IDSA COMMENT

An internal push in Japan to nationlise Islands in the East China Sea

June 8, 2012

A fresh bid from certain domestic political sections to nationalise the privately owned Senkaku Islands to strengthen Japanese sovereignty over the island chain, which China and Taiwan also claim,1 suggests that Sino-Japan relations have not emerged out of the “Senkaku shadow”. The issue has been raked up by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara at a time when Japan and China are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. The issue has caused ripples in Beijing’s diplomatic circles.

The controversy came to the fore when Ishihara announced in Washington that the Tokyo metropolitan government plans to buy the Senkaku Islands in order to “protect” it from China. Many in Japan took his statement as yet another political gimmick aimed at gaining publicity. The maverick politician made the statement during a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a US based think tank, on April 16. In an apparent reference to China, he said that the metropolitan government will buy the Islands “regardless of which country opposes such a move.”2

The statement drew flak from a section of people at home who blamed Ishihara of trying to use taxpayers’ money for buying the Islands owned by a private businessman in order to gain political clout. Amid this criticism, Ishihara opened an account and urged people to donate money to buy the land. By June 2, some 70,000 people had sent their donation, which crossed one billion yen, an amount sufficient enough to buy the land. This development suggests that Ishihara’s plan is inching towards fruition. Revealing the donation figure, Ishihara said that “I take seriously the message from the Japanese people and the people of Tokyo that they strongly want to protect their land.”3 The overwhelming response through the donation suggests that the nationalists in Japan are extending support for Ishihara’s plan.

By buying the privately owned Islands, which has been leased by the central government, Ishihara wants to challenge the central government’s prohibition order stopping individuals from setting foot on these islands. The central government does not allow people to step on the Island for “peaceful and stable” maintenance of territory. But a group of nationalist politicians including Ishihara have accused the government of enacting this measure because the island chain is claimed by both Taiwan and China, which he terms as “week kneed” diplomacy.

Before highlighting the internal political dynamics on the Islands, it is necessary to give a background of the islands that the Tokyo metropolitan government intends to buy. The Senkaku Islands chain consists of three reefs and five Islands—Uotsuri, Kuba, Taisho, Minami Kojima and Kita Kojima. Only Taisho is state-owned. The other four are owned by two businessmen of Saitama prefecture. Ishihara is in talks with Kunioki Kurihara who has given Uotsuri, Minami Kojima and Kita Kojima on lease to Japan’s Internal Affairs Ministry. Kuba is owned by a relative of Kurihara and has been given on rent to Japan’s Ministry of Defence. The Tokyo metropolitan government already holds jurisdiction over Japan’s southern most point—Okinotorishima island—as well as its easternmost point—Minamitorishima island. Historical accounts suggest that Izu Islands was transferred from Shizuoka prefecture to Tokyo prefecture in 1878 by an edict of the Grand Council of State. In 1880, Tokyo was given jurisdiction over Ogasawara Island, some 500 kilometres south of Tokyo. So, it will not be unique if Japan’s southwestern point falls under the Tokyo metropolitan government’s jurisdiction through the land purchase by it.

The Senkaku issue has taken an interesting political turn in Japanese domestic politics. In the latest draft of its manifesto, the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has unveiled plans to nationalise the disputed island,4 if it assumes power after the next general election. The LDP has updated its manifesto amid speculation that Prime Minister Yoshihiko may call for snap elections if he fails to push through legislation for a hike in consumption tax in both the Diets. In fact, the LDP has played a crucial role in prodding Ishihara—a former LDP veteran5—to raise the Senkaku Issue. Reports in the Japanese media suggest that Akiko Santo, an Upper House member from the LDP, introduced the Saitama-based businessman, Kunioki Kurihara, to Ishihara in September 2011, and that he agreed to sell the three Islands to the Tokyo metropolitan government when the present contract between him and the central government ends in April 2013.

This situation has pushed the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to rethink its strategy over Senkaku. A senior DPJ member and Chief Cabinet Secretary of the Noda cabinet announced that “the government is currently leasing the islands, but could conceivably move to buy them if necessary.” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda reinforced the point in comments to the Diet, saying, “We will confirm the intentions of the islands’ owner and consider every option.”6 The DPJ’s stance suggests that it may take measures to buy the island and put them entirely under national management. Another internal actor, Ishigaki municipal assembly in Okinawa prefecture—under whose administrative jurisdiction the Senkaku Island Chains fall—has passed a resolution asking the central government to buy the islands. The Ishigaki resolution stated that “the city of Ishigaki should buy the island if possible, but financial conditions do not warrant such a move.”7 Previously, Ishigaki had shown willingness to jointly administer the islands with the Tokyo metropolitan government and had welcomed Ishihara’s plan.

China has reacted harshly to Ishihara’s move. “Any unilateral action taken by Japan on the Diaoyu and near by islands is illegal and invalid and can not change the reality of China’s ownership,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Weiman in a media briefing using the Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands. And he added that “I want to reiterate that the Diaoyu Islands have been China’s inherent territory since ancient times and China holds indisputable sovereignty over them.”8

The Japanese media has also been unequivocal in condemning Ishihara for overstepping his mandate. In an editorial, the Japan Times opined that Ishihara is presenting himself as a “politician with a strong commitment to the defense of Japanese territory in a bid to pander to those dissatisfied with the central government….” It added that “if his plan leads to deterioration in the relationship between Japan and China, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government does not possess the means to repair the damage. His plan will only complicate Japan’s diplomatic situation.”9 In a similar vein, The Mainichi stated that the Senkaku issue “is beyond the authority of a local body.” The daily asked Ishihara not to embark on “independent diplomacy”, which “would prevent the national government from functioning properly.”10 The Asahi Shimbun has called Ishihara’s move to buy the islands as “irresponsible”. And it editorialised that “even though Ishihara is the governor of the capital of Japan, he is in no position to settle an international territorial dispute. We can call him irresponsible for talking big, fully knowing its negative impact on Japan’s diplomacy.”11

Ishihara, however, remains undeterred by these criticisms and has continued his campaign. He has held separate consultations with Prime Minister Noda and the LDP leadership over the issue and has said that he would not mind if the central government nationalises the Senkaku Islands. He is also mulling the idea of forming a “Senkaku team” under his supervision, which will prepare to send a landing team to the disputed Island in a bid to challenge the central government’s prohibition.

The Japanese media has been reporting that Ishihara plans to float a new party before the next general election. It is therefore likely that he will continue to push for his scheme to buy the privately owned land with the aim of pandering to nationalists and gain their vote. However, he has to clear various hurdles including majority approval from the Tokyo metropolitan government to buy the land. If he gets the approval, which appears likely, he will have to wait for the term of the contract between the central government and the owner to get over by April 2013. Until then, the issue will continue to remain in the limelight both in Japan and China.

Japanese analyst Yoshibumi Wakamiya believes that because of Ishihara’s “views of history,12 which are unacceptable to China… [the] territorial issue would become even more difficult to handle.” Wakimiya warns that Ishihara’s provocative move could accelerate China’s “military expansion.”13 China’s aggressive behaviour following the fishing boat collision in September 2010 including the suspension of high level political interactions suggests that its response is likely to be harsher if Ishihara’s plan reaches fruition. Chinese strategic thinkers have already included Senkaku in China’s “core interest”, which has alarmed the Japanese. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has termed Senkaku a “major concern”, but stopped short of terming it a core interest during a summit meeting concluded on May 13. These developments hint at the fact that China’s stance over the sovereignty issue on the contested island chain in the East China Sea will harden further. This may lead to another diplomatic spat between the two countries.

  1. 1. For a detailed account of the territorial dispute, see “China, Japan spat in East China Sea, IDSA Comment, 22 September 2010, available at http://idsa.in/idsacomments/ChinaJapanspatinEastChinaSea_sakhan_220910, accessed on 6 June 2012.
  2. 2. Full video of Ishihara’s speech is available at http://www.heritage.org/events/2012/04/shintaro-ishihara#watch, accessed on 20 April 2012.
  3. 3. “Donation to metro government to buy Senkaku Islands top Yen 1 billion”, The Japan Times/Kyodo, 2 June 2012.
  4. 4. “LDP plank pushes to nationalize Senkakus”, The Japan Times, 1 June 2012.
  5. 5. Novelist turned politician Ishihara won a seat in the Japanese Diet’s Upper House on the LDP ticket for the first time in 1973. Later Ishihara successfully ran for the Lower House where he held a seat till 1995 and assumed various ministerial posts. He abandoned the Diet frustrated over his defeat in the LDP’s presidential elections in 1989. In 1999 he was elected as Tokyo governor and has held the post for four consecutive terms.
  6. 6. “Governor Ishihara out-of-bounds with pledge to buy disputed Island” (editorial), The Mainichi, available at http://mainichi.jp/english/english/perspectives/news/20120419p2a00m0na00..., accessed on 20 April 2012.
  7. 7. “Ishigaki calls for state purchase of Senkaku isles,” Yomiuri Shimbun, 20 April 2012.
  8. 8. “China slams Ishihara’s Senkaku plan”, The Japan Times, 19 April 2012.
  9. 9. “Mr. Ishihara’s ill-considered plan”, (Editorial), The Japan Times, 21 April 2012.
  10. 10. “Governor Ishihara out-of-bounds with pledge to buy disputed Island” (editorial), The Mainichi, available at http://mainichi.jp/english/english/perspectives/news/20120419p2a00m0na00..., accessed on 20 April 2012.
  11. 11. “Ishihara’s wrong call on Senkaku Issue”, (Editorial), The Asahi Shimbun, 18 April 2012, available at http://ajw.asahi.com/article/views/editorial/AJ201204180035, accessed on 20 April 2012.
  12. 12. Ishihara on many occasions has stated that Japan bears no responsibility for its invasion of Asia.
  13. 13. Yoshibumi Wakayama, “Ishihara’s provocative act demands mature response from Japan, China”, The Asahi Shimbun, 27 April 2012, available at http://ajw.asahi.com/article/views/column/AJ201204270076, accessed on 28 April 2012.