CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Hitoshi Nakama says watching over the Senkaku Islands is part of his job.
The 61-year-old city councilman from Ishigaki — a southern Japan island near Taiwan that claims control of the Senkakus — jumped from a fishing boat and swam to the neighboring islands with a video camera Dec. 10.
All he found to record was windswept rock and the crumbling walls of a fish-processing plant closed before World War II. Other than some feral goats, the islands have no inhabitants.
But video of the rare landing was posted to websites around the world and raised one of the thorniest issues in Japan-China relations — ownership of the rocky, uninhabited islands — at a time tensions when are mounting among those two countries and the United States over China’s military ambitions in the region.
Japanese and Chinese officials have been trying to repair strained relations over the islands since a September incident in which a Chinese fishing trawler allegedly rammed a Japanese coast guard vessel.
But now, an unlikely international player — Nakama and the tiny local government of Ishigaki — is trying to drive a wedge between the two countries by landing on the islands and urging Japan to make a more forceful claim.
“Although the Japanese government tells us not to go there [to the Senkaku Islands] and not to touch upon the issue, it is our duty as Ishigaki city council members to survey the land, which is part of our city,” Nakama said.
The city’s mayor, Yoshitaka Nakayama, now says he, too, plans to visit and survey the restricted islands for the local government.
Tokyo recognizes that the Senkakus fall within Ishigaki’s borders, but landings on the uninhabited islands are restricted by national law, even for local officials such as Nakama, as a way to avoid conflict with China. Still, activists from Japan, Taiwan and China have flouted the restrictions and exacerbated the dispute for years by landing on the rocky cluster of islands.
The visit by Nakama and a fellow council member to one of the islands, Minami Kojima, on Dec. 10 is the first public report of a landing since 2004.
Although there has been no official comment from Tokyo on the landing, the Japan coast guard said on Dec. 28 that it is investigating the incident.
The day after the landing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry protested the incident, saying it “gravely infringed upon China’s territorial sovereignty.”
The Senkaku Islands are valuable territory because they give the owner primary rights and oversight to valuable sea lanes and access to underwater oil and natural gas fields in the East China Sea. Japan has claimed the islands since 1884, but China has disputed that claim since the discovery of valuable resources, saying they have been part of its territory since the 1300s.
In practice, the islands have remained empty while both countries have fished the surrounding waters, and China has begun extracting gas in the region. September’s incident raised tensions to the highest point in years and led to a standoff that Japan appeared to lose when it met China’s demands and released the detained crew of the fishing boat.
Later, a leaked coast guard video of the collision caused widespread outrage in Japan.
Neither country wants the question of sovereignty over the islands to escalate, but incidents like the trawler collision and the Nakama landing recharge the issue, said M. Taylor Fravel, an Asia expert and associate professor in the political science department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I think whenever Japanese land on the island it creates a problem for China,” Fravel said. “It reaffirms in Chinese eyes Japan’s claim over the island.”
Still, it is unclear how big of political problem Nakama could create among the three governments, Fravel said.
China wants to put off the dispute indefinitely because it believes it cannot negotiate a beneficial solution with Japan and is not willing to take the islands with military force and risk a costly response from U.S. forces, he said.
Japan publicly denied any territorial dispute and has attempted to reduce international friction by banning public access to the islands and avoiding public mention.
Its historic defense review issued Dec. 17 — the most significant reworking of its forces since World War II — names China a top concern and proposes shifting forces to the southern part of the country to defend outlying islands, but avoids any direct mention of the disputed Senkakus.
The United States has also tried to avoid weighing in on the dispute and has said little publicly since it turned the islands back over to Japan as part of the reversion of Okinawa in 1972.
The U.S. Embassy issued a statement to Stars and Stripes on Dec. 20 saying it will not take a position on the “ultimate sovereignty” of the Senkaku Islands but recognizes that Japan now administers the islands, meaning the U.S. is obligated to respond to any attacks as part of the its joint security alliance.
The U.S. expects China and Japan to resolve the issue through peaceful means, according to the statement released by spokesman Christopher Quade.
Nakama and the Ishigaki government are attempting to press the issue.
Nakama said it is his responsibility as a city councilman to visit and inspect the islands, which sit about 100 miles north of Ishigaki.
He said he requested permission from the Japanese government but received no reply.
“I could no longer wait,” he said. “People said that I should stay away from the islands because otherwise it would cause frictions with China. … But I am merely trying to fulfill my due responsibility [as a city official].”
Nakayama, the mayor, also sent a formal letter to the Japanese government Oct. 26 asking permission to land on the islands, which are privately owned by Japanese citizens who pay Ishigaki city property taxes, according to Hidenobu Oe, chief of the city’s planning and policy coordination office, in charge of the Senkaku Islands affairs.
The Senkaku Islands are part of the Tonoshiro community of Ishigaki City and the city has been collecting real-estate taxes from the owners of four islands since before the reversion from the U.S. to Japan in 1972, Oe said. “It is a due responsibility of the mayor to land and survey the island for the taxation purposes as well.”
Oe did not say when Nakayama might make the trip.
Meanwhile, Ishigaki plans to hold the first celebration of its domain over the Senkaku Islands on Jan. 14, a commemoration day that was created by city ordinance a week after Nakama’s landing.
“It is the day for us to remember the efforts and hardship paid by our predecessors in developing the islands and to make known to the international community that the Senkaku Islands belong to Ishigaki,” Nakama said.
In effect, the ordinance was an open letter to the Chinese government asserting Japanese sovereignty.
The China Foreign Ministry condemned the move and denied Japan’s claim to the Senkakus, which it calls Diaoyu, in a terse Dec. 19 statement issued by ministry spokesman Jiang Yu.
“I’d like to stress that China owns indisputable sovereignty over the Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands which have been China’s inherent territory since ancient times,” Jiang said. “Any scheme to infringe upon China’s territorial sovereignty over the Diaoyu Island is futile and invalid.”
The ramped-up tension may be unwanted by the governments of China, Japan and the U.S. but it has worked out well for Ishigaki’s local fishing industry.
Since the trawler incident in September, the Japan coast guard has increased patrols around the Senkaku Islands and the Chinese and Taiwanese fishing vessels that once competed with local fishermen have disappeared from the area, leaving the lucrative fishing grounds open for local boats, Nakama said.
Nakama said he fished the waters during his trip to the Senkakus and “before long, our boat was loaded with fish.”
That is one more reason why Japan should make a forceful claim to the islands, he said, which is exactly what Ishigaki city will do next month when it marks Japan’s claim to sovereignty.
“Remaining silent and staying away from the issue is not a good idea,” Nakama said. “The problem will linger forever.”