When Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in mid-May said the central government would purchase three of the Senkaku islets from their private owner, he hoped it was the right tactic in the face of then-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s declared intention for the metropolitan government to step in and buy them.
Noda tried to proceed cautiously in his dealings with Ishihara, the owner and Beijing, which claims the small island chain as its territory. But following the start of hastily launched negotiations, a string of miscalculations resulted in Sino-Japanese relations being at their worst since the normalization of ties in 1972.
It was on May 18, at a meeting involving Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, then-Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Nagahama and Akihisa Nagashima, who was at the time a special adviser to the prime minister, that Noda made up his mind to go ahead and purchase the uninhabited islets from their private owner, a Saitama businessman.
“Let’s speed up the procedures to have the property rights over the Senkakus transferred to the state,” Noda was quoted by a government source as saying.
Earlier in the meeting, Noda and the others had been briefed on Ishihara’s plans for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to purchase the islets, including his intention to build a typhoon shelter for fishermen and station civil servants there.
If the hawkish governor, known for his hardline stance toward Beijing, succeeded in getting hold of the East China Sea islets, nobody could predict what he might do next. It was widely believed that if he succeeded in buying them, developing the islets would have been a disaster for Japan’s relations with China.
Nagashima, with a reputation for being well-versed in foreign and security affairs, was quoted as telling the prime minister, “The state’s purchase (of the islands) would not antagonize China as much” as if they were bought by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
To that, Noda nodded and the course for the purchase was set. At the same time, Noda added, “Make sure to carry it out without making Mr. Ishihara lose face.”
The issue of bringing the Senkakus under central government ownership was first discussed around 2004, when a visit by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine ruffled China’s feathers.
From around 2006, the administration, then under the Liberal Democratic Party, started sounding out the islands’ owner with options such as swapping the property with other government-owned land, government sources said.
Aware that China was certain to kick up a storm if it found out about Japan’s moves, the Noda administration’s initial stance was to stay mum so the islets would become government-owned before anyone noticed. That would have been the ideal scenario, an aide close to the prime minister said.
But events took an abrupt turn in April when Ishihara announced his purchase plan. Caught off guard, Noda hurriedly instructed his aides to devise countermeasures.
Ishihara had actually started negotiations with the owner last December 2011. There was at least one occasion when he brought along his oldest son, Nobuteru, then secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, political sources said.
“The plan was for the metropolitan government to hand over (the Senkaku property rights) to the state if Nobuteru became prime minister,” a source said.
Hoping to find an amicable resolution, Noda invited Ishihara to his official residence Aug. 19. At the meeting, Ishihara said he would accept the purchase plan by the central government on condition that a typhoon shelter be built there.
The problem with having a port of refuge in the islets was that if Chinese vessels were to request permission to use it, Japan would have had a hard time refusing.
Noda therefore decided to hold off on a decision on the matter and asked the governor to wait one more week.
Then, on Sept. 4, after the central government and the private owner reached a broad agreement over the transfer of the property rights, Nagashima knocked on Ishihara’s door on Noda’s behalf.
“The Noda administration has done everything within its power to purchase the islands. With regards to whatever else is needed, please demand them from the next administration,” Nagashima was quoted as saying in apology.
With that, Ishihara finally accepted the move, saying, “It must have been a tough job for you, too.”
On Sept. 9, Noda was cornered by Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vladivostok, Russia. Hu condemned Japan’s moves to bring the islands under official government control as “illegal” and “invalid,” and said Beijing was resolutely opposed.
According to sources involved in Sino-Japanese relations, a personal letter from Noda delivered to Hu by then-Senior Vice Foreign Minister Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi in late August did not stipulate that it was the government’s policy to purchase the Senkakus.
This was because the Japanese side adheres to the principle that the transfer of property rights within Japan is an internal matter.
But Hu interpreted the letter’s content to mean that there was still room for Japan to re-examine the purchase plan, a diplomatic source said, pointing the finger at Japan’s lack of explanation.
On Sept. 11, two days after Hu’s “ultimatum,” the Noda administration went ahead and brought the islets, triggering a severe response from China that included massive anti-Japanese protests in several cities and intrusions by Chinese vessels into waters around the islet chain.
Noda later admitted in a television interview he didn’t expect the situation to deteriorate to the extent it did.