Tanaage, which means to put something on the shelf, is a term that pops up often in the coverage of the current imbroglio over the islands that Japan calls the Senkakus. There is disagreement over when China, which calls the islands Diaoyu, started insisting they were its territory, but in any case the two countries didn’t confront each other with their respective claims until the 1970s. Japanese hardliners say the Chinese became possessive about the rocks in the East China Sea only when they determined there were valuable resources under them, while the Chinese say they’ve been visiting them before Japan was a twinkle in the goddess Amaterasu’s eye.

But around 1978 the matter was “put on the shelf” in accordance with an unspoken understanding that China would continue claiming the islands for itself while tacitly acknowledging that Japan “realistically controlled them,” to quote China-based freelance journalist Yoshiko Furumae in the Tokyo Shimbun. Japan could then assert to the void that there is no territorial problem.

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