With tensions as high as they are in the East China Sea, it came as little surprise that our sendoff party included members of Japan’s Coast Guard and local police.
What was perhaps more of a surprise, is how thoroughly they combed the fishing boat we were about to take.
Under a moonlit night in the seaport of Ishigaki, we were ordered to stand in a row on the dock beside the boat, as officers looked through every one of our bags, and peered into every conceivable hold on the ship where weapons or items for a demonstration could be stored.
“I’ve never seen such a strict check,” said our captain Naka Zensho, shaking his head.
Three generations of Naka’s family have fished the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. He says before the tensions began, they could travel freely, and fishermen from Taiwan and Japan would readily share the waters around the disputed chain.
“We only ever argued when our nets got tangled up,” he said. “Then we would report them to our government’s fisheries boats. But these were Taiwanese ships, never did we see Chinese ships. It’s too far for them to come.”
The port of Ishigaki is some 170km from the islands. Taiwan’s closest port is some 140km (Pengjia islet). China’s, is more than 330km away (ports in Zhejiang province).
While Taiwan has launched its own claim to the islands, greater concern is China’s, whose officials have hinted they are ready to go to war over it.
With any move, even by citizens, possibly bringing tensions to that fine edge, Japan’s Coast Guard has introduced stricter regulations for each trip out there.
Wagging a finger at us, a stern faced officer from the Coast Guard, who I could only guess was in charge – judging by his age and the respect shown by others to him – said, “You are not going to land on the islands, correct?”
Just a few days earlier, Japan’s government decided to press charges against two Japanese citizens for jumping off their ship and swimming to Uotsuri/Diaoyu Dao, the main island in the disputed chain, to hold a protest.
On August 17, 14 people from Hong Kong were also arrested for staging their own demonstration on the island with a Chinese flag.
“In our great grandparents’ generation, we had Japanese living here. We have hundreds of people in fact buried on these islands. If China takes that all away, they are stealing our graveyard.”
A source inside the Coast Guard told us, that in order to try and scale down tensions, Japan’s government was trying to dissuade any more people from making a political statement.
Hence, the night’s tough talk, and the thorough examination.
With this being typhoon season, heavy waves had already kept us landlocked on Ishigaki for more than a week.
We all breathed a sigh of relief therefore, after the Coast Guard gave us the all clear, following a final check of our manifests.
“We will be staying in touch with you,” said one of the English-speaking members. “Please leave your satellite phone on when working.”
It would be an eight-hour trip through rough seas to a place the Coast Guard happily reminded us, is full of man-eating sharks – it was perhaps a parting reminder, not to be so ready to jump into the waters and make a dash for the island.
As we left the protection of Ishigaki’s port and entered the open seas, the two metre-high waves sent us scurrying into the cabin of our boat, where we hunkered down for a miserable night.
By 5am, just as the sun was peeking out from the horizon, the ship’s GPS began showing a land mass to the north.
“That is the main island of Senkaku,” said Naka. “We are almost there.”
We could make out the large triangular form of Uotsuri/Diaoyu Dao. It’s much larger then I imagined, I thought.
Then we noticed several other objects bobbing in the waters just off the islands. The objects had lights blinking away.
As we neared, it became clear they were boats belonging to Japan’s Coast Guard. They had waited through the night for our arrival.
While the government refuses to say how many Coast Guard ships it has operating in these waters, sources tell us, there are in fact some 42 – all equipped with water cannon and heavier weapons. They also carry faster, smaller boats that can be deployed at any moment.
Soon enough, a zodiac, along with another smaller boat pulls up alongside us.
One Coast Guard officer yells to our captain, “This is the closest you can go.”
The Senkaku/Diaoyu chain is made up of five islands, along with some 70 smaller rocky outcrops.
One of the biggest sellers in bookstores in China in recent weeks, has been a new map, that has drawn the country’s boundaries to include these islands. Alongside the map are detailed descriptions, including the type of flora and fauna that that call the island chain home.
Before all this, Japanese fishermen, like Naka, said they couldn’t care less about politics. And in fact, openly kept clear of “nationalist-types”, that looked to make the islands a cause. But then came a 2010 incident where a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese coast guard vessel in the waters around the disputed islands. Attitudes began to harden.
Then, this August, fierce riots in China led to Japanese people and their businesses being attacked.
Attitudes hardened even further. And those like Naka began agreeing to take journalists and activists to the area.
“We started to feel that if we don’t start speaking up, and doing something, then our next generation wouldn’t have these islands to fish from. In the late 1890s, some 280 Japanese did make their home on Uotsori/Diaoyu Dao. They had a community of 99 houses, and were mainly employed in a Bonito flake-making factory.
There are still many remnants of that time, including the foundations of these homes with Japanese writing on them.
China’s claim dates back much further to the 1400s, where ancient documents suggest the islands were then administered by the Ming dynasty.
“In our great grandparents’ generation, we had Japanese living here. We have hundreds of people in fact buried on these islands. If China takes that all away, they are stealing our graveyard.”, Naka said.
While the dispute has been brewing for years, the recent tensions were ignited by what many could consider a diplomatic blunder.
Japan’s national government in August purchased three of the islands from a private owner. It made the move after Shintaro Ishihara, the nationalist-minded mayor of Tokyo launched a fundraising campaign to do just the same thing.
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Insiders say, the nationalist government thought it would make the move first, and promise to leave the islands untouched, thereby not incurring China’s wrath (Ishihara had said he would build a port, a lighthouse, along with a communications tower).
Instead when the purchase was made, China reacted angrily and began sending fleets of surveillance vessels to challenge Japan’s administrative control.
Besides the high seas confrontations, there has also been a constant war of words, with China publishing its case on full-page spreads in American papers like the New York Times .
Uncharacteristic of the more quiet Japanese government, it too has taken a public stance, with Noda raising the case internationally in bilateral meetings with various nations, including ones that don’t have a stake in the matter.
“With China screaming so loudly, we felt we also needed to make our claim understood,” said one Japanese official.
As we circled the main island, four large Japanese coast guard vessels hemmed us in on all sides.
Limited to where we could go, Naka decided to try his luck and bait his lines.
Within minutes, he began pulling up an impressive haul; all kinds of fish, including the Tai, a reddish-coloured Snapper.
Our local producer, Noriko Ansell, clapped her hands in excitement.
“This is the best type of fish for sashimi in Japan, we used to serve this to our emperor, and also to each other for our birthdays.”
For Naka, such a catch is the perfect example of how highly prized these fishing grounds are to Japan’s fishing fleet.
As Naka finished pulling in his lines, we noticed two of the coast guard vessels steaming away in opposite directions.
We soon learned eight Chinese surveillance ships had entered nearby waters from different directions – readying for another dangerous round of cat and mouse.
Heading for port and the safer waters around Ishigaki, one is left with an unsettling feeling that we’ll be returning to the area sometime soon.