The nation’s territorial disputes heated up in August when the South Korean president made an unprecedented visit to the Takeshima Islands, which his country holds, and Chinese activists briefly landed on the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands.
In July, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medevedev toured the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido to boast Moscow’s control.
This month the central government is poised to purchase three of the Senkaku islets from a Saitama family, angering China further.
As Japan’s neighbors become more assertive with their sovereignty claims over these territories, some they hold and others they don’t, the government faces mounting pressure to bolster the defenses of Japan’s remote isles.
Following are questions and answers concerning the issue:
What are Japan’s territorial claims?
The government says Takeshima, two rocky outcroppings midway in the Sea of Japan to South Korea, which calls them Dokdo, are being unlawfully occupied.
The South Korean coast guard has had a presence there since 1954 and currently two civilians and 40 police officers live on the islets. Seoul, which maintains the islets are not in dispute and are part of South Korea, continues to build structures there to solidify its control.
Japan also maintains that the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan and the Habomai islet cluster, all off Hokkaido, are being illegally occupied by Moscow. Soviet troops seized the islands shortly after Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945 and later evicted their Japanese inhabitants.
Moscow has been providing incentives to the current Russian residents, such as doubling the pay of public servants and sweetening pension premiums, to encourage them to remain.
Unlike Takeshima or the Russian-held islands, Tokyo’s position on the Senkakus is that the uninhabited islets are not in dispute and are part of Japan.
In terms of ownership of the five-islet Senkaku group, the government outright owns one and has rented the others since 2002. Last week, the government struck a deal with the owner to buy three of the other islets, trumping a similar bid by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
Who patrols these territories?
The Japan Coast Guard’s areas of responsibility are the nation’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zones, patrolling to prevent poaching and to deter intrusions by unidentified or unauthorized vessels. In terms of the three areas under dispute, the coast guard only patrols around the Senkakus.
The coast guard serves as maritime police, but the escalation of illegal activities in the nation’s waters is spurring calls for sterner responses beyond the guard’s scope.
The Japan Coast Guard Act was amended to authorize the service to fire on illegal vessels that defy orders to stop, after a 1999 run-in with North Korean spy boats off the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture. Personnel would not face charges for casualties under the revision. Two years later a North Korean spy boat sank in a shootout with the coast guard in the East China Sea, and all hands were lost.
How have recent amendments affected the Japan Coast Guard Act?
In late August, the Diet passed amendments to give the coast guard more police authority. Before the change, the coast guard could arrest people who intrude on the nation’s waters or try to trespass on its territory, but could not exercise authority against any trespasser who makes it ashore. The revision lets the coast guard take into custody anyone who makes an unapproved landing and conducts illegal activities on any of Japan’s remote islands that don’t have a police presence.
In 2004, when Chinese landed on the Senkakus for a second time, it took about 12 hours for Japan to arrest them because uniformed police officers had to be taken to the islets by boat to make the actual arrests. Even in last month’s brief landing by the activists from Hong Kong, the government had to deploy 30 people, including police, immigration officials and the coast guard, in advance to nab the party.
Critics say the coast guard should have stopped the Chinese activists and arrested them at sea, but officials say that would be technically difficult. International law grants sailors the right of innocent passage, and the coast guard thus has to provide irrefutable and unequivocal proof that seagoing intruders intend to land illegally in order to apprehend them.
The revised law allows the coast guard to order foreign vessels to leave Japanese waters without boarding them. If foreign vessels refuse to leave or grant an inspection, they can be charged.
Experts believe this will allow authorities to act against illegal activities quicker.
“The Japanese government has done nothing to protect the islands, saying there is no territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands,” said Yoshihiko Yamada, a maritime security professor at Tokai University.
“The amendments are a significant step forward, although there are some limitations,” said Yamada, who has served as an adviser to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government over its bid to buy three of the Senkaku islets.
Both experts and the coast guard agree the service has limited resources. Currently, it has 440 patrol vessels and about 12,000 personnel responsible for more than 4.4 million sq. km of territorial waters. Even though the coast guard says its ranks have increased slightly despite budget crunches, it needs more vessels and personnel.
Do the Self-Defense Forces play a role in protecting Japan’s remote territories?
Article 9 of the Constitution requires the SDF to be exclusively defense-oriented. Any actions the forces take to secure maritime security must be ordered by the defense minister with the prime minister’s approval.
The SDF monitors the nation’s airspace and territorial waters nonstop, using aircraft, ships, radar, satellites and other equipment, but the overall surveillance capability has limitations.
The SDF surveillance does not extend to Takeshima, because the islets do not have any Japanese-controlled facilities. The islets are within the South Korean air defense identification zone (ADIZ), which makes airspace monitoring difficult even though the SDF has the capability.
The SDF also does not conduct surveillance over the Russian-held islands, which lie outside Japan’s ADIZ and beyond Japan’s effective control.
Is the SDF planning to bolster its defense of the Senkakus?
The Senkakus are under SDF surveillance, via radar on Miyako Island and P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft. The Ground Self-Defense Force’s Western Army Infantry Regiment based in Nagasaki and the U.S. Marine Corps 3rd Expeditionary Force in Okinawa also hold joint drills in the area.
The 2010 National Defense Policy Guideline introduced the concept of Dynamic Defense for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to respond to threats quickly and effectively. The 10-year defense plan clearly calls for the SDF to be alert to the possibility of having to contend with a rising China. The plan moves more military assets closer to the maritime region where Japanese and Chinese interests collide.
To enhance its presence in the territory and surveillance capability, the SDF may deploy ground troops to the islands of Yonaguni, Ishigaki and Miyako.
The SDF in August conducted its first annual drill based on the defense of Japan’s remote islands. The SDF is also introducing amphibious assault vehicles.
Experts say it’s not in China’s interest to escalate the territorial dispute into military conflict and thus Beijing hopes to maintain the status quo.
“Even though Deng Xiaoping said it’s best to table the Senkaku issue, China has not been consistent as it let activists come,” said Kunihiko Miyake, research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies and a former diplomat. “Japan has to show its maximum deterrent capability in order to keep the status quo.”
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