“A country that cannot defend the Senkaku Islands cannot defend Okinawa; and a country that cannot defend Okinawa cannot defend any part of Japan.”
This was among the reasons cited by Eiji Kosaka, a local politician in Tokyo, for his participation in a nationalist boat trip to the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands in August.
Kosaka himself was among the ten activists who defied their own government and landed on the largest of the islets, called Uotsurijima in Japan and Diaoyu Dao in China, for about two hours.
Kosaka explains: “For decades, Red China has always been expanding. They took over the independent country of Tibet and then made East Turkestan into a Uighur colony. It’s the same with southern Mongolia… Now they are facing Taiwan and Okinawa—and the front line of Okinawa is the Senkaku Islands.”
When it was pointed out to him that Japan’s own de facto military, the Self-Defence Forces, are considered technologically superior to potential Chinese invasion forces, Kosaka readily agrees. What he doubts is the “resolve” of the Japanese political class and even the people to stand up and defend Japan’s national territory.
“When the Greater East Asian War ended in 1945,” Kosaka continues, “Japan fell under the control of the US occupation authorities for seven years. During that time, the people were exposed to continuous lies and propaganda about how Japan is a bad country that had launched aggression, and how the Japanese national army is a threat to its own people.”
In Japan, the issue of island territorial disputes with China, Taiwan, South Korea, and even Russia is often as much about a domestic political struggle to shape and reshape the Japanese national identity as it is a matter of international diplomacy.
For many conservatives, clashes between East Asian nations over islands, seas, and natural resources present an opportunity to move from the fringes of the domestic political system to a place very near its heart.
Eiji Kosaka himself might have still remained an obscure local assemblyman if not for the shower of national and international attention he has received in the weeks since his landing on the disputed isle.
And while Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has been quite prominent for decades, never before his April announcement to an audience in Washington DC that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government intended to purchase three of the five disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands from their private owner has he been so successful in driving the national government’s foreign policies and influencing Japan’s external relations with its East Asian neighbors.
Like Kosaka, Governor Ishihara makes no bones about the fact that he distrusts China and sees it as a security threat to the Japanese nation.
In a late May press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Ishihara declared that his nation had better wake up to the threat soon or else it was liable to “become the sixth star on China’s national flag”.
And since Governor Ishihara put the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands dispute near the top of the agenda in April, the crisis has continued to build, with activists from both Hong Kong as well as Eiji Kosaka’s group from Tokyo making unauthorised landings in order to plant their flags and to stake their claims.
On Tuesday, the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda stepped directly into the fray by pushing Governor Ishihara aside and purchasing three of the disputed islands directly from their private Japanese owner for a sum of about $26m.
Prime Minister Noda has indicated that he has no plans for construction on the islands. This has angered many Japanese conservatives who are demanding that, at minimum, a lighthouse and port facilities be built on the largest of the islets.
Governor Ishihara, whose government has collected almost $18m in private donations for the islands since April, announced that he is willing to release these funds to the national government only on condition that they be used for construction and development of the Senkaku-Diaoyu territories.
|Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has criticised China's behaviour as aggressive [Michael Penn/Al Jazeera]
In the Japanese political context, the Noda administration’s nationalisation of the islands actually represents the more moderate of the two main positions vis-à-vis China and Taiwan, since its main objective is to preserve a condition close to that of the status quo.
Nevertheless, word that the Japanese government has nationalised the islands has not gone down well in Beijing and among Chinese nationalists broadly.
Anti-Japanese protests have broken out in many parts of China, and from Shanghai there are reports of attacks on individual Japanese citizens.
Chinese Vice-Minister of Commerce Jiang Zengwei told a news conference on Thursday that the Noda administration’s decision to nationalise the islands will “inevitably have a negative impact on China-Japan economic and trade ties”. China is Japan’s largest trading partner.
Effects are already apparent in the tourism industry as some major Chinese travel agencies are forcing cancellations of trips bound for Japan. Also, there has been a sudden announcement that China is withdrawing from a major tourism promotion convention to be held in Tokyo later this month.
In the latest development, China has sent six surveillance ships into the seas near the disputed islands, prompting the establishment of emergency task forces within both the Japanese prime minister’s office and at the National Police Agency.
While Chinese surveillance ships have entered these same waters in the past, never before has it been with as many as six ships simultaneously.
It is an unprecedented show of force from Beijing, and it is setting off alarm bells in Tokyo.
But for Japanese nationalists such as Eiji Kosaka and Shintaro Ishihara, it is the kind of action they have always expected from China—even if they happened to play a key role in provoking it.