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Why “Kunashiri man seeking asylum” presents Japanese government with dilemma

By Kudo Hiroshi, J-CAST News Editorial Department


A Russian man living on Kunashiri Island in the Northern Territories appeared in Shibetsu Town, Hokkaido, which is about 20 kilometers away from Kunashiri [across the Nemuro Strait], and was taken into custody by police. Russia intends to request a visit with the man as soon as his nationality is confirmed to be Russian, but this incident presents Japan with a real conundrum.


The man is said to be seeking asylum in Japan. If Japan accepts Russia’s request and allows a Russian representative to visit the man or repatriates him, humanitarian issues could arise and it could lead to recognizing Russia’s effective control of the Northern Territories. Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Katsunobu has declined to comment on how the government will handle the matter going forward.


The man moved to Kunashiri three years ago and had Japanese posters at home


According to reports in the Hokkaido Shimbun and other sources quoting a Japanese government official, the man was found by a Shibetsu resident on the evening of Aug. 19. The resident called the police because he couldn’t communicate in Japanese with the man, and the man was taken into custody by police. The man reportedly is seeking asylum, saying, “I swam over from Kunashiri Island.” The Sapporo Regional Immigration Services Bureau has taken him into its custody and will determine the details of the situation and decide how to proceed.


From the Russian media, the identity of the man has gradually become clear. Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency has said the man contacted two friends before going across the strait to Hokkaido, although the agency adds the disclaimer that they “do not know if the person is definitely the man in question.” He told one of his friends he would put his motorcycle on the beach and asked him to pick it up, sell it, and send him the proceeds. To the other, he apparently left a note saying, “The ‘exile’ is already far away, so don’t wait.”


RIA Novosti also says the man was deported from Japan  in 2011 due to a problem with his status of residence visa, and he has been detained for forgery of documents in both Thailand and in Bali, Indonesia.


According to what authorities of the central Kunashiri city of Yuzhno-Kurilsk (Japanese name: Furukamappu) told Interfax, the man is around 40 years old. About three years ago, he moved to Kunashiri from the Udmurt Republic in eastern Russia, after having obtained land through a system that provides one hectare of land in Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District to applicants free of charge. He lived in an abandoned house in Dubovoye Village, in the southern part of Kunashiri Island, and is said to have worked part-time here and there, carrying shipments at stores and driving tractors. The man went missing on Aug. 17. When villagers searched his home, Japanese posters were found and the local authorities said, “He loved Japanese culture.”


“If he were repatriated to Russia, it would mean Japan accepts Russia’s effective control of the Northern Territories”


The Japanese government is extremely cautious about providing information to the Russian side at this point. On the afternoon of Aug. 22, the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in Sapporo said on Facebook regarding its exchange with the Japanese side: “The Japanese government refuses to provide official information, even though the Japanese media has reported the details of the case and said the information is from a police source.” The Consulate General said the following: (1) Hokkaido Police have said that “the foreigner has been handed over to the Sapporo Regional Immigration Services Bureau and we do not know anything.” (2) The Japan Coast Guard has said, “We don’t have any information at all.” (3) The Sapporo Regional Immigration Services Bureau said, “We cannot confirm the nationality of man without instructions from Tokyo, so we cannot offer cooperation.”


Nonetheless, the Russian side’s policy is clear, “When the man’s nationality is confirmed to be Russian, we will receive proper information from the Japanese authorities and intend to visit him.”


If the Japanese side’s claim that the Northern Territories are an inherent part of Japan is applied, however, the man simply swam 20 kilometers and moved within Japan. With this in mind, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Katsunobu said at a press conference held on the morning of Aug. 23, “If he were to be repatriated to Russia, it would mean Japan accepts Russia’s effective control [of the Northern Territories].” He added, “I am aware the man is being questioned at the Sapporo Regional Immigration Services Bureau,” but Kato declined to comment on how the matter will be handled. “I will refrain from commenting on the detailed handling of a specific case or on the future handling of the case. We will carefully check the facts and cooperate with related organizations to take appropriate measures.”

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