NEMURO, Hokkaido – Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi viewed some of the Russian-held islands claimed by Japan off Hokkaido from aboard a Japan Coast Guard boat Thursday despite protests from Moscow.
Koizumi made the trip — the first by a prime minister by sea — in what was viewed as a bid to give momentum to stalled territorial talks with Moscow, although Russia has repeatedly warned that action of this kind would be unproductive for bilateral ties.
About half an hour after departing just before 11 a.m. from Hanasaki port in the city of Nemuro, Koizumi approached the Kaigara Island reef, some 3.7 km from Nosappu point, Japan’s easternmost territory. Kaigara is part of the Russian-held Habomai islets.
Despite hazy weather, Koizumi viewed the reef with binoculars aboard the 1,200-ton JCG patrol boat Erimo, which then traveled close to the sea border near Kunashiri Island.
“I wanted to see the island more clearly. There was fog. (The islands) are so close to Japan,” Koizumi said after viewing Kaigara.
A Russian patrol boat was seen from the Erimo, which was escorted by another vessel and helicopters.
The Russian ship, when about 1 km from Koizumi’s boat, signaled by flag, wishing the latter safe passage.
The Erimo returned the courtesy.
About 100 former residents of the islands and their relatives gathered to see off Koizumi, who had flown to Hokkaido earlier in the day aboard an Air Self-Defense Force plane from Saitama Prefecture.
He is the third prime minister to view the disputed islands, following the late Zenko Suzuki in 1981 and Yoshiro Mori in 2001, both of whom viewed them by air.
“It is our utmost pleasure that the prime minister has come to see the fields,” said 86-year-old Kiyoto Tomiyama, who fled the Habomais nearly 60 years ago at 27. “I hope he will strongly urge the Russian president to return the islands.”
Hideko Onuma, 73, said she has been unable to visit her ancestral grave on Kunashiri Island, from where she had fled at age 14, due to Russian regulations, despite having visited the island four times on government programs.
“I want to normalize relations with Russia as quickly as possible,” Koizumi told a gathering in Nemuro of former Japanese residents of the islands after his five-hour boat tour.
Over 17,000 Japanese residents fled or were evicted from the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan, and the Habomai islets when the Soviet Union seized them at the end of World War II.
Japan had hoped Koizumi’s trip would spur negotiations toward getting the islands returned before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expected visit to Japan in February.
But the Russian Foreign Ministry lashed out at the trip Monday, saying it would complicate bilateral negotiations to conclude a World War II peace treaty.
The dispute has prevented the two countries from concluding the treaty.
Koizumi on Tuesday dismissed the criticism and reiterated the Japanese stance. “The (disputed islands) are Japan’s inherent territories,” he said. “A Japan-Russia peace treaty will not be concluded unless the issue is resolved.”
He dropped an earlier plan to land on one of the islands, which would have been the first for a prime minister.