Where was Safin’s island?

Fig 1: Showing how the island of Hokkaido (Japan) and Sakhalin Oblast and the Kuril Islands (Russia) are adjacent to one another.

“Did you find the island?

Yes, it’s part of a chain in disputed waters between Japan and Russia.

There’s a chemical plant dating back to the Second World War, seems to have had quite a history.

Sir, Japanese intelligence have reported suspicious activity on the island.”

Of course because of the difficulty in filming in such a sensitive area, there was a need to find a substitute and this was Kalsoy, an island in the Faroes. Exterior shots were intercut with sets built in Pinewood, and the use of CGI to create the nanobot factory. In fact Craig did not set foot on Kalsoy.

But this is not the purpose of this post. Here I want to locate the real island, which we know from the dialogue above was somewhere in the vicinity of Japan and Russia. Now I did cover this briefly in a post about all the Japanese islands that have featured in Bond movies but here I’m diving deeper now that more intelligence has become available.

But does such an intersection of the two countries actually exist? The answer is a resounding yes. At their closest point, northern Japan and the eastern extremities of Russia are within a handful of miles of each other, as seen in Fig 1 above.

The first clue as to the island’s location emerges when Bond visits Madeleine Swann’s home and they look through a scrap book. Bond finds a map with an island that is identified as Safin’s lair (Fig 2).

Fig 2: The map found in the scrapbook. The island is marked, as is the site of the nanobot factory. We can see that the Sea Of Okhotsk is marked north of the island, and that the island would appear to be part of group.

The dialogue plays out…

‘The family had an island.

They called it the Poison Garden.

Oh, so…

Blofeld took it from them, and kept running it, and now this Safin has taken it back.

Q, find one Lyutsifer Safin.

Whereabouts unknown and no recent photographs, but I’m gonna send you some images of him as a boy.

And a picture of an island. So, you know, do your best.’

This harks back to the novel You Only Live Twice when Blofeld (using the alias Shatterhand) established his poison garden (or garden of death) in the grounds of his castle on the Japanese coast. This is a red herring and a rabbit hole not to go down, as the castle was located in the south of Japan on the island of Kyushu, and is much distanced from Russia.

The map that Bond finds – and which Q is able to analyse – would appear to pinpoint the island as being either part of the Kuril islands or possibly the nearby but smaller Habomai islands. There is evidence that points to both.

Fig 3: The Kurils run from Hokkaido to the Kamchatka Peninsula – as marked by the circles.

The Kurils are a long chain of around 50 islands that arc for 1200 kms northeast from Hokkaido to the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula, separating the Sea of Okhotsk from the Northern Pacific Ocean. They are dotted with active volcanoes and very few of them are inhabited. Nor are they particularly inhabitable. Not only are the waters disputed but so are the islands themselves – or at least two of them. This goes back to the 2nd World War. Prior to this the islands were administered by Japan, the Soviet forces invaded in the dying days of WW2 and, ever since the end of the War, Japan has claimed that these are part of their territory. (This is an incredibly simplified version of the story.)

On the other hand, the only disputed part (as referred to in the script) are two islands called Kunashari, and Etorofu (or Iturup) at the southern tip of the Kurils. These have aways been inhabited and indeed in the 2nd World War both hosted military installations. For example it was from Hitokappu Bay on Iturup that the Japanese fleet sailed from when despatched to attack Pearl Harbor; and Japanese military personnel were stationed on various islands along the chain including Matua – though it is not one of the disputed islands.

Fig 4: The map shows the two disputed islands in the Kuril chain (here named as Kunashiri and Etorofu, the disputed Habomai islands and Shikotan, and the boundary between Russian and Japanese waters.

The Habomai islands and the island of Shikotan are also disputed. They lie a short distance south-east of the Kuril chain. Some of the Habomai were, prior to WW2, inhabited by Japanese fishermen and their families but are now uninhabited and come under Russian administration. Others are no more than islets or even rocks. None had any military installations. The larger Shikotan is currently inhabited – with everyone living in two small villages.

Fig 5: Close up chart of the disputed zone and islands. Shows part of the Asian Coastal Buffer Zone, which is mentioned further below.

The fractiousness of the area is seen for example when in October 1952, a USAF B-29 bomber with nine crew members was shot down by two Soviet fighter planes while flying over the Habomai islands. During the Cold War there were a significant number of confiscations of Japanese fishing vessels that were said to have strayed into Russian territorial waters.

Now to drill down to locate the island – evidence point by evidence point:

  • Chain: The Kurils are called a ‘chain’ and it would be possible for the island to be anywhere along its 1200 km length.
  • Disputed water: however, the only disputed waters are at its southern most stretch embracing the two islands of Kunashari and Iturup. However both these islands are inhabited by Russian citizens and it would be impossible to have any secret evil installation on the islands unless the Russian administration were in cahoots.
  • Chemical plant: there are no specific chemical plants dating from the WW2 on any of the islands but there are the military installations on Iturup (which is in the disputed area) and the old airbase on Matua but that lies far from the disputed area.
  • In the map that Bond has found, neither of the two islands resemble the island marked as Safin’s lair.
  • Habomai islands are not part of the Kuril chain (though some claim they are) but they are still part of the disputed territory. They are smaller, more numerous, and uninhabited but they are hardly remote. Yet this would also mean that Japanese intelligence would easily spot nefarious and “suspicious activity.” But then so could the Russians.
  • Shikotan is in the same area but is inhabited.
  • Sea of Okhotsk: this points to the Kurils again as this lies to the north as shown on the map. Habomai and Shikotan are officially designated as being surrounded by the North Pacific Ocean
  • Size of island: on the other hand the small size of Safin’s lair also points to it only being present within the Habomai group.

At this point there is nothing that can be concluded definitely so I want to introduce another clue: the target co-ordinates that appear on Q’s screen (Fig 6).

Fig 6: 43º1’483″N 137º2’149″E: The co-ordinates that appear on Q’s screen to locate the island.

Surely these must solve the puzzle particularly as Latitude 43º runs through the Habomai group. However, Longitude 137º is too far to the west. In fact it runs through the Sea of Japan. On top of that, the numerals are not written out correctly possibly to throw amateur sleuths – such as me – off the scent, and those who like to visit the real locations.

Fig 7: Correcting the numerals so that they read in the accepted format would place Safin’s lair in the middle of the Japan Sea as marked by the grey pin. There are no islands here nor is the territory disputed. Seems that this takes us down a dead-end.

Now let’s turn to the Dragon-class Type 45 destroyers that are sent to the island and which are in a race against time because of the approaching Russian and Japanese military. As can be seen in in Fig 5, the disputed waters abut right up to the Japanese coastline. And the whole area is bristling with surveillance radar and military installations. This would sadly preclude the Royal Navy getting anywhere close. Indeed it would not be possible to sail in from the Sea of Okhotsk as that would mean transversing heavily defended Russian territory. They could approach via the neutral Northern Pacific Ocean but the ships would have been spotted and tracked for many days before they even came close to the disputed territory – and the film makes it pretty clear that they are within visual range of the island. Once close they would have to avoid entering the Asian Coastal Buffer Zone which is a zone that extends outwards for 30 miles from the islands and surrounds the whole area rather like a sheath. All vessels and aircraft would be warned to turn away even before they approached and no commercial air routes cross it. This would also mean that the C-17 flew the westward polar route over the Arctic and Alaska.

Then there are the missiles: Dragon-class destroyers have two types on board. The Aster 15 is a short to medium-range missile, which travels at a speed of MACH 3 and can hit targets that are more than 18 miles away. The Aster 30 is a short to long-range missile with a speed of MACH 4.5, which can reach distances of more than 70 miles. While the type used is not made clear, the film shows that the destroyer is situated around the 18 mile range as the island can be seen in the far background.

Neither missiles are designed to knock-out ground installations. They are ship-to-air weapons used to destroy all types of incoming air threats (but we have to allow the film-makers some artistic licence here).

Fig 8: Data sheet from MBDA Missile Systems.

Sadly, none of this gives the definitive answer but the sensitivity of this area is shown once again by the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 in September 1983 with all 269 passengers and crew killed.

Fig 9: Flight path of the doomed Korean Airlines flight KA 007. The dotted line is the route that the C-17 would have taken – at least as far as the Kuril Islands

So for the intrepid location traveller not only can I not identify the precise island but even if I could, travelling there would be night on impossible. Not because of current C-19 restrictions but because the Russians ban all travel to the region. Never fear though, the closest place to the region would be to visit the Nemuro area on Hokkaido which, once C-19 restrictions are lifted, would be a straightforward trip.

But I’ll leave the last word to Cary Joji Fukunaga in a recent interview,

“We went through three different iterations of that final lair. It’s set in a disputed island chain between Russia and Japan. That is a real bit of historical circumstances. Through that mythology, we created a space that could have had some Imperial Japanese history, Soviet history, and then Spectre history all layered on top of each other. Four years ago, I did a trip to Japan, after shooting “Maniac” and went to the Benesse Art Site. Naoshima. Tadao Ando is a Japanese architect. You could say his work is brutalist. I think it’s more nuanced than that, especially with his use of curves and shapes and light. What I love is the slicing of light and where light comes in and how light bounces off walls. Mark and I both gravitated towards this dizzying maze-like structure, that Bond would have to infiltrate, particularly for that final sequence.