Owner OK with metro bid to buy disputed Senkaku Islands

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

Ever since Hiroyuki Kurihara and his family took title to the Senkaku Islands in the 1970s, they have firmly kept to the will of the previous owner: The islets are not to be sold to anyone but the Japanese government or a public organization.

And so for decades the Kurihara family has continued to own four of the five uninhabited rocky islets in the East China Sea, turning down all offers from a number of private corporations.

But the family recently agreed with Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara — a hawkish nationalist who doesn’t hide his hostility toward China — to sell three of the islets to the metropolitan government and shake up Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations.

During an interview with The Japan Times, Hiroyuki Kurihara, who serves as a de-facto spokesman for the family, revealed that Ishihara has been trying to buy the islets since the mid-1970s.

“Our fundamental rule is not to sell the islands to individuals or private companies, and that is why we had continued to decline his offer — because Mr. Ishihara is an individual,” Kurihara said. “But this time, it’s different because it is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government that wants to buy them.”

The Kurihara family is originally from the Omiya area that is now part of the city of Saitama. Their local landholdings are vast.

Hioryuki Kurihara runs an architectural firm and a medical consulting office in Tokyo, while his older brother and younger sister are in the business of renting out buildings.

Of the five Senkaku islets, the brother officially owns Uotsuri, Kita Kojima and Minami Kojima, all of which the metropolitan government wants to buy.

The sister owns Kuba, which the family does not plan to sell at this time.

This islet is being leased to the Defense Ministry, which allows the U.S. military to use it as a bombing exercise site.

The Kuriharas bought the four islets from family friends Zenji and Hanako Koga, whose family had been managing them since the Meiji Era. Zenji Koga’s father, Tatsushiro, an entrepreneur from Fukuoka Prefecture, established a business on the islands in the late 1890s, operating bonito-flake factories and plants to process albatross feathers. The four islets were officially sold to his son, Zenji, in 1932.

Zenji and Hanako Kago had no children, and they were especially fond of the oldest Kurihara brother, Kunioki. And therefore, the Kuriharas stepped up to buy the islets and inherit their mission to protect them and their history.

Hiroyuki Kurihara declined to reveal how much the family paid for the islets, saying only it was “much more” than the rumored tens of millions of yen.

“What is important is to make sure that history is not erased — because if that were to happen, the history of (Japan’s) effective and economic control over the islands would also be wiped out. And without history, Japan will lose its ground that the Senkakus are Japanese territory,” Kurihara, 65, said.

He said he is not a rightwinger and he and his siblings are merely following the wishes of his father’s good friend.

“His last wish was to make sure that the history of the Senkakus will be protected, and my brother was chosen to do that,” Kurihara said.

He said the family basically agreed to sell the three islets to the metropolitan government, and the two parties are now hammering out details of the contract, including how to set the price through evaluations made by real-estate appraisers.

“There are many hurdles to overcome and realistically it will take a while . . . it is not like buying a lot in Minato Ward, for example. We have no reference,” Kurihara said.

Meanwhile, he did not rule out the possibility that ownership of the islets may eventually be transferred to the central government.

The government is now paying about ¥25 million a year to use land on the three islets, and the current annual contract expires next March.

To continue the arrangement, the state has to renew the rental contract by around September because it needs to draw up its budget for fiscal 2013 by the fall.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has indicated the central government may consider buying the three islets. He made the remark after Ishihara caused a big stir by revealing the ongoing talks with the Kurihara family.

A trilateral meeting of the family, the metropolitan government and the central government will probably be necessary before September, Kurihara said, indicating the three parties will discuss which party will end up as the owner.

“For us, it doesn’t matter whether the Tokyo Metropolitan Government or the (central) government becomes the owner — what matters is that they are maintained by either one and not handed over to someone else,” Kurihara said.

Although it has been years since his last visit to the islets, he said he has been there dozens of times.

In 1979, he participated in a major expedition with about 50 members, including academics and officials from the Foreign and Transport ministries and the now-defunct Okinawa Development Agency.

They camped out on Uotsuri for about four weeks, examining the ecosystem (they found moles and sheep), nearby marine life and whether the islets could support human habitation.

“Japan and China were already at it over territorial issues then,” Kurihara said.

“But the (Prime Minister Masayoshi) Ohira Cabinet stood firm and conducted this research with the natural awareness that the islands were part of Japanese territory. The prime minister couldn’t care less what” China said.

China and Taiwan officially began to declare ownership of the Senkaku Islands in 1971 after the U.N. issued a report on the potential oil and gas reserves. And over the years, the islets have become a source of diplomatic tension between Japan and the two other claimants.

Kurihara said the family has never directly received an offer from a Chinese individual or firm but has had many offers from Japanese trading and oil companies. He added, however, that he never checked to see if any of those who contacted him were connected to China.

“There is no way of knowing (whether the companies are related to China), and that is why we would never sell to individuals or companies,” Kurihara said.

“If the Senkakus are sold from one party to another, they could eventually end up in the hands of a foreigner. And if that happens, the history of the islands will be completely (erased),” he said.