Moving to avoid another rocky patch in relations with China, the Noda administration quickly lowered the curtain on the controversy surrounding the Aug. 15 landing of Hong Kong activists on one of the disputed Senkaku Islands.
It decided to deport all 14 individuals arrested in the incident at Uotsurishima. Five activists stepped ashore and the rest remained in the boat. They were arrested for illegal entry.
The activists will likely be deported this evening.
Government officials were keen to avoid a replay of an incident in 2010 involving the collision of a Chinese trawler with two Japan Coast Guard boats off the Senkaku Islands.
When Japanese officials threatened to indict the trawler captain, Beijing responded in kind and bilateral relations hit a near-freeze.
The Hong Kong group had let it be known beforehand when the fishing boat carrying the activists would approach the Senkaku Islands. That gave the Japanese government time to determine its response.
Officials chose to follow decisions taken in March 2004 when seven Chinese activists landed on the Senkaku Islands. The individuals were arrested on suspicion of violating the immigration control law. But rather than press criminal charges, the seven were deported within days.
In the latest case, according to a high-ranking Japan Coast Guard official, efforts were made to prevent a landing while also avoiding injuries to those attempting to do so.
Noda administration officials no doubt took account of what happened when Noda's predecessor, Naoto Kan, tried to handle the collision between the Chinese trawler and the Japan Coast Guard ships. The trawler captain was arrested on suspicion of interfering in the performance of public duties.
Beijing was incensed by the move and took retaliatory measures, such as postponing meetings between Cabinet-level officials, banning the export of rare earth metals to Japan, and even detaining Japanese employees of a construction company who were inspecting a site in China.
In the end, the Kan administration released the trawler captain.
Opposition parties attacked Kan for his weak-kneed diplomacy, which eventually led to stronger calls for his resignation.
Given its dismal public support ratings, due to the recent legislation to double the consumption tax rate to 10 percent in October 2015 and the government's decision to restart reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, the Noda Cabinet was keen to put the incident behind it.
"If we repeated the same mistake (as Kan in 2010), our administration would be turned upside down," a Noda aide said.
The government realized that strong-arm measures would not have worked, given Japan's close economic ties with China and the increased flow of people between the two nations.
A valuable lesson from the 2004 case was to avoid delays in taking action. In 2004, the seven activists were kept waiting about 12 hours before the Okinawa prefectural police reached the Senkaku Islands to arrest them. Although Japan Coast Guard officials had detained the activists, they did not have the authority to make arrests on land.
For that reason, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said efforts were made this time for a quick resolution. About 30 Okinawa prefectural police officers were waiting on Uotsurishima when the five activists landed. That led to their swift arrest and removal from the islet.
The arrests had to be made because efforts to stop the protest boat from approaching the Senkaku Islands failed. Although water cannons were used to try to alter the course of the activists' boat, the effort failed. No attempt was made to force the boat to stop before reaching land.
That failure led to criticism from lawmakers who are concerned the response by the Noda administration will only encourage other activists to try to land on the Senkaku Islands.
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