MOSCOW - Five Japanese fishing vessels were seized Wednesday by Russia in the country's far east — the latest in a series of incidents over fishing rights that lay bare a larger Russo-Japanese territorial dispute dating back to the end of World War II.
The Japanese ships were fishing for octopus when they were overtaken by Russian border patrol investigating claims of illegal poaching in Russian waters, said Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in comments on Wednesday.
"This is unacceptable," added Suga in a press conference in Tokyo. "The government is strongly demanding, from a humanitarian perspective, the early release of the crew and ships."
Back in Moscow, Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova confirmed the incident had taken place a day earlier and insisted Japan had repeatedly — and once again — violated maritime law concerning natural resources.
"Unfortunately, what you say, happened," said Zakharova in addressing the issue when pressed by journalists.
She also insisted the Japanese fishermen were being given all necessary food, clothing, and medical aid while in custody.
Past is prologue
At the real heart of the issue: a lingering dispute over four small islands the Soviet Union seized from Japan at the end of World War II, which have kept Moscow and Tokyo — formally, at least — at war all these years.
Japan insists the four Russian-held islands, which it calls the Northern Territories, must be returned.
Russia, which refers to the islands as the Southern Kurils, insists the islands are legitimate spoils of war back from the days when Japan was part the World War II Axis powers, along with Nazi Germany.
Despite decades of negotiations, increased cultural exchanges, and occasional hints at a breakthrough, the island dispute has kept any peace treaty from ever being signed.
Both sides insist the islands are theirs. So, too, do their populations.
New century, new bargain?
The latest push for a compromise came from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who unexpectedly announced at a Far Eastern economic forum in 2018 that he was eager to sign a deal "without preconditions" within a matter of months.
The gesture set off a new flurry of diplomatic activity by both sides that ultimately stalled on a key Russian demand: that Japan recognize Russia's right to the territory before Russia would gift back to Japan two of the smaller islands.
Equally vexing are Russia's concerns over post-war Japan's longstanding alliance with the United States. Despite Japanese assurances, the Kremlin has called the mere possibility of an American military on the islands a non-starter for negotiations.
Then there is public opinion. A 2018 Russian poll by the respected Levada Center found 74% of Russians were against handing over any of the territory.
Yet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has indicated he sees a deal on the islands as central to his political legacy as the country's longest-serving leader.
Also of interest, say observers, are the generational ambitions at play.
Abe's grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, also had come tantalizingly close to reaching a deal with the Soviets over the island issue during his own tenure as prime minister from 1957-60.
Despite the continued impasse, both Moscow and Tokyo insist discussions will continue.
Indeed, even as the news spread of Russia's seizure of the Japanese ships, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi was in Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov that begin Thursday.
Their primary topic of discussion? A peace deal long awaited, and — if history is a lesson — perhaps out of reach for a bit longer.