Japan’s Border Towns

Japan is an archipelago and has no land border with any other sovereign nation. However, several towns and regions near neighboring countries play the role of a “border town” — politically, economically, and culturally.

Wakkanai is the northernmost town in Japan and is located just across from Sakhalin island, which today is Russian territory, and which you can see from the city on a clear day. Wakkanai developed a century ago as a port for transportation of goods to and from Sakhalin Island, the southern region of which was once Japanese. Today it serves primarily as a fishing town and regularly sees Russian sailors who bring their catches to Japan.

Tsushima Island is situated between Japan’s Kyushu Island and Korea, between the respective cities of Fukuoka and Pusan. Historically Japanese, it has long been a point of transit for trade between Japan and Korea through the course of many centuries, from lacquerware to cuisine. The island was ruled for centuries by the So clan, which historically even advocated Korean interests in Japan, and the last member of the clain Takeyuki married Princess Deokhye of Korea in 1931.


I have visited both Wakkanai and Tsushima and noticed that both cities shared characteristics of other border towns I’d seen in such countries as Vietnam, Thailand, China, and America. One clear example of the mild internationalization is road signs. In Japan, all road signs display English letters below Japanese road and place names due to the legacy of the US occupation. But road signs in these two border towns are trilingual — Wakkanai road signs have Russian, while Tsushima road signs contain Korean.


Relations with the the respective foreigners in both border towns are polar opposites. Tsushima has historically been close to Korea, and today its economy has grown very dependent on investment and tourists from South Korea. In Wakkanai and other parts of the northern island of Hokkaido, incidents of crude or criminal Russian sailors has led to poor relations with Western visitors.

A similar version of this post previously appeared at ComingAnarchy.com.

20 thoughts on “Japan’s Border Towns”

  1. And more nonsense romanization created by the MLIT. 大綱 should be Ōtsuna, not Ootsuna; while not ideal, even Otsuna is a better alternative. They should just let JR handle romanization. They are the only ones who seem to have a proper grasp on it.

  2. Can anyone comment as to whether or not there is a similar border town atmosphere to the southernmost Ryukyu islands, which are not far from Taiwan?

    That is the only other “border” I can think of.

  3. The bordertown atmosphere of Urumqi was quite cool – and although Curzon was with me on my first visit to the city, he missed the most borderish part of it. When Saru and I took the bus from Urumqi to Kazakhstan, we purchased our tickets and boarded the bus at a crazy international zone where the signs were MORE Russian than Chinese, and throngs of Central Asian men in black coats and hats wandered around fanning giants stacks of money, hawking their black market currency trading services.

  4. My only bordertown experience – NY/Canada on the way to Montreal. The McDonalds on the NY side accepted Canadian dollars! Can you believe it?

  5. Mass transit border crossings are very interesting affairs. I really want to try the Singapore-Malaysia train, where you go through Malaysian entry control at the Singaporean train station, and then clear Singaporean exit control at the Malaysian border.

  6. The Yaeyama island (Ishigaki, Taketomi, Iriomote) area is closer to Taiwan than to Okinawa proper, but I don’t sense any real “border town-ness” especially since they stopped running the ferries from Taiwan. If anything, they just feel like a distinct culture from mainland Japan, which they are.

    Curzon, what is Tsushima like? I can never find any guidebooks that give it much attention, and I have a friend dying to go there.

  7. I’ve done Singapore-Malaysia, but by bus, so it was pretty simple. Pull off into a parkihg area, go through customs andimmig in the shed, then get back on. Similar to how it used to be in Europe before Schengen, although there we didn’t even get out of the car.

  8. I was once asked for a bribe by a border guard that jumped on my train from the Czech Republic to Germany. But then all of a sudden shots ran out down the platform. The guard took off to investigate and the train rolled on.

    Anyway, apparently Fukuoka and Busan are advertising themselves as border towns.


  9. I took the bus from Toronto to NYC one. They made everyone get off the bus and go through a quick immigration/customs line. All they did was glance at my passport real quick, but I recall the Japanese girl who was coincidentally seated right next to me had to pay 6 or 7 bucks for the entry fee, being neither US or Canadian citizen.

    The ferry between Okinawa and Taiwan only stopped running around June of last year – and I’ve heard that local governments on both sides are trying to set up a new one.

  10. “how it used to be in Europe before Schengen”

    In the early 1990s I cleared a non-Schengen border (Germany to Austria still required normal clearance by law) using my student card.

  11. I took a night bus through the Channel Tunnel once (both ways). That was an odd experience because they load the bus into a train car and then haul it across: you can feel yourself moving but can only see static walls out the window. Going from the UK to France, French inspectors came on board the bus and examined everyone’s documents. Coming back, we all had to get off and go through a UK inspection station in a separate building.

    I only find the Singapore-Malaysia route odd because you technically enter Malaysia before you leave Singapore.

  12. Joe: The train from Malaysia to Singapore was underwhelming, and about the same process as taking a bus across the Canadian border.

    Marxy: Regarding Tsushima, I’ll prepare a write up and post shortly…

  13. When taking the bus going from China into Kazakhstan, in addition to everyone getting off the bus and going through the immigration/customs process on both sides, we also were stopped 2 or 3 times by security officers who collected everyone’s passports and took about 20 minutes to check them against some database or something.

  14. You have been to some interesting places all right – where are those mutated frog travelogues? I’d love to read them.

  15. Yeah, I’ve been REALLY bad at writing up my actual travelogues. I cut off both the Taiwan trip from last summer and the Philippines one from earlier this year about halfway through. OK, I PROMISE I will try finish at least one of those, and hopefully both, after I finish my papers for the semester and before I go home. So that will give me about a week to work on them…

  16. Sounds great. I enjoy a good travel saga – my own tend to the extremely longwinded (my longest was over 90,000 words), but are not from places nearly as exotic as Kazakhstan.

  17. I remember Pai, Thailand nearly twenty years aro – when for $10 US you could jump into Burma for the day if you wanted to risk it. On the Thai side I was taken around a Karen refugee camp where they sold me a cassette of that was supposed to be traditional Karen songs – when I got around to playing it – it was the Karen refugees singing american country-western music.

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