Decades ago, when possession of the Senkaku Islands started to shift to a man in Saitama Prefecture, the new owner reportedly expressed a sense of patriotism. The previous owner had urged the man to “protect” the islands, which had recently come under sovereignty claims from China.
Now 70, the man who runs a real estate rental business finds himself at the center of a domestic tug of war with billions of yen, diplomatic relations and national pride at stake.
Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda are engaged in a heated battle over plans to buy the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea from the landowner.
But in the latest flare-up, China, which has a history of aggressively protecting what it considers its territory, is watching the Ishihara-Noda feud in relative silence from the sidelines.
China and the other interested parties are waiting for the landowner to make his intentions clear. He has refused to talk to reporters.
Despite conflicting views given on the landowner’s preference, the central government says it now has the upper hand in behind-the-scenes negotiations, which include Hiroyuki Nagahama, deputy chief Cabinet secretary.
An aide to Noda said the central government’s talks with the landowner “have entered a final stage,” and a Cabinet minister said the government will buy the islands while Noda is prime minister.
According to sources, the Noda administration has proposed to buy three of the five disputed islands--Uotsurishima, Kita-Kojima and Minami-Kojima--for about 2 billion yen ($26 million).
The Tokyo metropolitan government has taken a more visible approach in its bid for the islands. On Sept. 2, the metropolitan government conducted a seaborne survey of the islands for pre-purchase real estate appraisal.
Ishihara himself said he intends to step foot on the islands during a follow-up survey in October, even if the Noda government continues to deny him permission to land.
“I do not mind if I am arrested and thrown in jail,” he said on a television program Sept. 2.
Ishihara, who has met with the landowner several times since late last year, was confident the islands will be sold to the Tokyo metropolitan government.
However, central government officials are quick to point to the fact that the landowner did not give his consent when the Tokyo metropolitan government in late August applied for permission to land.
The officials also say Ishihara’s recent suggestion for a compromise shows that the governor is worried about the unclear intentions of the landowner and realizes he is now on the losing side.
Ishihara on Aug. 31 said that during a 90-minute meeting with Noda at the prime minister’s office on Aug. 19, he offered to “hand over” the isles at any time if the central government builds a shelter for fishing boats on them.
Government sources also said the governor's conditions included construction of a relay station for radio communications and a meteorological weather station on the islands.
Such actions would reinforce Japan’s control over the islands, Ishihara said.
The governor also said that if the central government accepts his proposal, the Tokyo metropolitan government would present more than 1.4 billion yen in donations collected from the public for the purchase of the Senkaku Islands.
“Why don’t we exchange a memorandum to make a promise before the public? I am ready to seal the pledge in blood as well as my signature,” Ishihara was quoted as telling Noda.
The central government, which had proposed the secret meeting with Ishihara to explain its procedures to purchase the islands, has no plans to build facilities demanded by Ishihara, sources said.
“It shows that the Tokyo metropolitan government is running out of options,” an official at the prime minister’s office said.
A source close to the landowner says his stance is different from that of the Tokyo metropolitan government.
“He has a leasing contract with the central government over the Senkaku Islands, and he refrained from submitting a letter of consent for the Tokyo metropolitan government (when it applied for permission to land),” the source said.
An aide to Ishihara said the landowner has become indecisive because the Tokyo metropolitan government cannot decide on a purchase price until a metropolitan property price council starts deliberations in November.
Hiroyuki Kurihara, a brother of the landowner, said they have not discussed the Senkaku Islands amid the recent series of events, but he said his brother has not changed his mind to sell the islands to the Tokyo metropolitan government.
Kurihara also said his brother is not one to back out of an agreement for monetary gain.
“It all started from the discussions with the Tokyo metropolitan government,” he said. “My brother is not a man who is influenced by favorable conditions.”
In mid-July, after meeting with the Tokyo governor following the Noda administration’s announcement that it would buy the islands, the landowner was quoted as saying, “I will not do anything that would make Ishihara lose face.”
The Noda administration decided to come up with its own offer for the islands mainly out of fears the nationalistic governor’s purchase would heighten tensions with China.
When the Tokyo governor in April revealed his plan to buy the three islands, he cited the increased maritime activities of China’s military in the East China Sea.
He has also been critical of the Japanese government’s handling of the dispute with China that erupted in autumn 2010, after the Japan Coast Guard arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler that rammed two Japanese patrol vessels near the islands.
The Chinese government’s reaction in the latest flare-up, which involved Hong Kong activists detained and deported by Japan after they landed on Uotsurishima, has been to seek a cool-headed resolution.
Although Beijing may frown upon the Japanese government’s plan to buy the islands, which China calls Diaoyu, it is more opposed to having the Tokyo governor involved in the mix.
China criticized the Tokyo metropolitan government’s survey of the Senkaku Islands on Sept. 2 and sought a calm response from the central government.
“The Japanese government should not let a right-winger take hold of its reins,” the state-run Xinhua news agency said, referring to Ishihara.
The Chinese government also welcomed the Japanese government’s decision to deny the Tokyo metropolitan government permission to land.
“We have been able to maintain communications with the Japanese government,” said a senior official at China’s Foreign Ministry.
A Chinese government official said the personal letter Noda had delivered to Chinese President Hu Jintao is a sign that the Japanese government expects tensions to ease.
In the 2010 dispute, Japan-China relations sank, cultural exchanges were scrapped, and Japan found itself cut off from Chinese exports of rare earths vital in high-tech manufacturing.
In contrast, both Japanese and Chinese citizens attended Super Summer Festival, an event to mark the 40th anniversary of Japan-China diplomatic relations, in Beijing on Sept. 2.
Chinese public security authorities took measures to prevent anti-Japanese activists from entering the venue and control the number of participants.
“From the preparatory stage, China’s culture and foreign ministries were determined to keep (the Senkaku issue) from affecting private-sector exchanges,” said a source close to Japanese organizers.
The Chinese government appears to be analyzing the situation carefully to decide whether to allow a China-Japan summit on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Vladivostok on Sept. 8-9.
Control over the Senkaku Islands has long attracted the attention of Ishihara, who was a Diet member when he first tried to contact the Saitama landowner.
According to a source close to the governor, the landowner felt sympathy with Ishihara after reading his books.
Ishihara and the landowner dined in Tokyo in mid-June with Ishihara’s son, Nobuteru Ishihara, secretary-general of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party.
The landowner acquired four of the islands between 1974 and 1988 and transferred ownership of Kubashima island to his sister in 1997. The other island, Taishojima, is already owned by the central government.
The previous owner was a relative of Tatsushiro Koga (1856-1918), who leased the four islands from the government and mined mineral phosphate and produced dried bonito.
According to an Asahi Shimbun article published in May 1978, the Saitama landowner said he bought some of the islands because he was on friendly terms with the Koga family, without discussing the purpose of the acquisition.
But Akiko Santo, an Upper House member who has known the landowner for 30 years, said the man was asked by the Koga family to “protect the islands.”
Santo said she asked the landowner why he bought the islands, and he replied, “It set the blood boiling in my veins.”
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