My Thoughts on National Borders

|Russia

(In the case of island countries)

I first visited Moscow in September 1967. At the time, there were no flights there, so I traveled on a ship from Yokohama to Nakhodka, a journey that took two nights and three days, then changed to a train to travel to Khabarovsk, and from there I traveled by plane to Moscow; in total, the journey took three nights and four days. The ship was the Soviet passenger ship Ordzhonikidze. Many of the passengers were traveling to Europe via Moscow. A large number of people seeing off friends and family crowded the dockside and amids the colored streamers one caught glimpses of the sadness of parting. Amongst this hustle and bustle, as I faced the fact that I would soon leave my country, I was particularly deeply moved.

On the first evening, I sighed while watching Russian folk dancing in the salon, enjoyed a quiz program, and watched a film of one of Pushkin’s works, and my heart was completely enchanted by the journey. However, the next morning, I stood on the deck in mute amazement. The ship was sailing calmly with the Sanriku coast on its left. What was more, we were sailing at a distance from which it would have been possible to jump into the sea and swim to shore. We were still well within Japanese territory. The view of the pier the previous day, the waves of thousands of streamers, the young girl sobbing as she wondered whether the separation would be permanent: what on earth did these mean? My thoughts ceased and I continued to stand there, astounded.

(In the case of continents)

In June 1969, a train carrying me left Riga Station in Moscow, headed straight for Vienna. It was a 33-hour journey, part of the way through which the train was linked up with the Balkan Express. The next morning, after passing through the Belarusian capital of Minsk, we reached the border town of Brest, which was shrouded in fog. The train stopped for three hours. From this point, the gauge of the railway changed, so the carriage bogies had to be changed too. During this time, the passengers all disembarked from the train, had a meal and completed departure formalities. At the appointed hour, the train left Brest Station and progressed slowly towards the bridge over the Bug River, which formed the border with Poland. The fog lifted as we came closer to the railway bridge and I felt myself break out in goose pimples at the sight of the view that eventually met my eyes. Not far away from the rails stood a crow-black turret and, on the deck that topped it, surveillance guards were pointing machine guns at the train. In the space below the turret, there was a sparse stand of trees, between which a number of guard dogs were running. It was a scene reminiscent of a Nazi prison camp that I had once seen in a film.

The train did not pick up speed. This was probably so that the train could be stopped immediately if any irregularities were discovered in the departure documents being checked at the border guard headquarters. My visa had expired the previous day. The visa inspector had overlooked it, but I could not know how the border guards would view the situation. Inwardly, I prayed hard that the train would not stop. I subsequently crossed many national borders, but no other view of a border kindled the same degree of fear in me.

For people born and raised in island countries, national borders, which should exist somewhere in the sea, are intangible. In one sense, the aforementioned situation (in the case of island countries) could be described as “a tale that makes me look stupid”, but it is probably the view of borders held by the average Japanese person. Even if they cross the sea border, they do not feel that they have left the country and place themselves inside the country as long as they are in sight of the Japanese islands. In other words, those who have been brought up in an island country have a dull awareness of national borders.

In comparison, land borders are a more serious matter. This is because, as the name suggests, one can actually see national boundaries. Moreover, national borders are a painful reminder to the people of neighboring countries of their bitter history of being changed numerous times.

In the 14th century, Brest was under the control of Lithuania. In the 16th century it belonged to Poland, and as a result of three divisions at the end of the 18th century by Russia, Prussia and Austria, it became Russian territory. During the First World War it was handed over to Poland, which had secured its independence under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, a separate peace treaty concluded between Germany and Lenin’s regime. Under a 1939 division by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, it was assigned to the Soviet Union once more.

When one abridges history in this way, these transitions seem quite mechanical, but in fact, the changes resulted from fateful battles between states and ethnic groups, with people killing each other amidst the roar of cannon fire and acrid clouds of gunpowder smoke. Until the current map of Europe was completed, various ethnic groups fought in order to survive, with the winners extending the borders of their countries or being challenged to yet another battle, while losing countries found themselves with less territory. It was through the repetition of such patterns over the course of history that the Soviet Union acquired Brest. For them, there was no justice involved in starting a war, and no rules for to bringing it to an end. What they had was just the logic needed in order to survive. If they had lowered their guard, Brest would have been lost again to another country. National borders are the places where foreign foes attack. They are places that have to be fortified in order to prevent this happening. This may well be the view of national borders held by people in countries with land borders. People raised in island countries are unfamiliar with this concept of national borders. Being brought up in an island country is also the reason why pointless questions arise, such as “Why do the Soviet Union and Poland have to install such strict border surveillance facilities when they are both socialist countries?”

On reflection, as far as Japan sees it, the delineation of the border around the Northern Territories has still not been resolved, even after the passage of 60 years. It is a complex situation and there are numerous reasons and factors that have hindered the achievement of a settlement; one such reason could well be the difference in perceptions of national borders of the people of these two countries. Japanese people try to regulate right and wrong on the basis of Confucian ethics, reasoning that, “It is wrong to take what belongs to someone else, so it should be returned to its original owner. Promises should be kept.” On the other hand, Russian people have formed a state supported by the logic of power, viz. “We will violate other people’s territory in order to survive. Treaties are a way of buying time.”

It is being reported that President Putin will visit Japan in November this year. The negotiations concerning the border between our two countries have already taken a full sexagenary cycle and are about to enter their 61st year, but this does not mean that we should just take our time over it. I wonder whether it will be possible for the two sides to find a point of contact by means of a continuation of conventional negotiations?

To digress, my apologies for talking about personal matters, but during my trip from Yokohama, I happened to find myself in the company of members of the group “Royal Knights”, and since then I have maintained a close friendship with Kenji Yamashita that continues even today. I really like the Russian ballad Avgust (August) that he taught me during that trip and I always hum it during the relevant season.

[Translated by ERINA]