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6 Sep, 2022 12:15

Japan upset with Russia over disputed islands

Moscow has scrapped a mutual visa-free program in response to sanctions imposed by Tokyo
Japan upset with Russia over disputed islands

Japan has lodged a protest over Russia’s withdrawal from a bilateral agreement on visa-free travel to the southern part of the Kuril Islands for Japanese citizens. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called the decision “unfounded and unacceptable.”

On Monday, the Russian government scrapped the agreement with Japan on facilitated visits to the islands for former Japanese residents, as well as the mutual visa-free travel program. 

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi also condemned the move, adding that Japan has yet to be informed by Russia on the matter.

The reciprocal visa-free exchange program, which was set up in the 1990s, was designed to improve mutual understanding between the two countries.

The initiative allowed around 10,000 residents of the Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, and smaller islands to travel to Japan, and 20,000 Japanese people to visit the Kurils. In 2017, Moscow and Tokyo launched the first charter flight to the Kuril Archipelago for Japanese citizens to visit the graves of their ancestors. 

The move comes as tensions between Russia and Japan run high over the conflict in Ukraine. The chairman of the International Committee of the Russian State Duma, Leonid Slutsky, attributed the action by the government to Japan’s support for the Western sanctions. On Monday, he said the measure was in response to “illegal sanctions pressure and the Japanese government joining the Russophobic policy of the West.”

Japan, along with many Western nations, imposed sanctions on Russia following the launch of the military operation in Ukraine in late February. Tokyo has frozen the assets of Russian individuals, banned the import of certain goods, and started phasing out imports of Russian coal, which amount to about 11% of the nation’s coal needs. It also blacklisted Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, along with hundreds of people from Russia, Belarus, and the Donbass republics.

In June, Russia suspended a 1998 agreement on harvesting marine resources, which allowed Japanese fishermen to fish near the Kuril Islands. In March, amid worsening relations, Russia stopped negotiations for a postwar peace treaty with Japan, and withdrew from joint economic activities with Tokyo on the disputed islands. The two states never formally concluded a peace treaty after WWII, due to the dispute over the four southernmost islands in the Kuril chain, which Japan calls the Northern Territories.