Tokyo lodged a strong protest Monday over Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit the same day to Kunashiri Island, one of the four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido that Japan wants returned.
Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara summoned Russian Ambassador to Japan Mikhail Bely to the ministry later in the day to file an official protest over the president’s trip.
During the meeting, Maehara told the ambassador that the president’s visit “is in conflict with Japan’s principle position and hurts the Japanese public sentiment.”
After the meeting, Bely told reporters that Medvedev’s visit was a domestic issue.
“I said that this visit is purely Russia’s domestic issue . . . and there is no overseas or international aspect,” Bely said. “I called on the Japanese side to deal with this matter calmly and with balance.”
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at a press conference in Moscow, said he planned to summon Japanese Ambassador to Russia Masaharu Kono to his ministry to tell him that Moscow won’t recognize Tokyo’s protest.
Lavrov said that Medvedev simply visited a Russian territory and emphasized that Russia has no intention of harming bilateral ties.
According to Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency and other local media reports, Medvedev said after visiting a geothermal power plant and a seafood processing factory on Kunashiri that he intends to raise the island’s standard of living to that of central Russia so they can continue living there.
Medvedev announced his plan to visit the islands at the end of September, prompting Maehara to immediately express deep concern that travel there could “damage Japan-Russia relations.”
But on Monday, Bely said the decision was Medvedev’s to make.
No one “can say whether the president will or will not visit the Russian region,” Bely said. “That is the president’s choice.”
Prime Minister Naoto Kan also expressed concern about the visit at a Diet committee meeting earlier in the day.
“We have been consistent in stating that the four (Russian-held) islands . . . are a part of our country’s sovereign territory,” Kan said. “It is extremely regrettable that the president went to this region.”
Medvedev’s trip to Kunashiri was the first to the territory by a Moscow leader and Japanese officials warned it could hinder bilateral ties. He is expected to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Yokohama later this month.
Medvedev reportedly visited a geothermal power station and met the local islanders.
The islands of Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu and the Habomai islets were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II and their Japanese inhabitants later evicted.
The territorial dispute has prevented Japan and Russia from concluding a postwar peace treaty.
The Foreign Ministry states that “the Northern Territories (Russian-held isles) are an integral part of Japan’s sovereign territory that continues to be illegally occupied by Russia.”
Information from Kyodo added