Russia’s president visited an island in the Pacific Ocean claimed by both Russia and Japan today, triggering immediate protests from Tokyo, which is already involved in a heated dispute with China over islands to the south.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry said President Dmitry Medvedev landed on Kunashiri Island, just off Japan’s northern coast.
The island, known in Russian as Kunashir, is part of a group of four claimed by both countries that Japan calls the Northern Territories and Russia calls the southern Kurils.
Medvedev is the first Russian president to visit the island.
“We have never changed our position that the Northern Territories are a part of our territory and the visit is very regrettable,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan told a session of Parliament today.
Part of a larger chain of Russian-held islands, the disputed islands are surrounded by rich fishing waters and are believed to have promising offshore oil and natural gas reserves, plus gold and silver deposits.
The islands, which have been under Russian control since the waning days of World War II have suffered neglect and the population has plummeted since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Medvedev said in September that he planned to visit the disputed islands in the Pacific, which are just six miles (10 kilometres) from Japan’s Hokkaido island but are also near undisputed Russian territory. Japan criticized his plan, with Mr. Kan saying he didn’t think the visit would actually take place.
Mr. Medvedev at the time described the islands as “a very important region in our country”.
Japan also protested when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the islands in 2007. Two years earlier, Moscow hinted it would cede two of the four disputed islands if Japan gave up its claim to the other two, an idea Japan rejected.