Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 126

An incident in which Russian border forces fired upon a Japanese fishing boat near the disputed Kuril Islands has elicited a protest from the Japanese government and precipitated yet another diplomatic clash between the two countries. The incident, which occurred on June 25 near the Habomai group of islands, left two of the three crew members injured, one of them seriously. Japan’s Foreign Ministry protested officially yesterday at the Russian Embassy in Tokyo and demanded that Moscow investigate the incident. The Russian border forces command admitted that warning shots had indeed been fired at a group of four Japanese fishing boats. They were said to have been fishing in Russian waters and to have ignored verbal warnings to leave the area. (UPI, Kyodo, NTV, June 26)

This week’s altercation reprised an incident last August in which Russian patrol boats also fired upon Japanese fishing vessels near the disputed islands. That attack likewise left two fishermen injured, and resulted in a demand for an investigation by Tokyo. But the commander of Russian border forces in the region responded by calling the Japanese fishermen "poachers" and rejected out of hand a Japanese demand for compensation — a position that was supported by Russia’s Foreign Ministry and by a representative for Russian fishing interests. In October Russia’s border forces seized a 10-ton Japanese trawler, also said to be fishing off the Kuril Islands.

The two countries have been negotiating since 1995 — largely without success — to regulate fishing activities for Japanese boats around the disputed islands. But the talks have foundered on Moscow’s insistence that it administer all fishing by Japanese boats in the area, while Tokyo has rejected the implication that Russia controls the marine resources off the islands. Those disagreements merely underline the fact, however, that the talks are less about fishing than about the territorial dispute, and that the two sides are likely to continue to clash over fishing rights until that broader issue is resolved.

This latest incident comes at a particularly sensitive time. Russian president Boris Yeltsin met with Japanese prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto during the recent G-7 summit in Denver, and both sides seem intent upon invigorating their near stagnant bilateral relations. Perhaps because of that, the incident seems not to have had any immediate effect on broader Japanese policy toward Russia. A government official in Tokyo said yesterday that Japan will invite Russia to a G-7 summit on unemployment, scheduled for November in Kobe. Meanwhile, a Russian warship arrived in Tokyo earlier today — the first Russian battle ship to pay a port call to Japan in more than 100 years. (Kyodo, June 26-27)

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