NEMURO, Hokkaido – A group of former residents of the Russian-held islands off northeastern Hokkaido left Friday for a regularly scheduled, visa-free visit, despite bilateral tensions caused by the fatal shooting of a Japanese fisherman by a Russian patrol boat Wednesday.
A group of 54 people made up of former residents of the four Russian-held islands — Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islets — relatives and supporters left Nermuro port early Friday. They are scheduled to take part in events aimed at promote exchanges with Russian residents and will return to Japan on Monday.
The visa-free visits are sponsored by the Foreign Ministry and held several times a year.
Although many people in Nemuro, including the mayor, opposed Friday’s visit because of the shooting of the fisherman, the former residents of the islands decided to go ahead with the trip.
“We feel very sorry about the fisherman who was shot,” said Michio Taniguchi, a 73-year-old former resident of Etorofu Island. “But a suspension of exchanges won’t lead anywhere. It would weaken our years of efforts to urge Russia to return the islands (to Japan).”
Along with the former residents, former Democratic Party of Japan President Seiji Maehara and Shinako Tsuchiya, a Lower House lawmaker from the Liberal Democratic Party, took part in the trip as planned.
Compiled from Kyodo, AP Foreign Ministry officials arrived on Russian-administered Kunashiri Island Friday evening to retrieve the body of a Japanese fisherman killed in waters off Hokkaido Wednesday by gunfire from a Russian patrol boat. Vice Foreign Minister Akiko Yamanaka and four other officials arrived aboard the Japan Coast Guard vessel Saroma to pick up the body of Mitsuhiro Morita, 35. The Saroma left Nemuro at 4:40 p.m. for the port of Furukamappu on Kunashiri.
Russia initially planned to hand over the body to the Japanese officials Friday, but they postponed the transfer until Saturday morning, due to bad weather.
In another development, a Russian prosecutor on the island of Sakhalin said Friday the skipper of the crab boat, Noboru Sakashita, 59, will face criminal charges for poaching and illegally entering Russian waters.
The incident took place at around 4 a.m. Wednesday. The Russian patrol boat fired on the Kisshin Maru No. 31 near Kaigara Island off the Nemuro Peninsula on the eastern tip of Hokkaido, according to the JCG. Morita, Sakashita and two other crew members were aboard the crab boat.
Kaigara is one of the disputed Habomai islets.
Japan has said Russia’s response to the alleged poaching was extreme and warned that the incident may hurt bilateral relations.
Meanwhile Senior Vice Foreign Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki was in Moscow on Friday to press for the release of the rest of the crew.
Shiozaki traveled to the Russian capital Thursday and was expected to lodge a protest over Wednesday’s shooting, the latest flareup in a 61-year dispute over islands off Hokkaido seized by Soviet forces near the end of World War II.
Both Russia and Japan claim the fishing boat was seized from its territorial waters.
The disputed islands have rich fishing grounds and are believed to have offshore oil and natural gas reserves, as well deposits of gold and silver.
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