TOKYO – Russia agreed Friday to hand over the body of a Japanese fisherman killed by a Russian patrol boat that opened fire in disputed waters earlier this week, spurring a diplomatic feud.
The shooting of the crab fisherman on Wednesday was the latest flare-up in a 60-year dispute over a series of islands claimed by both countries and has strained relations between the Pacific powers. Russia seized the fisherman's boat, accused the crew of illegal fishing and took the three surviving crewmen to Russia for further questioning.
Japan's Senior Vice Foreign Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki was in the Russian capital on Friday to seek the release of the three detained fishermen and the dead fishermen's body, amid protests that Russia overreacted to the alleged poaching.
Both sides agreed on handing over the corpse of Mitsuhiro Morita, 35, said Noriyuki Shikata, a spokesman at Japan's Foreign Ministry.
Vice Foreign Minister Akiko Yamanaka arrived at Kunashiri Island, where the body has been kept, on a Japan Coast Guard boat Friday evening, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Despite earlier media reports that the body could be returned to Japan later in the day, the ministry said it will not be handed over until Saturday morning due to bad weather there.
It was not clear how soon the boat will return to Japan.
Russian prosecutors meanwhile decided to charge only the fishing boat's captain with illegal fishing and border violations, Kyodo News agency said. Shikata was not immediately able to confirm that report.
"We will ask (the Russians) to return the three men to their families as quickly as possible," Yamanaka said before departing.
Noboru Sakashita , the captain of the boat, speaking via telephone with an official of the Japanese Consulate in Sakhalin, said he was sorry for the trouble the incident caused and wanted the body of Morita to be returned to Japan as soon as possible, Kyodo reported.
The incident occurred in waters around four disputed islands off northeastern Japan — called the southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan — seized by the Soviet army near the end of World War II. Kunashiri is also in the southern Kuril chain and administered by Russia but claimed by Japan.
Tokyo demands their return, and the dispute has blocked a peace treaty formally ending wartime hostilities.
Each country claims the fishing boat seized Wednesday was in its own territorial waters at the time of the shooting.
The disputed islands are surrounded by rich fishing waters and are believed to have promising offshore oil and natural gas reserves, as well as gold and silver deposits.
Russian authorities have seized dozens of Japanese boats and injured several fishermen over the years, but this was the first shooting death of a Japanese in the region since October 1956, Coast Guard officials said.