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Governor seen as goading administration into action

by Jun Hongo and Masami Ito

Staff Writers

Though quick to get a reaction from experts and lawmakers Tuesday, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s intention to purchase the Senkaku Islands will likely have little impact on the territorial dispute between Japan, China and Taiwan.

“Technically speaking, this will only transfer the ownership of the Senkaku Islands from one Japanese to another,” former diplomat Kunihiko Miyake, a research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies, said. Even if the purchase goes ahead as planned, it won’t change the fact that Japan controls the land, he added.

But Miyake admitted he’s puzzled by the scheme.

“I am not criticizing the purchase plan or saying it is a bad idea, but it is difficult to see the value of buying the islands. Why Tokyo taxpayers’ money has to be used is also a question,” Miyake said.

Japan, China and Taiwan each claim the East China Sea islets. They are known as Diaoyu in China.

In 1885, Japan declared it had conducted surveys and confirmed that the islands were uninhabited and officially incorporated the territories into the empire 10 years later. After World War II they were placed under U.S. administrative jurisdiction, along with Okinawa, in 1951 under the San Francisco Peace Treaty. Japan’s position is that its territory was returned with the end of the U.S. Occupation in 1972.

Records show that an entrepreneur from Fukuoka Prefecture named Tatsushiro Koga went into business on the islands in the late 1890s, first operating bonito-flake factories and then plants to process albatross feathers. The factories were shut down by the early 1940s and the islands soon became uninhabited.

Koga’s descendents reportedly sold the land to a Saitama Prefecture-based entrepreneur, who Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara has apparently begun negotiating the purchase with.

The islands today are patrolled around the clock by Japan Coast Guard ships. Japan has prohibited even its citizens from landing on them to avoid further diplomatic rows with China and Taiwan.

However, competing sovereignty claims have erupted in the past, most recently in September 2010 when a Chinese trawler collided with Japan Coast Guard cutters in the area.

Ishihara’s latest scheme to claim the islands appears to have caught the central government off-guard.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said the administration was unaware of the plan but admitted there has been separate contact with the owner.

“The government has been in touch with the owner on various occasions,” Fujimura told a news conference. “I cannot reveal the details for privacy reasons, but the government and the owner have continued to consult with one another.”

Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba denied foreknowledge of the governor’s statement but stressed that the islands are Japanese territory.

“The Senkaku Islands are an integral part of our country, and that is, without a doubt, true historically and in light of international law,” Genba said. “And our country actually is effectively controlling them.”

Even Ishihara’s son, Nobuteru Ishihara, the secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, said he heard of the purchase plan only through the news media.

“I have heard for some time (from my father) that the nature in the area has remained completely untouched and could be designated as a World Heritage site, but I don’t know anything about his goal or what he plans to do (with the islands) other than what has been in the media,” Ishihara said. “But I am interested so I would like to ask him about it if I have the opportunity.”

The Tokyo governor said he was prompted to take action due to the central government’s “cowardice.”

Analyst Miyake speculated the act is a kind of “shock therapy” by Ishihara to issue a wakeup call.

“The purchase of the Senkakus is something that the country should be working on instead of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government,” Miyake said, and that Ishihara is only spotlighting the inability of the central government to act on its own.