kaigara island were finally settled when the Soivets agreed to a form of words in the text of the agreement that left open the ownership of the island and the jurisdiction of Soviet courts over it.
(At first the Soviets insisted on calling it by its Russian name, Signalski and on the jurisdiction of Soviet courts. Eventually they agreed to refer only to the island by longitude and latitude and to put the question of trials for violations of law committed thereon in the passive voice. These changes were made on the insistence of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, which inserted itself into what was ostensibly a negotiation of Hokkaido fishermen with Soviet Fishery Ministry officials.)
Both in Kushiro and in Nemuro, fishermen have mixed feelings about the territorial issue. "I'm a loyal Japanese," said a fishermen's union representative in Kushiro. "I think the four islands [Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan, and the Habomais] belong to Japan. The Soviets should give them back.
"But you can't deny that as of now there is no prospect for an early return. We can't force the Soviets to give them back.
"Meanwhile our livelihood, and even more so the livelihood of the small fishermen of Nemuro, depends on the fish we catch. The more fuss we make about the four islands, the more likely the Soviets are to restrict our fishing zones.
Soviet diplomats in Japan have taken advantage of this sense of weakness in the face of Soviet power that many Hokkaido fishermen have. The Soviet consulate-general in Sapporo, capital of Hokkaido, has an active cultural program and a campaign to set up branches of the Japanese-Soviet friendship association in more and mroe towns and villages of Hokkaido. The fishermen themselves to do not like to talk about it, but there seems to be a pervasive feeling among them that the entrance fee of 30,000 yen ($150) is a form of insurance for lenient treatment when caught by Soviet authorities within restricted waters.
"Most of our members have found that that is not so, that showing your certificate to the Soviets doesn't make them any more lenient," said a Kushiro fishermans union executive. "But I can't deny that some smaller fishermen may still think so."
"It's a real problem," said an officer of the Maritime Safety Agency, whose boats patrol the narrow straits between Nemuro and Soviet-held islands. "We know some fishermen go even further. They are told by the Soviets to bring them back information about our own patrol boats, or any other low-level information the Soviets may consider useful.
"Some fishermen even take the Soviets' gifts. We know of at least one case of a typewriter having been taken to a Soviet-held island by a local fisherman. These people get favored treatment by the Soviets when it comes to fishing. And since they are doing nothing illegal, so far as we are concerned, there is nothing we can do about it when they come back."
This erosion of the morals of those who used to be simple fisherfolk does not appear to be widespread. But the government is reluctant to go so far as to ban fishing in Soviet coastal waters and compensate the 500 or so fishermen who presently have licenses to do so.
"After all," said the Maritime Safety Agency official, "we are a free enterprise economy and the fisherman who catches more fish gets more money. That is our dilemma."