IDSA COMMENT

Political Rift Deepens in Japan over Senkakus’ Nationalization

July 18, 2012

The growing rift between the Japanese national government and the Tokyo metropolitan government over the issue of nationalization of the Senkaku islands has attracted a lot of attention recently, both within and outside Japan. The whole issue was triggered by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s announcement in April 17 this year regarding the Tokyo metropolitan government’s planned move to purchase three of the five Senkaku islets, administered by the city of Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture. According to Ishihara, the Tokyo metropolitan government had to “acquire the islands because the (central) government has not taken any action.” He further argued that this move “will secure the integrity of the Senkaku Islands.” However, on July 7, two months after Ishihara’s announcement, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda formally announced the national government’s own intention to purchase the Senkaku islands and nationalize them. Later, Noda’s special advisor Akihisa Nagashima met with Ishihara and conveyed to him the central government’s plan. However, Ishihara continued to insist that Tokyo should be allowed to purchase the Senkakus first and then eventually transfer them to the state. The situation has deteriorated further with China and Taiwan’s strong reactions to the nationalization plan, as both have for long claimed sovereignty over the Senkakus.

The Senkaku Islands comprise of five islets—Uotsurijima, Kita-kojima, Minami-kojima, Kubashima and Taishoto—and three rocks. At present, while Taishoto remains under state ownership, the other four islands are owned by two civilians. Since fiscal year 2002, the central government has leased three islands—Uotsurijima, Kita-kojima, Minami-kojima—through an annual contract to a resident of Saitama Prefecture in Japan. Kubashima was leased by the government in 1972 and is currently owned by a relative of the owner of the other three islands mentioned above. The Central government hopes to conclude a deal on the purchase of those islands after the expiry of the current lease in March 2013 and has reportedly started negotiations with the owner.

In the meantime, the Tokyo Metropolitan government has refused to be deterred so easily from purchasing the disputed islands. In fact, Governor Ishihara has dismissed the national government’s move to purchase the islands as ‘crude’ and ‘another populist idea’ of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The Tokyo government has also set up a special team tasked with purchasing the islands.

The Noda Administration is likely to face several other major challenges in going ahead with the Senkakus’ nationalization plan. Firstly, in the last more than thirty years, Ishihara has reportedly made several attempts to buy the Senkakus. Now that the owner finally seems to have warmed to the idea of having them purchased by the Tokyo Metropolitan government, Ishihara is not likely to give up his dream plan so easily. Secondly, the owner of the islets reportedly distrusts the central government because his family, which had major land holdings before World War II, had lost much of its land when the government seized it from them during and after the war. Finally, the Tokyo government has already collected donations of about 1.32 billion yen from around the country for purchasing the islets. If the planned purchase does not take place, the metropolitan government might find itself in a difficult situation with the ‘unused’ donated amount. Under such circumstances, it will be quite complicated for the Noda Administration to deter the Tokyo government from proceeding with the purchase plan.

However, things might turn out to be even more difficult for the Ishihara government. Firstly, to purchase the islands, the Tokyo government has to send its representatives there to conduct surveys and other investigations. As the central government has banned all landings on the islands, it will not be possible for the representatives to complete a purchase deal before the expiry of the current lease. Secondly, the Tokyo government has to go through several time-consuming steps to purchase the islands, including passing a motion by the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. However, the central government can go ahead with the purchase simply by negotiating with the owner. Thirdly, the Tokyo government’s purchase plan might also create political tension within the Okinawa Prefecture itself. Recently, Okinawa Vice Governor Yoshiyuki Uehara, while supporting the central government’s move to nationalize the Senkakus, argued: “As tensions between Japan and China increase, Ishigaki citizens living near the border will be negatively affected. We would like the government to establish a firm foothold on the islands rather than allowing them to be owned by the Tokyo metropolitan government.”

As of now, the friction between the national government and the Tokyo Metropolitan government continues to simmer. It is not likely to come to an end very soon. With signs pointing to a lower house election in Japan earlier than previously expected, the Senkaku issue may become more politicized in the coming days. This is so particularly because after Ishihara’s announcement in April to purchase the Senkakus, public support to preserve the territorial integrity of those islands soared in Japan. In June this year, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) introduced a law in the Upper House to enable the central government to purchase or lease uninhibited islands on the national boundaries, including the possibility of a forcible seizure of any such island. This bill was clearly intended to deal with disputed territories like the Senkakus. The Sunrise Party, which is reportedly close to Ishihara, has, in its recent draft manifesto for the next general election, suggested the deployment of the Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF) on the Senkakus. Many regional parties such as the Osaka Ishin no Kai (Osaka Restoration Group) has been extremely critical of the central government’s role on the Senkaku issue. In fact, Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, who is also a leader of the Osaks Ishin no Kai, has recently commented: “The government has remained dumb, never attempting any kind of positive action.”

The growing attacks on the Noda Administration by various political parties on the Senkaku issue seems to have aroused some tension within the ruling DPJ itself. It has been argued by many that the Noda government was particularly compelled to take a strong stance on the nationalization issue due to the increasing concern among the DPJ members that the Ishihara government’s move to purchase the islands would aggravate criticisms on the current administration’s reluctance in preserving Japan’s territorial integrity. By attempting to nationalize the Senkaku islands, Noda is trying not only to swing public opinion in DPJ’s favour, but also to hush the critical remarks of the opposition.

The Senkaku issue is only likely to become more complicated in the future. If the Senakaus become nationalized, both China and Taiwan will become highly infuriated. Both countries have already reacted quite strongly to the recent developments. While Japan’s move to nationalize the disputed islands seems to be intended to demonstrate its uncompromising stance on the sovereignty issue, China has condemned Japan saying, “Any unilateral move by Japan is illegal and invalid.” While claiming China’s ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over those islands, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi has recently demanded that Japan “return to the right path of managing differences through dialogue.” The Taiwanese government has also issued an equally strong statement saying that the islands are “part of Taiwan’s territory and it is unacceptable that our sovereignty has been infringed upon.” To deal with the situation, Beijing might decide to take certain countermeasures, including strengthening of surveillance activities in waters around the disputed islands, conducting military exercises in the East China Sea and postponing visits by senior government officials. Taiwan too might decide to increase its surveillance by frequently sending coast guard patrol boats to the area.

So far, the Noda Administration has remained unmoved by the reactions from China and Taiwan. In fact, Prime Minister Noda recently stated: “There can be no doubt that the Senkaku Islands are part of Japanese territory, both under international law and from historical point of view.” He further stated that the Senkakus are under the effective control of Japan and there is no territorial issue with any other country over the islands. A senior official at the Japanese Foreign Ministry further argued that “The purchase of the Senkaku Islands concerns transferring ownership of the domestic land. It is not a diplomatic matter.” The Japanese government however hopes to deter China from escalating tension around the disputed area by increasing surveillance by the Japan Coast Guard and conducting joint exercises with the US. As China is preparing for a once-in-a-decade leadership change this autumn, some Japanese officials also seem to think that China may avoid escalating bilateral tensions with Japan at present.

Two proposals have been put forward to deal with the Senkakus’ nationalization: nationalizing the islands after they have been purchased by the Tokyo Metropolitan government; or purchasing them jointly with the metropolitan government. However, neither appears likely to bring the Senkakus under state control anytime soon. Even though both the national and metropolitan governments might eventually decide to come to an agreement, the possible repercussions on Japan’s bilateral relations with China and Taiwan might still create serious hurdles in proceeding with the nationalization plan for the Senkakus.