Shibetsu is a small fishing town on the east coast of Hokkaido with a population of only a few thousand people. It’s also one of the few corners of Japan not accessible by train and about an hour's drive from Sapporo, leaving it a rather quiet, peaceful community.
So it came as quite a shock when an unidentified man turned up at the Nakashibetsu Police Station on Aug 19 and told them that he had just swam in from Russia and was seeking asylum. The man — described as dressed all in sportswear with sneakers, a brimmed hat, and face mask — was found by a pedestrian and taken to a police box for help.
For those who are aware that the Russian controlled island of Kunashir is just off the coast of Shibetsu, it might not seem like such an impossible journey. But it’s still a good 20-kilometer swim in 15℃ water, which is said to cause people to black out in a matter of hours.
Kunashir is the nearest to Japan of the Kuril Islands archipelago, an island chain which is administered by Russia but under dispute by Japan. Russia seized control of the islands at the very end of World War II, but Japan feels that the ensuing treaties don’t give them the complete control they currently exercise. The matter is still under negotiation between the two countries.
As for the mysterious visitor to Shibetsu, little is known about why he chose to flee the rather remote island with only a slightly larger population than the town he arrived in. The man also had told police that he wants asylum in a “third country” that isn’t Japan or Russia. Hokkaido Prefectural Police and the Sapporo Regional Immigration Bureau are currently investigating his claim and trying to confirm his identity.
Online there’s a fair bit of incredulity over whether someone can actually make the swim from Kunashir to Hokkaido.
“Is that distance swimmable?”
“It’s 20 kilometers, but if the ocean current is against him its suicide.”
“This isn’t the Cold War Era, so why didn’t he just take a boat?”
“He could have even just taken a canoe part way and abandoned it to cut down on swimming.”
“Why do I have a feeling this is how WWIII starts?”
“If he got really lucky, I think the sea temperature went up to 18℃ for a bit today, but it’s still tough.”
“What would make him resort to that to escape Russia?”
“That island belongs to Japan, so isn’t he just escaping to the same country?”
“He’s a spy. Cut him loose.”
“I can swim about 40 kilometers in the pool, but I doubt I could do it in the ocean.”
Details are still very scant in reports, so it is possible that he didn’t exactly swim the entire way, just as it’s also possible he didn’t even come from Russia in the first place.
Source: STV, NHK, Yomiuri Shimbun
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