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Regrettably, action by Russia has led to the cancellation of this year’s humanitarian assistance mission to Russian-held islands off Hokkaido that are claimed by Japan. A Japanese ship returned to Nemuro port Thursday after Russian authorities had demanded that Japanese officials and citizens aboard the ship submit disembarkation cards before arriving on Kunashiri Island. Japan rejected the Russian demand because submitting the cards would signify Tokyo’s acceptance of Moscow’s claim to Kunashiri Island.

Cancellation of the humanitarian assistance activities, which began in fiscal 2003, should disappoint not only Japanese citizens but also Russian residents on the islands. The ship was to deliver ¥12.8 million worth of medical supplies to Kunashiri, Shikotan and Etorofu islands at the request of Russian residents.

Russia said its demand is based on a law revision in 2006. But such a demand was not made in fiscal 2006 and 2007. Reportedly Moscow officially notified Tokyo about the disembarkation card requirement Jan. 23. The Japanese Foreign Ministry should have noticed the revision earlier and held talks with Moscow to prevent an undesirable development. It is also odd that the latest incident occurred after Japan and Russia held a foreign vice ministerial meeting in Moscow on Jan. 20.

Yet Russia should realize that its action could undermine achievements realized through confidence-building measures taken by both nations since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia’s action could lead to at least a temporary end to the visa-free mutual visit program between Japanese citizens and Russian residents on the islands, which started in 1992. Such a development could deepen Japanese distrust of Russia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev proposed that he and Prime Minister Taro Aso meet in Sakhalin to mark the Feb. 18 start of natural gas exports from the island to Japan. Moscow should rethink the action that could pour cold water on the progress of bilateral relations.

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