• Kyodo

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The government has lodged a protest over the recent visit by Russia’s health care minister to one of the disputed islands off Hokkaido claimed by Japan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday.

Suga called Saturday’s trip by Veronika Skvortsova to Shikotan “extremely regrettable” and “unacceptable as it goes against Japan’s position on the territorial issue.”

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida also criticized Russia for seizing a Japanese salmon and trout fishing boat Friday near the disputed islands, describing it as “unacceptable.”

However, both ministers downplayed any impact by these recent moves on preparations for President Vladimir Putin’s Japan trip later this year.

Kishida said the government is calling for the release of the crew members of the Hokkaido-based fishing boat Hoko Maru and the return of the boat at an early date.

Skvortsova’s visit to inspect infrastructure construction on the island, including a new hospital, was the first by a senior Russian official to one of the disputed islands since a trip last September to Iturup Island, known as Etorofu in Japan, by Sergei Ivanov, the chief of staff of Putin’s administration.

The row over the four Russian-controlled islands — Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets — started when they were seized by the Soviet Union following Japan’s surrender in World War II. The dispute has prevented the two countries from concluding a postwar peace treaty.

Russia’s recent decision to ban drift-net fishing in its waters starting in January to conserve natural resources came as a major blow to Japanese fishermen, who have long fished for salmon and trout in Russia’s exclusive economic zone under bilateral arrangements.

The minister’s visit and the seizure of the fishing boat came at a time Tokyo and Moscow have been arranging for political dialogue at various levels.

To lay the groundwork for the Putin visit, Japan is planning to dispatch Deputy Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama to Russia in mid-August and then Kishida from Aug. 31 to Sept. 1 for talks with his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, according to government sources.

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