SENKAKU, ISLANDS OKINAWA PREF. – In a move likely to further inflame tensions with Beijing, Japanese nationalists raised Hinomaru flags on one of the islets at the heart of a corrosive territorial row with China on Sunday.
Around a dozen members of the rightwing group Gambare Nippon (Hang in There Japan) swam ashore from a 20-boat flotilla carrying activists and lawmakers.
The landing comes just days after Tokyo deported pro-Beijing protesters who landed on the same islet, which is part of the Senkaku Islands.
The chain is administered by Japan but claimed by China, which calls it the Diaoyu, and Taiwan, which calls it the Tiaoyutai.
China, which fiercely claims the archipelago, had warned against acts “harming” its territorial sovereignty.
Eiji Kosaka, a politician from Tokyo and one of the men who made it to the islet, said the group planted Japanese flags on the mountainside and on shore.
“It is very sad that the Japanese government is doing nothing with these islands,” he said, adding the expedition had been “a great success.”
By midmorning, all of the approximately 150 participants, including eight lawmakers, were back on the boats and headed back to Ishigaki Island, southwest of the main island of Okinawa. They had spent around five hours at the disputed islets.
Japan Coast Guard ships had urged the activists not to land, with officers boarding some of the vessels to question people. No arrests were made.
Before the voyage, Kenichi Kojima, a politician from Kanagawa Prefecture, said the trip was about who owned the archipelago, which is believed to harbor rich mineral resources.
“I want to show the international community that these islands are ours. It is Japan’s future at stake,” he said.
Diet lawmaker Keiko Yamatani said most countries recognize Japan’s sovereignty over the island chain, but added: “I think this kind of expedition will help raise awareness around the world.”
Organizers, who had been refused permission by Tokyo to go ashore, said ahead of their departure that they would be holding a ceremony aboard the boats to remember some of those who died in World War II.
Beijing on Saturday rebuked Japan over the island visit.
“China has made solemn representations to Japan, demanding that it immediately cease actions harming China’s territorial sovereignty,” the Foreign Ministry in Beijing said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Japan plans to replace its ambassador to China possibly in October amid the growing territorial row, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported Sunday. The ambassador, Uichiro Niwa, sparked controversy in June when he warned that the TokyoMetropolitan Government’s plan to buy some of the islands could spark an “extremely grave crisis” between the Asian powers. He has been under pressure from both ruling and opposition parties to resign for misrepresenting Tokyo’s position that the islands are an integral part of Japanese territory, the daily said.
The dispute over the islands is one of the major stumbling blocks — along with issues related to Japan’s invasion of China during the war — to smooth relations between Asia’s two top economies. Tensions spiked as Japan deported 14 pro-China activists who sailed to the islands from Hong Kong. Some managed to land on Uotsuri, the largest islet in the group, becoming the first non-Japanese to set foot on any part of the archipelago since 2004.
“China reiterates that any unilateral action taken by Japan regarding” the islands is “illegal and invalid,” a Foreign Ministry statement said, adding that any such actions will not undermine its claim over the territory.
Separately, ruling Democratic Party of Japan heavyweight Seiji Maehara said Saturday that the coast guard should be beefed up to defend the islands. “Coast guard officials are doing their best, and so the government and the ruling parties will discuss how to strengthen our backup to them,” the DPJ policy chief said.
The renewed dispute comes amid rising tensions between Japan and South Korea over South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s recent visit to Dokdo, a group of Korean-controlled islets roughly halfway between the two countries. Japan calls the islands Takeshima.