Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 161

A border incident has reignited the decades-long territorial dispute between Moscow and Tokyo. Russian border guards fired on a Japanese boat in disputed waters, killing a fisherman, for allegedly poaching in Russian territorial waters. Japan responded with a “strong protest” to Moscow.

Moscow has insisted the incident followed increased poaching involving Japanese fishing vessels in Russian waters. Russian border guards have information indicating that small vessels have repeatedly crossed into Russian waters from Japan near Tanfilyev and Anuchin Islands, once “every two or three days after July 20,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said. It said Russia has “repeatedly drawn the attention of Japanese authorities to the fact, but the warnings have not been heard.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the fisherman must have been hit by a stray bullet as warning shots were fired. “According to Article 35 of the Russian Law on the State Border and Article 7 of the Russian Border Guards Code, warning shots were fired from an AK-74 rifle,” it said (Interfax, August 17).

Russia’s Foreign Ministry voiced regret over the incident on August 16, but said Japanese authorities and the fishermen themselves were responsible. “The Russian Foreign Ministry deeply regrets the death of one of the crew members,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that the Japanese fishermen had refused to stop (Interfax, RIA-Novosti, August 16).

“This is an extraordinary incident given our position on the territorial dispute between Japan and Russia,” the Japanese Foreign Ministry replied. “It led to the death of a crew member, which is absolutely unacceptable.”

Russian officials said the Japanese vessel was suspected of illegally fishing for valuable crab in Russian territorial waters, and that border guards had only fired warning shots. Crab fishing in the area, which is administered by Russia but claimed by Japan, is illegal.

The Russian coast guard in the Far East said that warning shots had been fired at the Kisshin Maru 31, which was then brought to the Yuzhno-Kurilsk port on Kunashir Island, one of the Kuril Islands claimed by Japan. The Kisshin Maru 31 was reportedly found to be carrying about three tons of crab, 10 kilograms of octopus, and 25 crab traps.

Japan demanded the immediate return of the Japanese vessel, the body of the fisherman, and the release of the three surviving crew members. Russian officials promised to send the dead fisherman’s body home but refused to release the three alleged poachers and the vessel. Furthermore, the Russian prosecutor has launched criminal proceedings against the three fishermen who were on Kisshin Maru 31 (Itar-Tass, August 17).

During the past decade, a total of 30 fishing boats and 210 Japanese fishermen were detained by Russia in the disputed waters. Seven fishermen were injured when Russian coast guard troops fired on them. The Kisshin Maru 31 had already been involved in similar incidents twice (RIA-Novosti, August 16).

Russia and Japan have long disputed ownership of the Southern Kuril Islands. Moscow has consistently dismissed Japan’s insistence that it return all four islands. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on June 2 that Russia “never considered giving the islands back.”

At a July 15 meeting between President Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, the two leaders reportedly discussed a peace treaty, but failed to solve disagreements over the territorial dispute.

Earlier this month, Russia moved to develop and repopulate the Kuril Islands by approving a draft program for the social and economic development of the Kuril Islands in 2007-2015. The program aims at boosting the population and industrial output by 50%. Under the program, the government would disburse some 18 billion rubles ($668 million) to the Kurils (see EDM, August 7).

Yet despite continued territorial disagreements, this week’s incident is not seen as a serious threat to bilateral relations. Japan is unlikely to pursue a path of confrontation with Russia over the incident, as Tokyo’s relations with Beijing and Seoul have already reached new lows, Kommersant daily commented. Russia is also not interested in further confrontation, as it still hopes to boost economic ties with Japan, the daily wrote (Kommersant, August 17).

For example, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said on August 17 that it would not annul a visa-free regime with a different Russian region after the incident. “The procedure for visa-free travel between northern Hokkaido and the Sakhalin region will remain unchanged,” the ministry said. The statement came one day after Hokkaido mayor Hiroshi Fujiwara demanded an end to the visa-free regime with the Sakhalin region (RIA-Novosti, August 17).

Subsequently, Moscow downplayed the violent death of a Russian national in Japan. “The Russian Foreign Ministry sees no connection between murder of a Russian citizen in Kobe and the incident over the detention of the Japanese fishing vessel in Russian territorial waters,” the ministry said (Interfax, August 17). A 22-year-old Russian woman was recently stabbed to death in Kobe, according to Russian media reports.