• Kyodo

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The skipper of a fishing boat returned to Hokkaido on Monday afternoon four months after being taken into custody off islands now held by Russia.

Takashi Kawabata, 52, skipper of the Zuisho Maru No. 38 from Hokkaido, was handed over to Foreign Ministry personnel who were aboard a ship used for a visa-free exchange program involving the four disputed islands, including Kunashiri.

Kawabata returned to Nemuro, Hokkaido, at around 1 p.m.

He was taken into custody by the Russian border guard on Jan. 21 off Kunashiri. Five crew members on the boat were released and returned to Japan in February, but Kawabata was charged with poaching and remained in custody.

In March, a Russian court fined Kawabata 300,000 rubles, or 1.4 million yen. A ministry official, when asked whether Kawabata has paid the fine, said, “We are not aware of that.”

The 19-ton boat remains impounded by Russian authorities.

The Zuisho Maru was seized for operating in waters off-limits under a 1998 bilateral accord and for failing to obey an order to stop, according to the Russians.

Japanese officials have said the boat was conducting a “safe operation,” as fees had been paid to Russia for walleye pollock fishing in waters near Kunashiri and three other islands administered by Russia but claimed by Japan.

The ministry said it regrets that Russia is still holding the boat and will continue to seek its return.

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