Many of Japan’s thousands of isles await buyers, as depopulation presents challenges around defending the nation’s territory

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

After a slew of recent news reports about North Korean fishing vessels washing up on uninhabited islands, as well as ongoing disputes with China over the Senkaku Islands and intrusions by Chinese vessels into Japanese waters, public and media attention on Japan’s uninhabited isles is growing.

Add to that a graying Japan, which is expected to accelerate depopulation in rural areas — especially smaller, remote islands — and it becomes clear that maintaining sovereignty over all of Japan into the future will be a tougher challenge than it may first appear.

Japan is commonly thought of as a nation made up of four main islands plus Okinawa. But it is, in fact, a nation of at least 6,852 islands, according to Japan Coast Guard statistics dating from the late 1980s.

That number might vary depending on whether one includes disputed isles like those off the east coast of Hokkaido, claimed by Japan and held by Russia.

But it can also vary depending on the size of the “island.”

The coast guard calculation used a basic standard of a natural, not man-made, island that has a circumference of at least 100 meters and is connected to one of the four main islands or Okinawa.

Whatever the actual number, the vast majority of Japan’s islands have nobody living on them.

A 2016 report from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism identified just 418 islands as being inhabited, at least by humans.

But that figure was as of 2010, which means there will likely be far fewer peopled islands by the 2020 census.

Use of uninhabited islands varies. Some towns and prefectures are promoting them as camping grounds or ecotourism destinations. But at least one realtor is offering wealthy prospective buyers the chance to purchase their own islands.

Masa Sato runs Aqua-Styles, which, as of early January, lists nearly a dozen islands — completely or mostly deserted — on its website. They’re located off the coasts of Wakayama, Kagawa, Saga, Hiroshima, Mie, Yamaguchi, Kumamoto prefectures, as well as in Okinawa.

Prices range from just ¥15 million for a 1,500-square-meter islet in the Seto Inland Sea, just underneath the Seto bridge, to ¥500 million for a roughly 36,000-sq.-meter island in Okinawa.

“The buyers of the islands mostly own boats and they seek their own land and their own kingdom. Some build houses, and use (the islands) as a second home. Some use them for agricultural purposes,” said Sato.

“Almost all buyers are Japanese. Okinawa is very popular, but it’s very difficult to find private islands for sale,” Sato said.

In a report last year for the Security and Strategy Research Institute of Japan, senior research fellow Joji Higuchi noted that concerns in Japan are growing about protecting the Senkaku Islands and marine resources in Japan’s exclusive economic zone from intrusions by foreign vessels.

Many of these islands are sparsely inhabited. With increasing intrusions by Chinese government vessels and fishing boats into Japanese waters, Japan passed a law that went into effect in April that offers assistance for those living on small islands near its maritime border.

“With the new law, the government assumes new responsibilities for basic items related to the sale of land, maintaining harbors, protection against the illegal entry of foreign vessels, reducing costs for transportation to and from the islands, and for reducing the burden on island residents for things they need for their businesses and lifestyles,” Higuchi wrote.

As of April 2017, there were also 258 remote, inhabited islands with a population of around 418,000 that receive central government funding for local development, according to land and transport ministry data.

While some of these, like Sado Island off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, are big and have populations of over 10,000, the smallest islets had populations of less than 10 as of the 2010 census and will likely be uninhabited within a few years.

As these islands see their remaining populations age and decline further in the coming years, maintaining their security and preventing illegal landings will become ever more paramount. Yoshihiko Yamada, a maritime security expert at Tokai University, said that central and local government cooperation is the key.

“Managing inhabited and uninhabited islands is the role of local governments rather than the Japan Coast Guard. However, in order to prevent island intruders from across the sea, cooperation and information between coast guard and police officials, local fishermen, cargo ship personnel and coastal patrols made up of island residents is crucial,” Yamada said.

Meanwhile, how to deal with the question of uninhabited islet purchases is also likely to grow more politically touchy in the coming years.

“All of the islands I represent are owned by individuals or companies in Japan. But the Japanese government is inspecting all government-owned uninhabited islands, and will restrict their sale,” Sato said.

He added that he has never been told by the government he could not list an uninhabited island for national security or similar reasons, such as an island’s proximity to a military base or a nuclear power plant.

“All the islands I am selling are owned by someone and there is a clear title. I always check and meet the buyer,” Sato said.

“If I sell islands to the Chinese the right wing might try to attack me, but there have been no problems so far,” he added.