Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara announced in Washington last Monday that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is in the final stage of negotiations to buy most of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea from the landowner Mr. Kunioki Kurihara, a resident of Saitama. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda reacted to the news by hinting at the possibility of nationalizing the islands.

The islands are part of Japanese territories and Japan exercises effective rule over them. But both China and Taiwan lay claim to the archipelago and China repeatedly takes provocative action in the area. Japan should deal with China and Taiwan with a resolute attitude concerning the sovereignty over the islands. Still, both Mr. Ishihara and Mr. Noda must maintain cool heads when considering whether changing the ownership status of the islands is a wise move since it could unnecessarily provoke China and Taiwan.

The Senkaku Islands are located about 400 km west of Okinawa Island. In 1895, Japan incorporated the islands into Okinawa Prefecture after confirming that no other country also laid claim. After World War II, they were administered by the United States. In 1972, the islands reverted back to Japanese control together with Okinawa.

Mr. Ishihara chose a conservative think tank in Washington as the venue of his announcement, stating, “The Tokyo Metropolitan Government will defend the Senkaku Islands.” In a vague reference to China, he also said, “Will anyone have an objection to Japanese acquiring the islands to defend Japan’s territory, even though a certain country may dislike it?”

Mr. Ishihara is considering buying Uotsuri Island, the largest in the islands group, and two other smaller islands. The Japanese government began leasing the three islands in 2002 on the grounds that it is necessary to obtain peaceful and stable maintenance and management of them. It is paying an annual rent of about ¥25 million.

Mr. Ishihara appears to feel that the central government’s attitude toward China is weak. He is likely trying to present himself as a politician with a strong commitment to the defense of Japanese territory in a bid to pander to those dissatisfied with the central government.

But what benefits Tokyoites would get from his plan remain a mystery. Furthermore, if his plan leads to a deterioration in the relationship between Japan and China, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government does not possess the means to repair the damage. His plan will only complicate Japan’s diplomatic situation.

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