MOSCOW – Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama arrived Tuesday in Crimea despite stiff opposition from Tokyo to a trip that could be seen as legitimizing Moscow’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.
The government had urged Hatoyama not to visit the region, which was annexed by Russia about a year ago. Officials feared that if a former prime minister entered the territory with a Russian visa, it could conflict with Japan’s stance that Russia unilaterally took the territory from Ukraine in violation of international law.
But Hatoyama, who served as prime minister for just nine months from 2009 to 2010, paid no heed to Tokyo’s concerns, kicking off his three-day Crimea trip with a visit to the seaside city of Yalta, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.
“I possibly could in some way promote the development of cultural and humanitarian ties between Crimea and Japan,” the agency quoted Hatoyama as saying.
The former prime minister was set to give a speech to university students in Crimea on Thursday, RIA Novosti reported.
The Ukrainian province was annexed by Moscow on March 18 last year, triggering international condemnation.
Japanese officials fear Moscow could exploit his visit in its efforts to justify the annexation.
Earlier on Tuesday in Tokyo, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said the government would “continue to urge former Prime Minister Hatoyama” not to visit Crimea.
Yukio Edano, secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Japan, to which Hatoyama formerly belonged, said the former prime minister “can’t escape being criticized for being improvident” by making the trip.
Hatoyama, 68, was prime minister from September 2009 to June 2010 when the DPJ was in power.
Hatoyama told reporters in Moscow on Monday he wanted “to take a look at” whether the annexation was justified.
“Facts haven’t been delivered to Japan accurately. I would like to see myself how residents are feeling,” he said.
“An opinion poll showed that residents expressed their wish for annexation,” he said. “What’s most important in democracy is what local residents feel.”
Hatoyama said he held “various consultations with the Russian side” about his plan to visit the Crimea.
He said the trip may contribute to solving the dispute with Moscow over the group of small islands off Hokkaido that are controlled by Russia and claimed by Japan.
“If we are at loggerheads with Russia, it will be all the more difficult to get the Northern Territories back,” Hatoyama said, referring to the islands.
“The Northern Territories will be returned only when President (Vladimir) Putin is in power. In resolving the Northern Territories issue, we need to understand what Russia thinks about Crimea.”
He also questioned whether Japan’s participation in sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea is appropriate.
“Japan should think hard whether imposing sanctions, just following European countries and the United States, is the right decision to make,” he said.