Kiyotoshi Kuwata has been home only three times in the past 61 years but still has hopes that he might return to live out his days on the island of Taraku. A desolate and windswept plateau that is one of the Habomai Islands, a few kilometres from Japan's Cape Nossapu on Hokkaido, Taraku was occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of the second world war and its 1,500 Japanese residents were forced to leave. In the Hokkaido city of Nemuro, from where the most southerly isles in the chain can be seen on the horizon, the resentment lingers. Roadside signs and banners on bridges demand that the Habomai chain, as well as the Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan islands, be returned to Japan. 'Taraku was only small - about 12 sq km - but it was a pleasant place to live in and our ancestors had developed it for future generations,' Mr Kuwata, 74, says. Nearly all the residents made a living from kelp farming, he says, with everyone living 'like one big happy family'. After Tokyo's surrender in August 1945, however, Soviet forces occupied the islands, which Japan knows as the Northern Territories but Russia refers to as the Southern Kurils. 'We never expected them to come,' Mr Kuwata says. 'They went in pairs to search all the houses for guns or American or Japanese soldiers, breaking things and demanding that we give them our watches and sake.' The young women hid or disguised themselves to avoid the soldiers' attentions, while the young men were soon rounded up and shipped to Siberia to work as slave labourers. Those who survived returned to Japan five to six years later. In the meantime, their relatives had either run the gauntlet of the occupying forces to flee to mainland Japan or were put aboard freighters which took them on a roundabout route - as long as three months - to transport them to Hokkaido. Many of the elderly or very young islanders did not survive the journey, Mr Kuwata recalls. He made the 45km journey after being given permission to go to school on the mainland, and never returned. It was two years before he saw his parents again. 'I couldn't even start from zero - I started from minus,' says Mr Kuwata, who lived in a shack made of debris left from US air raids. 'All our fishing equipment had been left behind on the island and it took me 30 years to begin to make a proper living.' With the permission of the Russian authorities, Mr Kuwata has visited Taraku three times, paying his respects at the graves of his grandparents, but nothing remains of their home. His family was one of the original group encouraged to move to the islands in the early 19th century under the Edo Shogunate government, although as early as 1635 the Matsumae clan had drawn up maps of lands in the region that it considered to be its domain. In 1786, explorers Tokunai Mogami and Juzo Kondo surveyed the region and erected a marker claiming the islands as Japanese. In the following years, they opened sea links with Hokkaido for settlers and fishermen. Russian maps from the period identified the Northern Territories as 'Yaponskiye ostrova' - meaning 'Japanese islands'. The Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation was signed in 1855 between Russia and Japan, stating that the boundary between the two nations lay between Etorofu and Uruppu and that the Kuril chain north of that line belonged to Russia. Local exchanges between the two nations began and, 30 years later, the Treaty for the Exchange of Sakhalin for the Kuril Islands declared that Sakhalin island was thereafter Russian and the Kurils Japanese. With Russia's annexation of the islands in 1945, the issue went to the delegates at the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, where Japan relinquished all its claims to the Kuril islands and the southern portion of Sakhalin. But whereas Japan considers the Kurils to begin between Etorofu and Uruppu islands, Russia has remained unmoved. In July, the G8 nations will meet in the town of Toyako, in central Hokkaido, and Mr Kuwata, his fellow exiles and Nemuro officials had hoped the 60-year dispute would be on the agenda. Their request to that effect was refused. 'The Northern Territories are very specifically Japanese territory, under historical and international law,' Nemuro Mayor Shunsuke Hasegawa says. 'We feel that our city has put a lot of effort into the campaign to have them returned, yet they are still under Russian control. This is a huge problem. 'The Toyako summit is going to be a very profound meeting. A lot of prominent people are going to be there and we will continue to make our voices heard to make them understand the situation here. We will continue until this problem is resolved.' Japan and Russia have held intermittent talks over the islands, which are rich in marine resources. In 2003, then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and President Vladimir Putin agreed to work to resolve the issue and sign a long-delayed peace treaty. It is only one of several territorial disputes that Japan has with its neighbours. In the south, Beijing claims the East China Sea islands that it calls the Diaoyus but Tokyo refers to as Senkaku, while off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, Seoul keeps a close eye on Tokdo, which Japan says is an outlying part of its territory called Takeshima. Statues, a bell and a Japanese flag torn by the wind stand atop the Hokkaido headland from where the islands are pale marks out to sea - and where a Japanese fisherman was killed in late 2006 in a confrontation with a Russian naval patrol vessel. The nearby Northern Four Islands Exchange Centre contains maps and documents to back up the government's claims and grainy photos of life on the islands in the early years of the last century. A huge rust-red arch symbolises the locals' desire for the occupied islands to be reincorporated into Japan. In talking to Russian friends, however, that hope appears forlorn. In years gone by, Russia could have benefited financially if it had returned the islands, but with Siberian oil in demand and the Russian economy booming, there seems little need for Moscow to hand them back, no matter what it may say in public. Mr Putin is also clearly not one for giving up territory that Russia occupies, legitimately or otherwise, and his successor Dmitry Medvedev has given little indication that he sees it any differently. But the banners and the rhetoric in this corner of the very far northeast of Japan do not seem to accept that reality. Residents say that young people are ready to go to the islands and start work at the first opportunity, just as their forefathers did. With young Japanese leaving rural areas for the cities and less interested in getting their hands dirty than ever before, that seems unrealistic. Some, however, would undoubtedly make the journey. 'Every day, I look at the islands and think about my home over there,' Mr Kuwata says. 'I'll continue the campaign to have the islands returned no matter how old I become. I can't forgive the Russians for what they have done until that happens.'