Akihiro Suzuki does not think war will come, but if it does, he believes Japan will prevail.

“Of course, in general military terms China is more powerful,” says the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly lawmaker. “But with the weapons and technology we have from America, we would be able to respond in a short-term, regional conflict.”

Suzuki was among some 150 Japanese neonationalists who made the roughly 1,900 km trip from Tokyo to the remote Senkaku/Diaoyu islets last month in a flag-waving display of this national pride. When he returned to Tokyo, the city’s governor, Shintaro Ishihara, called him “an idiot,” before adding, ” ‘You should have planted a bigger flag,’ ” recalls Suzuki, laughing.

Flag size aside, however, the two men agree. The Japanese must stand tall, not be afraid, and “take pride” in “defending our territory from China,” says Suzuki, who refers to Japan’s biggest neighbor throughout our interview with the derogatory wartime term “Shina.” “We have truth and history on our side.”

In time of conflict, said Walter Lippman, “what is said on the enemy’s side of the front is always propaganda, and what is said on our side of the front is truth and righteousness, the cause of humanity and a crusade for peace.” The Pulitzer-winning American commentator wrote that decades ago, but he could have been talking about today’s dangerously parochial coverage of the islets dispute.

China’s media churns out propaganda masquerading as news, the China Daily noting with smug approval this weekend how citizens from across the country have protested against “Tokyo’s most recent provocations in its illegal claims on the Diaoyu Islands, which have always been a part of China historically.”

Of course, few expect much else from authoritarian China’s state-run media, but what about democratic Japan? Most large Japanese media outlets also take the Tokyo government’s claims largely at face value. Some have banned references to “Diaoyu” and even the word “dispute” itself, as though ignoring it will wish away Beijing’s claims.

Kyodo rehearsed the now-standard Japanese narrative of the dispute this weekend, saying that the Senkakus “have effectively been held by Japan since 1895 except for when the U.S. seized them briefly after the war.” The news agency continued: “After it was reported in the 1970s that the area around the islets may have vast mineral and gas reserves, China laid claim to them.”

Well, that’s one version of the truth, though hardly the only one. In China, many believe that Japan claimed the islets during a period of imperial expansion, at the end of the Sino-Japanese War — then kept the seizure secret for half a century. The Americans occupied them (as part of the Okinawan chain) from 1945-1972, after which many in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China expected them to be returned. Chinese claims hardly came out of the blue.

China’s increasingly vociferous claims to the islets are commonly denounced as a product of its hyper-nationalism and restless search for resources. There may, however, be another equally plausible reason for the growing brinkmanship in the East China Sea: shrinking oceans.

Although the two nations have roughly the same amount of coastline, Japan enjoys a total exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 4.5 million sq. km in the high seas, five times more than its much bigger and more populous neighbor. And Japan’s maritime domain has vastly expanded in the last three decades.

Until very recently, the high seas were commonly owned. But since the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was agreed upon exactly 30 years ago, 162 countries have carved up the oceans into EEZs, giving them special rights to up to 350 nautical miles (650 km) beyond their territorial waters.

Nations like Britain, France and Japan, with residual territories from far-flung colonial empires, have arguably done far better out of this arrangement than China, which ranks between the Maldives and Somalia as a territorial maritime power, according to a new paper by Gavan McCormack, emeritus professor at the Australian National University.

Tokyo takes these EEZs very seriously. Consider its jurisdiction of a string of islands extending into the Pacific. At the farthest reaches is Okunotorishima (literally “remote bird island”), almost 2,000 km from the capital, roughly the same distance as from London to Reykjavik, Iceland.

Essentially two coral reefs, the territory shrinks at high tide so that “one is about the size of a double bed and the other a small room,” says McCormack. Since 1987, Tokyo has invested $600 million in an attempt to shore up the reef and stop it from disappearing under the rising seas.

The rewards are clear: An EEZ attached to a fixed point on the dubiously defined “island” would give Tokyo anything from an extra 400,000 sq. km to a theoretical maximum of 1.3 million sq. km — three and a half times the total land area of Japan.

Tokyo’s recent attempt to buy the Diaoyus/Senkakus should be put in this context. American and Japanese military plans for the region (the U.S. intends to concentrate 60 percent of its navy in the Pacific by 2020) increases the strategic importance of the islets, which are administratively part of the Okinawa chain, host to the heaviest concentration of U.S. military forces in Japan.

Says McCormack: “From the Chinese viewpoint the Okinawan islands resemble nothing so much as a giant maritime Great Wall . . . potentially blocking naval access to the Pacific Ocean.”

Perhaps all this has been explained in the Chinese and Japanese media and we simply missed it.

The history of huge transfers of wealth and power from one country to another is not pretty. As military historian Gwynne Dyer points out, France and Spain went to war repeatedly during the shift to French domination in the 16th and 17th centuries. The process was repeated when Britain displaced France, and again when Germany challenged Britain, and when Japan began empire-building in the early 20th century.

“The omens are not promising, to say the least,” says Dyer, though he cites the case of once-bitter enemies Britain and the U.S. as the historical exception. Dwyer concludes that there is no need to panic over China’s rise, but warns, “Don’t provoke the Chinese by hemming their country in with air bases, carrier fleets and military alliances, and they’ll probably behave well.”

Only time will tell if Japan manages its own relative decline against China any better. This is certainly one area where journalism and public commentary, with its mission to provide alternative points of view, might be useful. But the signs are not encouraging. When Japan’s ambassador to China, Uichiro Niwa, predicted (correctly) that buying the Senkakus would provoke a diplomatic crisis, the major Japanese media echoed the political call for him to be dismissed, which he duly was in August.

Suzuki, the only member of the Tokyo assembly to land (illegally) on the Senkakus, insists his hardline stance is popular. “Ninety percent of my constituents support what we did,” he says. Perhaps that’s because the people who vote for him believe everything they read in the newspapers.

Gavan McCormack’s “Troubled Seas: Japan’s Pacific and East China Sea Domains (and Claims)” appeared in The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 10, Issue 36, No. 4, Sept. 3, 2012 (www.japanfocus.org/-Gavan-McCormack/3821) Send all your comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

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