Ishihara, citing Chinese moves, plans to buy Senkaku Islands

April 17, 2012

By YOSHITAKA UNEZAWA/ Staff Writer

WASHINGTON--Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara on April 16 said the Tokyo metropolitan government will buy three of the disputed Senkaku Islands, drawing anger among Chinese, bewilderment in the Cabinet and mixed reactions among local leaders.

Ishihara said he had obtained approval from an individual landowner to buy the islands in the East China Sea and plans to submit a proposal for the purchase to the Tokyo metropolitan assembly by the end of this year.

"Who dares to complain about Japanese nationals trying to defend Japan's soil?" the ultra-nationalist governor said during a speech. "China has embarked on radical movements in an attempt to knock down Japan's effective control on the Senkaku Islands. That's scandalous."

The group of islets has been the focal point of recent spats between Japan and China, which calls them Diaoyutai.

Ishihara also said following the speech session: "The surroundings of the Senkaku Islands are an opulent fishing ground, and also have great potential for the development of natural energy sources. I want to put various measures in place on the islands."

The governor said the metropolitan government entered negotiations with the landowner late last year and reached a basic agreement on buying the three islands of Uotsurishima, Kita-Kojima and Minami-Kojima.

Although the landowner had refused to sell the islands earlier, "circumstances had changed," including the death of a family member of the landowner, Ishihara explained.

He said the cost will "not be very large," and that a bill related to the purchase budget will be submitted to the Tokyo metropolitan assembly following deliberations by an expert panel.

The Chinese government and the state-run Xinhua News Agency did not immediately react to Ishihara's remark, but Japan’s Foreign Ministry said it was informed through diplomatic channels that Beijing was looking into Ishihara's remarks with interest.

Chinese citizens were quick to flood the Internet with protests.

On weibo microblogging websites, which are sometimes dubbed the Chinese Twitter, such messages as "Don't let Japan have its own way" and "The Chinese government should file a strong protest" were posted soon after Ishihara’s remarks were reported.

One skeptical blogger asked: "Is the governor of Tokyo entitled to make such a decision, given that he is not the prime minister?"

That question also seems to have circulated among officials in the Japanese central government.

The administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda reacted to Ishihara's remark with displeasure.

"That's the sort of controversial remark that is Ishihara's shtick," a Cabinet minister said. "It's only good for gaining momentary popularity."

Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba told reporters on April 17 that Ishihara's warning that the central government’s current attitude could end up costing Japan its territory was totally off the mark. "It is an unquestionable fact that the Senkaku Islands are an integral part of Japan's territory," Genba said. "Japan has effective control over the islands."

Behind the central government’s nervousness lies the tricky status of Japan-China relations.

Bilateral ties soured after a Chinese fishing boat rammed two Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels near the Senkaku Islands in September 2010, resulting in the arrest of the trawler’s captain. China reacted angrily, and banned exports of rare earth metals to Japan that are needed in the production of high-tech products.

Tokyo and Beijing have sought to improve relations this year, which marks the 40th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties.

But in February, relations again unraveled when Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura denied that 1937 Nanking massacre by the Imperial Japanese Army occurred.

The Noda administration fears that the latest remark by another influential local government leader could sow further discord between the two countries.

Ishihara said that following the purchase of the three islands, he plans to sound out the governments of Okinawa Prefecture and the city of Ishigaki, to which the Senkaku Islands belong, on joint ownership.

Ishigaki Mayor Yoshitaka Nakayama welcomed Ishihara's plan.

"I had been informed, through a channel, of the Tokyo metropolitan government's intention," Nakayama told a news conference. "The Senkaku Islands are remote islands on the frontier. I think it is more judicious, in terms of defending territorial land and waters, that the islands are owned and administered by the national, a prefectural or a municipal government rather than if they are left to private ownership."

But a senior official at the Okinawa prefectural government was visibly embarrassed by the remarks of the Tokyo governor.

"I was never told about that before," the official said. "There is no problem as long as the central government takes charge of the islands, but matters will become entangled if the Tokyo metropolitan government becomes their owner and begins erecting buildings on them."

Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, a hugely popular politician who plans to make inroads into national politics, said Ishihara told him beforehand of his intention to buy the Senkaku Islands.

"That befits Ishihara very well," the maverick mayor said. "No average politician would ever hit upon such an idea. Various problems may stand in the way, including international diplomacy, but I think the idea represents the sort of judgment and action that only Ishihara would be capable of."

The Senkaku Islands consist of a group of five islands and a number of reefs located about 170 kilometers north-northwest of Ishigakijima island in Okinawa Prefecture. All the islands are uninhabited, although people did live on some of them in the past.

In 1895, the Japanese government decided to incorporate the Senkaku Islands into Japan’s territory after ensuring they were not under the control of the Qing Dynasty of China.

Although the islands were placed under U.S. administration following World War II, they were returned, together with the rest of Okinawa Prefecture, to Japan in 1972.

China and Taiwan began to lay claims to the islands in the 1970s, after it was learned in 1968 that oil reserves could be buried in their surroundings.

Tokyo has consistently argued there is no territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands.

By YOSHITAKA UNEZAWA/ Staff Writer
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Uotsurishima island, part of the Senkaku Islands (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Uotsurishima island, part of the Senkaku Islands (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • Uotsurishima island, part of the Senkaku Islands (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
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