Japan counts on survival of new island to expand territorial waters

November 22, 2013


Government officials are banking on the survival of a new island south of Tokyo to widen Japan’s territorial waters, even though expansion would be minimal and not affect control over fisheries and resources.

The island, the first new Japanese land mass in 27 years, was formed by an undersea volcanic eruption about 1,000 kilometers south of the capital and 500 meters south-southeast of Nishinoshima island in the Ogasawara island chain. It was first spotted by the Japan Coast Guard on Nov. 20.

The Headquarters for Ocean Policy in the Cabinet Secretariat said the island is under Japan’s sovereignty, but the question remains whether the islet will survive.

It is not uncommon for newly formed volcanic islands to soon slip back underneath the ocean.

The coast guard determined from aerial observations on Nov. 21 that the unnamed island is 400 meters long and 200 meters wide. Volcanic smoke from the island rose 600 meters on Nov. 20 and 900 meters the next day.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea defines an island as a “naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide.”

The first step in the standard protocol for naming an island calls for an inquiry on what it is being called among local communities.

But the village of Ogasawara, which reports to the Tokyo metropolitan government and has jurisdiction over the area, said no name exists. It will likely be up to the central government to propose candidate names.

An island in the same area emerged in 1973 and was named Nishinoshima Shinto (new Nishinoshima island). But fresh eruptions in 1974 created more land mass and caused Nishinoshima Shinto to become connected with the main Nishinoshima island.

The Headquarters for Ocean Policy said the new island could slightly expand Japan’s territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) from land areas. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed hopes for such an expansion during a Nov. 21 news conference.

But the 200-nautical-mile (370 km) exclusive economic zone, which gives coastal states a monopoly over fishing operations and seabed resources, is unlikely to expand. Any addition to the EEZ from the newborn island already lies within the EEZs that are centered on Chichijima island, 130 km to the east, and Kita-Iwoto island, 210 km to the south.

Before any addition to territorial waters or the EEZ can win international recognition, the Japan Coast Guard would have to survey the island and include it in a nautical chart. The coast guard has so far been monitoring the island only from the air because it cannot send survey vessels due to continuing volcanic eruptions.

“All we can do is to look on until the island settles down,” a coast guard official said.

Scientists said the survival of the new island will depend on whether lava flows out of the volcanic crater.

“The island has solid geological features,” said Takayuki Kaneko, an assistant professor of volcanology with the Earthquake Research Institute of the University of Tokyo. “I won’t say it won’t survive as an island.”

Kaneko was aboard an Asahi Shimbun aircraft flying over the area on Nov. 21.

He said the island can grow even further if continued eruptions form a pile of volcanic material that blocks magma from contacting seawater and allows it to flow out in the form of lava.

(This article was compiled from reports by Ryuji Kudo and Roku Goda.)

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The Asahi Shimbun

The Asahi Shimbun

  • The Asahi Shimbun
  • Smoke rises from a new island 500 meters off Nishinoshima island in the Ogasawara chain on Nov. 21. (Hiroshi Kawai)
  • The survival of this new island 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo could depend on whether lava flows out of the volcanic crater. (Hiroshi Kawai)

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