SAPPORO – The body of a 35-year-old Japanese fisherman shot dead Wednesday by a Russian border patrol boat near disputed islands was returned Saturday to Nemuro, Hokkaido, after Russia handed over the body to Japanese officials earlier in the day.
The Japanese Coast Guard patrol vessel Saroma brought the body of Mitsuhiro Morita into Nemuro port at around 1:50 p.m. after Vice Foreign Minister Akiko Yamanaka collected it on Russian-held Kunashiri Island at around 10:20 a.m.
An autopsy was to be conducted before the body is handed over to the fisherman’s family, officials said.
Viewing the body of Morita at a coast guard facility after it was unloaded from the patrol vessel, his wife, Satomi, 46, and his mother, Shoko, 63, broke down, and the wife left the facility without speaking, supported by friends.
Earlier in the day, hearing news that Morita’s body had been handed over to the Japanese side, she said,”I don’t know what I should say. I have to face the reality and sorrow will increase.”
Yamanaka met with four Russian representatives and the three surviving Japanese fishermen from a crab fishing boat detained on Kunashiri since the shooting incident.
After returning to Nemuro, Yamanaka said Russia may free the detained fishermen other than the captain.
“I had the impression that the early release of two of the three is possible,” Yamanaka said.
Immediately following the incident, Japan urged Russia to hand over Morita’s body and release the three other crew members of the Kisshin Maru No. 31, including Capt. Noboru Sakashita, 59. It also requested that Russia return the boat.
Yamanaka met with the three detained crew members for more than 10 minutes, the Foreign Ministry said.
Yamanaka told reporters they were shocked by the death of Morita but appeared to be in good physical health.
The Russian side also explained to Yamanaka that they were trying to fire a warning shot and that they were not aiming at Morita. But because of high waves, the shot accidentally killed him.
Yamanaka and four other officials from the Foreign Ministry, Fisheries Agency and Hokkaido Prefectural Government left Nemuro for Furukamappu port in Kunashiri on Friday following an agreement between Tokyo and Moscow on procedures for handing over Morita’s body.
Their ship was unable to berth Friday due to rough weather, and anchored offshore during the night. Yamanaka and the others left the ship on a barge early Saturday and landed in Furukamappu shortly after 8 a.m., the ministry said.
While the Japanese government has been demanding Russia return the fishing vessel and the three surviving crew members, Russia appears to be moving toward taking legal actions over the incident.
A Russian prosecutor on the island of Sakhalin said Friday that Sakashita will be charged and fined for illegal fishing and entering Russian waters.
Russia says the Japanese fishermen are to blame for the incident since they were poaching in Russian territorial waters.
On Thursday, Japan dispatched Senior Vice Foreign Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki to Moscow to urge Russia to release the fishermen.
Shiozaki met with Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Alexeyev on Friday and quoted Alexeyev as saying Moscow will give the matter its utmost humanitarian consideration.
The incident occurred at around 4 a.m. Wednesday Japan time in waters near Kaigara Island off the Nemuro Peninsula on the eastern tip of Hokkaido, in the vicinity of a number of disputed islands at the center of a long-standing territorial row between Japan and Russia, according to the coast guard. Kaigara is one of the disputed Habomai islets.
Russian authorities said the border patrol vessel ordered the Kisshin Maru to stop, suspecting it of illegal crab fishing in Russian waters, but that the Japanese ship did not obey, prompting the Russian authorities to open fire.
The Russian authorities seized the 4.9-ton fishing boat and towed it to Furukamappu, where the crew was questioned.
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