Government offering Senkakus owner ¥2 billion for contested isles


The government is making a ¥2 billion bid for the Senkaku Islands as it forges ahead with a plan to bring them under state control around next month, sources familiar with the matter said Sunday.

The government is engaged in serious behind-the-scenes talks with the Kurihara family, which owns four of the five isles at the center of Japan’s diplomatic strife with China.

Although members of the Kurihara family had earlier said they would only entertain bids from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the family has recently taken a more flexible stance on accommodating the government’s desire to buy them, the sources said.

Hawkish Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara got the whole idea rolling in April by proposing to buy the islets of Uotsuri, Kitakojima and Minamikojima to clarify Japan’s ownership. This eventually goaded the national government into making a bid.

Anti-Japan protests have been taking place throughout China to assert Beijing’s sovereignty claims over the islands, which lie southwest of Okinawa in the East China Sea. The protests were spurred by the arrest of a group of Hong Kong activists that managed to land on the biggest islet, Uotsuri, earlier this month.

The Senkaku Islands have been administered by Japan since 1895. China and Taiwan — which know them as Diaoyu and Tiaoyutai, respectively — began making claims to them in the 1970s after U.N. studies suggested potentially lucrative gas fields might be near them. Of the five main uninhabited islets, Taishojima, the smallest one, is already owned by the central government, which is leasing the other four.

According to the sources, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Nagahama secretly approached the Kurihara family around the end of July on orders from Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

Talks with the metropolitan government have stalled over price differences, the sources said, and central government officials have met several times with the family.

Earlier this month, the Kuriharas cancelled a meeting with the outspoken Ishihara, a nationalist who insists the purchase will clarify the disputed isles’ ownership.

In Noda’s government, calls have been growing since the Aug. 15 landing to quickly put the Senkakus under state control. With China set to install in a new president this autumn, Japan doesn’t want to risk irritating Beijing over the issue around that time. So Noda’s government is stepping up efforts to buy them, the sources said.

Ishihara is proposing that the government nationalize the islands after Tokyo buys them. But senior officials in Noda’s government are not supportive of Ishihara’s proposal, saying “there is no guarantee that nationalization will come through,” and even if there was, it would likely take too much time.

On Wednesday, the metropolitan government asked the central government for permission to land on the islands to conduct a prepurchase survey but was unable to attach a consent form from the owner.

The central government has been leasing the four islands from the family for many years and “bans” unauthorized landings in principle. The officials, who declined to be named, said the government is unlikely to grant permission.

As of last week, the metropolitan government had received about ¥1.4 billion in donations from people across the country for Tokyo’s bid.

Last Friday, Noda told a news conference that he had already met with Ishihara about the metropolitan government’s plan to buy the Senkakus, and there is speculation that the pair discussed what to do with the donations collected by Tokyo.