Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai isles were occupied by the then Soviet forces shortly after Japan announced its surrender to American forces in August 1945.

 

In Japan, they are known as the Northern Territories and in Russia as the Southern Kurils.

 

The Ainu want the islands - along with Hokkaido and Sakhalin - recognised as their homeland and granted autonomy.

 

"The Kurils, Hokkaido and Sakhalin are all traditional Ainu lands and we want both governments (Japan and Russia) to remember that when they sit down to talk about their future," said Tadashi Shirakawa, a member of Pirika Zenkoku Jikkoninkai, or All-Japan Standing Committee, which is campaigning for Ainu rights.

 

Shirakawa delivered a statement demanding that the opinions of the indigenous people be taken into account to the Russian consulate in Sapporo, the Japanese Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister's Secretariat and the Russian Embassy in Tokyo.

 

"The Ainu are an aborigine people who have their own language, culture and religion who lived in Hokkaido, Sakhalin and the Kurils islands before Japan or Russia claimed the land for themselves," the statement said.

 

"We hope future discussions will also include the Ainu, because this is our land and our history.

 

"Until that happens, the two countries do not have the right to hold talks over our territory without our participation."

 

Ainu claims dismissed

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Japan on Sunday for three days of wide-ranging talks with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. 

Putin (L) and Koizumi (R) pledged
to resolve the islands issue

 

On Monday, both leaders pledged to work hard to resolve the issue of the disputed islands.

 

"Putin and Koizumi are just going to talk - but we want them to stop talking and do something," Shirakawa said.

 

A spokesman for the Russian embassy told Aljazeera.net the statement would "not to be taken seriously" and added that it had been a pointless exercise because it had generated no reaction in either the Japanese or the Russian media.

 

A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo was similarly dismissive, saying: "Every Japanese national has the right to express his or her views; but this will not have any effect on the talks because it has never been an issue between the two governments."

 

Tomoko Kataoka, a member of the Osaka branch of Pirika, told Aljazeera.net the Ainu were appealing to Japanese public that their rights be recognised.

 

"We cannot stop the Japanese and Russian governments holding talks, but we see this [statement] as a small step forward reminding them that the Ainu still survive today," she said.

 

"What we want in the end is an autonomous homeland, not necessarily independent from Japan, but with autonomy from Tokyo," she said.

 

"We don't belong to Japan; we are Ainu."

 

Ignored rights?

 

The Ainu - who also refer to themselves as Utari, the indigenous word for comrade - say they have a long history of having their rights ignored by the Japanese.

The Ainu of Shikotan in 1901
(Photo: University of Hokkaido)

 

Expansion in the early 1400s led to the colonisation of the Ainu homeland of Hokkaido and a series of brief wars between the two sides, in 1457, 1669 and 1789 - all of which the Ainu lost.

 

Japanese rulers in the Meiji Era, the 44-year period up to 1912, outlawed the Ainu language, restricted their movement and forced many of them into virtual slavery aboard fishing boats.

 

There are an estimated 150,000 Ainu today, although most have inter-married with the Japanese.

 

It is believed there may be many more, but families have concealed their heritage from the younger generations as they do not want their children exposed to the racism that they experienced.