Since the government nationalized the Senkaku Islands, also claimed by China and Taiwan, in 2012, Chinese vessels have been sailing in the territorial waters surrounding the islands.
Except for the period immediately after the nationalization, an estimated 100 Chinese ships have intruded each year.
Recent flurries of incendiary remarks in the media and on social media toward China’s actions have prompted questions over whether the situation is being reported accurately.
This year, online media outlets have reported on Chinese vessels tracking Japanese ships on three occasions, in May, July, and August.
Usually a Chinese vessel will track a Japanese fishing boat from a distance, according to the Japan Coast Guard (JCG). When the fishing boat moves on from one place to another, the Chinese ship follows.
According to the JCG, Chinese ships tailed Japanese ships four times last year. But due to the lack of seriousness and urgency, the JCG didn’t make public announcements about the movements.
However, when the JCG spotted a Chinese vessel tracking a Japanese ship on the evening of May 8, the coast guard announced it nine hours later, before dawn on May 9.
Behind the announcement came strong instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry, but the reason was not specified.
“We didn’t plan to announce it publicly. But the Prime Minister’s Emergency Response Headquarters and the Foreign Ministry pushed us to do so,” said a senior coast guard official in Tokyo.
As of the end of August, 66 ships had violated the territorial waters around the Senkakus. Compared to past years, this was not a particularly large number.
However, once the kind of tracking seen up until now is released to the press, it spreads in the blink of an eye through social media, creating the impression that China is suddenly launching an offensive. A hashtag in Japanese that translated as “I protest against Chinese ships intruding on the Senkakus” briefly trended on Twitter.
On 111 days between April 14 and Aug. 8, the longest continuous period ever, Chinese public vessels entered the contiguous zone around the Senkakus, with no sign of backing down.
According to the coast guard, there were only around 40 Chinese maritime patrol boats that weighed 1,000 tons or above in 2012. But there are now about 130 such vessels, the largest of which are in the 10,000-ton class.
“The larger the ship, the better the seaworthiness. Even in high waves, the ship can remain stable,” explained a coast guard source.
“But at the same time, there is a feeling that the media and a portion of the public are exaggerating things. We don’t intend to additionally fan the flames of public opinion by publicly announcing (the tracking),” the source said.
Ukeru Magosaki, a former Foreign Ministry diplomat, says the attention has triggered a hard-line stance in China.
“Before, there was a tacit understanding with China, which claims territorial rights, to shelve the problem,” said Magosaki.
The issues over the Senkakus were supposed to be treated as a diplomatic problem, without applying domestic law, he said. But Japan applying its domestic law heightened tensions, and provided an excuse for China to apply its domestic law as well, he said.
“It is necessary to calmly face the history of the past, understand each other and to connect via dialogue.”
This section features topics and issues from Okinawa covered by The Okinawa Times, a major newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published Sept. 8.