Japan lodged a protest after Russia shot dead a Japanese man and captured three others on a fishing boat yesterday, in the first fatality for a half-century around disputed islands. Moscow expressed regret, but blamed the boat for violating Russian waters and urged Japanese vessels to stay out.
A Russian patrol killed 35-year-old fisherman Mitsuhiro Morita as it seized a Japanese crab fishing boat in the contested waters off Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, a Coast Guard spokesman said.
He said the Russian side towed the 4.9-tonne boat and took the three remaining fishermen to Kunashiri Island, one of four Kuril islands which Soviet troops seized at the end of World War II.
Russian officials said the fishermen strayed into Russian waters and the patrol fired a warning shot which was not aimed at anyone.
It was the first time a Japanese fisherman had been killed by Russian maritime authorities since 1956 around the islands, which Japan calls the Northern Territories, according to the coast guard.
Foreign Minister Taro Aso summoned the acting Russian ambassador to demand the release of the fishermen and their boat and the return of Morita's body.
"We can hardly condone what has occurred in territorial waters of the Northern Territories. We will sternly protest against this extremely grave incident in which one Japanese national lost his life," Aso told the envoy, according to a diplomat.
"Japan for its part cannot accept the seizure itself. The loss of life through shooting cannot be justified by any reason," Aso said.
He acknowledged the two sides disagreed on whether the boat was in Russian waters.
Japan's Kyodo News, quoting officials in Hokkaido, said crab fishing was banned where the shooting took place and authorities had warned companies not to defy Russian orders.
Russian Deputy Ambassador Mikhail Galuzin told reporters that the fishing vessel appeared to have charged at the Russian boat, prompting warning shots.
"They were not aiming [to kill]," Galuzin said.
Mikhail Shevchenko, deputy head of the Border Guards Service division on Sakhalin island in the Russian Far East, earlier said the fisherman was felled by warning shots as he scrambled to bring in fishing equipment.
The incident came one day after Japan marked the anniversary of then Emperor Hirohito's Aug. 15, 1945 surrender in World War II. Soviet troops advanced on four Japanese-ruled Kuril islands on Aug. 18, 1945 despite Japan's defeat and expelled the Japanese residents.
The two nations have yet to sign a peace treaty formally ending World War II, with a series of talks since the collapse of the Soviet Union making no headway.