• Compiled From Kyodo, Staff Report

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A trip to a Russian-held island off Hokkaido involving Japanese tourists on Russian visas raised eyebrows in the government Tuesday, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku expressing concern the trip runs counter to Japan’s territorial claim.

“It would be extremely disappointing,” Sengoku told a news conference, adding the government was trying to verify details of the Monday visit.

The trip to Kunashiri Island was organized by a travel agency in the city of Fukuoka. It involved eight tourists aged 72 to 84 from Tokyo and Chiba, Kanagawa, Toyama, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures, as well as an attendant from the company. The trip is believed to be the first of its kind.

The government has been urging Japanese to refrain from acquiring Russian visas to visit the islands under the theory it is tantamount to recognizing Russian sovereignty over them.

“It is an act that goes against an understanding reached by the Cabinet” in 1989, and is inconsistent with the government’s position that the islands are Japanese territory, Sengoku said.

He added that the government was ready to file a complaint against the tour agency once details of the tour are confirmed. He also called on tourists not to take part in similar sightseeing programs.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada echoed Sengoku in expressing regret over the trip and said the government will publicize its policy of urging citizens not to visit the disputed islands with Russian visas.

The visitors got to Kunashiri by taking a flight from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in Russia. Their plans also called for visiting Etorofu, another of the disputed islands.

The tour attendant admitted knowing of the government’s request but said the tour participants are all aged over 70 and they are the kind of people who have “no where else to travel” as they have already traveled around the world.

“They said (the islets) are unlikely to be returned to Japan while they are alive, so they want to see the place that was once under the control of Japan,” the attendant said.

None of the eight tourists is a former resident of the islands. The tour was organized at their request, and the agency said it did not openly seek applicants for the tour.

There have been previous cases of Japanese visiting the islands on Russian visas, including last month in which two engineers from Hokkaido made a trip to Kunashiri to service equipment delivered to a Russian seafood processing firm.

Another notable case was a visit by some 530 members of the nongovernmental organization Peace Boat to Kunashiri in 2002, which followed Russian customs regulations but didn’t involve obtaining Russian visas.

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