Fourth in a series

In January, Hitoshi Nakama, a member of the municipal assembly of Ishigaki, Okinawa, and three others landed on Uotsuri Island, one of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

The four spent a couple of hours examining the uninhabited islet, which, like the rest of the Senkakus is technically under Ishigaki’s jurisdiction but claimed by China and Taiwan, before returning home to an expected confrontation with the Japan Coast Guard.

And like the 14 other times he visited the islets, Nakama was grilled for hours by the authorities — because despite Japan’s claim that the islands are its territory and are effectively under its control, the government prohibits anyone, including Japanese, from setting foot on them.

“The Senkaku Islands are Japanese territory and fall under the jurisdiction of Ishigaki, and I don’t understand why I keep getting (challenged by the authorities). This is the reality of Japan’s current state under the rule of law,” Nakama told The Japan Times.

Located in the East China Sea between Ishigaki Island and Taiwan, the Senkakus have been at the center of a territorial dispute for decades.

The Senkakus recently emerged as a possible flash point for military conflict when hawkish Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara announced his plan for the capital to buy three of the islets, increasing diplomatic tension with China.

Experts say if any military conflict breaks out over the uninhabited islets, the U.S. may be asked to aid Japan’s defense, as senior U.S. officials have earlier indicated based on the Japan-U.S. security treaty.

However, there’s little the U.S. could do, at least immediately, in terms of armed intervention because Congress would first need to approve the action. For this reason, the U.S. is not obliged to intervene militarily under the terms of the treaty, according to Ukeru Magosaki, former director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Intelligence and Analysis Bureau.

“The obligation of the U.S. only goes as far as taking up (the potential threat to Japan) with Congress. . . . The U.S. may or may not offer military assistance — it is up to the U.S. to decide and not an obligation under the security treaty,” he said.

At a news conference in December 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton confirmed that the U.S. would help Japan protect the Senkaku Islands.

Nevertheless, a 2005 agreement clearly states Japan should go it alone at first in any military clashes over the Senkaku islets.

“Japan will defend itself and respond to situations in areas surrounding Japan, including . . . invasion of remote islands,” the agreement reads.

Apparently sensitive to the potential diplomatic pitfalls, Tokyo has long tried to avoid provoking Beijing, with its strict policy of keeping the islets off limits to anyone to “maintain and manage (the islands) peacefully and stably.”

The central government has also long ignored repeated demands and petitions from Japanese nationalists to build some symbolic structures to strengthen its administrative presence on the remote islets.

“It is ridiculous that the Japanese government is refusing entry because it is worried about causing friction with neighboring countries,” Nakama said. “Japan should maintain a resolute attitude.”

As a result of his 15 visits so far, he’s had his incursion cases sent to prosecutors and was once slapped with a ¥100,000 fine.

As an independent in the Ishigaki assembly since 1994, Nakama has campaigned on the Senkakus issue and kept up the pressure on the central government, whose position is the islets were incorporated into Japanese territory in January 1895 after it was confirmed they were uninhabited, unowned and not administered by any other country.

After the war, the Senkakus were incorporated with the rest of Japanese territory under the Allied Occupation, which ended on the mainland in the early 1950s but effectively continued for Okinawa and nearby islands. The U.S. agreed in 1970 to return the Senkakus along with Okinawa, and the reversion took place in 1972.

Tokyo has claimed this is clear proof the international community recognizes the Senkakus as part of Japan, which was forced to give up all the lands it occupied before and during the war, including Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula.

But in 1971, China claimed Japan had unfairly “stolen” the islets, along with Taiwan, in the closing days of the August 1894-April 1895 Sino-Japanese War. In Beijing’s eyes, the Senkakus, known as the Diaoyu Islands in China, are part of Taiwan and should be returned to China as demanded by the 1943 Cairo Declaration, which Japan accepted when it surrendered to end World War II.

Japanese experts, however, point out that Beijing only started laying claim to the islets after a United Nations commission reported in May 1969 that one of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves may exist under the seabed near the Senkakus.

In recent years, Beijing has fought similar territorial disputes in the South China Sea, they say.

The Chinese navy, now mainly based in coastal areas, is trying to project its power into the Pacific Ocean, increasing the strategic importance of the Senkakus.

At a meeting Sunday between Noda and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Beijing, the two leaders reportedly clashed over the issue.

Sino-Japanese relations were also strained when Japan arrested a Chinese trawler skipper in September 2010 near the islands. Although he was later released, China vehemently protested the arrest, refusing to hold high-level meetings and cultural events as well as cutting exports of rare earth minerals to Japan.

The hard line China took after the 2010 incident “was a strong signal to warn Japan that things could lead to a military conflict. . . . The islands are claimed by both parties and it is an extremely dangerous situation,” Magosaki said.

Antimilitary sentiment remains strong in Okinawa, with many there calling for the removal of the U.S. bases.

Still, Ishigaki’s Nakama urged the U.S. to maintain a strong presence in Okinawa to act as a deterrent to prevent China from seizing the Senkakus.

“Japan should protect itself, but it is impossible to have peace without the power of our ally, the U.S.,” Nakama said. “I know that some people are saying that the U.S. military should leave Okinawa, but I think that we need the U.S. bases at all costs.”

Recently, frustrated with what he perceives to be the central government’s failure to take clear, bolstered control of the Senkakus, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara announced that the metropolitan government would try to buy three of the islets from the title holder, a resident of Saitama Prefecture.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda responded by saying the government will consider “all possibilities” in dealing with the islands.

But many experts, including Magosaki, are alarmed by Ishihara, fearing his rhetoric and goal could drive nationalism to dangerous levels in both countries.

“The most important thing is for Japan to have the awareness that territorial issues could lead to military conflict and we must avert this at all costs,” Magosaki said.

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