Unknotting Tense Minds

|Russia

Hokkaido, which more than six million people a year visit seeking reinvigoration and peace of mind. Hokkaido, whose food self-sufficiency ratio exceeds 200% and supports the nation’s dinner tables. If one removed the neighboring country of Russia from the picture, then Hokkaido, loved by a great many people, would probably not be as it is today.

Laxman, Daikokuya Kodayu, Takadaya Kahei, Golovnin . . . Hokkaido was not only the stage for these heroes who lent glory to Russo—Japanese history, but also for the tondenhei [military colonist] system which combined, by means of the warriors of the feudal domains, the guarding of the northern territories, opening land to cultivation and preparedness for war. The effort smeared in the blood of those pioneers who went to carve open Hokkaido had as its motive the ever-tense relations with Russia.

Naturally, amid the “tension”, they made the best, while taxing their ingenuity, of the advantages of it being a frontier. Roughly 100 years ago, one of my great-grandfathers was engaged in fishing, and I heard that he traded fish with Russians at sea. The unique nature of Hokkaido’s geography suddenly being thrust into the limelight, however, would all the same still have to wait for the arrival on the scene of Gorbachev and the termination of the Cold War.

In 1990, Hokkaido, on an equal footing with Russia, which was one constituent nation of the then Soviet Union, concluded the “Agreement on a Partnership of Amity” and using this as a step forward commenced the “Economic Cooperation Program with the Russian Far East (Primorsky Krai, Khabarovsk Krai and Sakhalin Oblast)” in 1992. It promoted initiatives centered on the development of business infrastructure, including for agriculture, seafood, and construction; after such achievements as the establishment of a regular Hakodate–Yuzhno Sakhalinsk flight service, the setting up of the “Hokkaido International Trade and Industry Promotion Association Yuzhno Sakhalinsk Office”, and regular Wakkanai–Korsakov and Otaru–Korsakov ferry services, over the course of the five years of the program, the third phase of the program is currently in progress.

Among these three regions Sakhalin in particular was in a sense a “spiritual home” for Hokkaido people, with many people born on or repatriated from Karafuto [a Japanese name for Sakhalin]. I think that the emergency transportation in 1990 of a boy called Konstantin who had suffered severe burns was also a deed that such a “feeling for one’s native area” is capable of producing. With transportation access having become convenient the flow of people accelerated of itself, and the potential for economic interchange also expanded in combination with the progress in the projects for oil and natural gas development, and based upon that Hokkaido and Sakhalin Oblast concluded the “Friendship and Economic Cooperation Partnership” in 1998.

Following on from this stream of events, what was established in January 2001, as an outpost of the Hokkaido government, was our “Hokkaido Government Sakhalin Representative Office.” In this office, apart from supporting the exchange activities of Hokkaido municipalities and private-sector groups, we deal with matters such as Japanese speech contests aimed at local students and business match-ups between enterprises.

With a healthy economy as a backdrop, the Russian Far East and Sakhalin are gathering attention as business partners. Recently Hokkaido firms have begun to take an interest in a truly wide range of sectors, including food and everyday necessities, and not only those connected to the Sakhalin Project. As to whether concrete business links are being forged, however, it has to be said that they are as yet insufficient.

The “sense of tension” vis-à-vis Russia has become deeply ingrained from its origins in the memories of our predecessors. It was a vital source of energy for the development of Hokkaido, but in order to make something of the business opportunities of today, which are welling up, we will probably have to first loosen the “uptight feeling” toward Russia which is latent within each one of us, the people of Hokkaido.

[Translated by ERINA]