The 38-year-old swam from the Kunashiri Islands, pictured in the distance, to seek asylum in Japan. Photo: Kyodo via AP Images
Vaas Feniks Nokard had had enough.
The 38-year-old, originally from the western Russian city of Izhevsk, was sick of living under what he called the “totalitarian” government of President Vladimir Putin. He wanted to apply for asylum abroad, but said he was unable to travel because he didn’t have a passport.
Feeling like he had little choice in the matter, Nokard embarked on a 23-hour swim last month toward Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. It was an impressive sporting feat that nonetheless ended in his detention by Japanese police and uncertainty about his future.
He set off from the disputed Kunashiri Islands, where he had resided since 2016, at 5 a.m., donning a wetsuit and bringing a change of clothes in a dry bag. He used a compass to navigate his way and by 4 a.m. the next day, Nokard had managed to swim 24 kilometers (15 miles) to the town of Shibetsu, across the Nemuro Strait.
Nokard’s all-nighter prompted speculation about what drove the man to undertake such a dangerous voyage.
The swimmer reportedly told Japanese authorities he was seeking asylum. He said that when he moved to the Kunashiri Islands, he’d be interrogated by the Russian military when he tried to visit Izhevsk, his original city. He also felt there were few economic prospects under Putin’s rule—Nokard juggled part-time work and couldn’t find a secure job.
It’s unclear whether Nokard will get his request granted. Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Katsunobu Kato has said the Japanese government will continue to investigate his case.
But Nokard may be grateful just to be alive. In interviews he gave to local newspapers from behind bars, the Russian said he wasn’t sure he would make it.
“The Pacific Ocean’s tide was very cold. At night I couldn’t see anything, and it even rained. I was also scared of the killer whales. I thought of my mother and how I might never see her again,” he told Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun through a glass divider at the detention facility. Killer whales, or orcas, have never fatally attacked humans in the wild.
After making it to shore, Nokard rested a while before changing his clothes. When he went to a convenience store in search of food and drink, he was taken into custody at the Sapporo Regional Immigration Bureau. A local resident who saw Nokard at the convenience store and thought he looked suspicious had reported him to prefectural police.
He’s spent over 20 days at the immigration office now and is currently seeking papers that would allow him to stay permanently. The process involves applying for asylum at an immigration office, submitting paperwork that proves persecution at home, and an interview with a refugee immigration officer. Strict Japanese regulations mean fewer than 1 percent of all asylum applications are accepted each year.
According to Russian news outlets, Nokard isn’t a stranger to Japan. He’s previously been deported from Japan for overstaying his visa in 2011, when he visited Hiroshima city and traveled to Tokyo via bus and bicycle. He’s also shown an appreciation for its culture.
Russian officials who searched his home found posters of Japan and believed he is a fan of Japanese culture, the Interfax news agency reported. Asahi Shimbun said he grew up watching the popular anime series Doraemon, and read manga.
Over the years, a number of Russian citizens have sought asylum abroad. In 2016, 2,770 Russian refugees sought asylum in Germany for better healthcare, or to escape political persecution. In 1974, oceanographer Stanislav Kurilov famously jumped overboard from a cruise ship, swimming away from the Soviet government that prohibited him from working abroad. He spent three days in the ocean before making it to the Philippine island Siargao, and was eventually granted asylum in Canada.
The Russian Embassy in Japan had previously sought an explanation of Nokard’s whereabouts. It urged the Japanese government to allow members of its consulate to visit him in detention to “ensure his legal rights” are met.
Though unusual, swimming from Russia to Japan is not unheard of. In the past, brave souls have engaged in so-called “speedo diplomacy” through open water swims between the countries.
In July 2019, a group of swimmers traveled across the La Pérouse Channel, from Russia’s northern island Sakhalin to Hokkaido, in disputed waters in the name of international friendship. The relay team consisted of 27 swimmers from Russia, Japan, China and South Africa, all braving the cold water with bare chests and slick swimwear. No orca sighting was reported.
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