Beijing's island Claim crazy, says owner

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am

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Hiroyuki Kurihara has a one-word comment on Beijing's claim to his islands in the East China Sea: crazy.

Kurihara's family has owned three of the eight islands and reefs that make up the disputed Diaoyus since 1981. But they found themselves in the middle of a diplomatic showdown last month when Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said he intended to buy the islands, part of the chain the Japanese call Senkaku, for the municipal government. Beijing responded by asserting the Diaoyus belong to China.

'Beijing's claims are crazy,' Kurihara, 65, says. 'The islands are Japanese territory. You can't just change something like that because a government says so.'

Kurihara says Ishihara has been trying to persuade him and his brother Kunioki to sell the islands for 30 years. 'I've always said no, until now, because if I was going to sell the islands, I would never sell them to a private individual. I would only sell to the Japanese nation, the city of Tokyo or Okinawa prefecture.'

But the nationalist governor's announcement, made during a speech in Washington, caught him off-guard. 'I was surprised by Ishihara's speech as he had not spoken to me and we have not spoken about selling the islands again since then,' he says. 'But there are many things that need to be discussed, between lawyers, real estate agents and so on.'

Kurihara last visited the islands 20 years ago, when he was acting as an adviser for a government research project. His family owns Minami Kojima, about 450 square metres and rising to a maximum height of 149 metres above sea level, the smaller Kita Kojima, which tops out at 135 metres high, and Uotsuri Jima, the largest of the disputed islands.

Kurihara owns an architectural firm and is also involved in medical consultancy services. On the wall of his office in central Tokyo are a series of maps and framed photographs depicting the islands. 'I want to go back there but the government will not permit people to land on the islands,' he says with a shrug. Although his family owns the islands, they are leased to the national government for 25 million yen (US$313,000) a year.

For decades, Tokyo has attempted to simply ignore the sovereignty issue - Taiwan also claims ownership - and stuck to the belief that keeping the islands off-limits to visitors would prevent debate from arising.

That approach worked to a degree until September 2010, when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese patrol vessels in the disputed area. The skipper was arrested, and China suspended ministerial-level contacts, although Japanese prosecutors later dropped the case.

But Ishihara's announcement has thrust the dispute back into the diplomatic spotlight. The governor, a nationalist who has made sensational claims that riled China in the past, was likely seeking to embarrass the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, which he says has failed to take a firm stand over the islands. By saying Tokyo would buy the Diaoyus, Ishihara may have wanted to force Noda into making a more forceful gesture. Noda did tell parliament on April 18 that the government wanted to ascertain the landowners' intent. The day before, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Osamu Fujimura, said the government could seek nationalising the Senkakus 'if necessary'.

No price has been mentioned for buying the islands, but even if the two sides could agree in principle to the deal, it would take several years to complete, Kurihara believes.

The Tokyo government has set up a fund to allow people to donate towards buying the chain and so far about 24,000 people have contributed 314 million yen (HK$30.6 million). The rapid influx of donations surprised Kurihara, although he is pleased enough Japanese felt so strongly about the islands' future.

Many Japanese feel China's claim has no basis in history but is a matter of modern-day pragmatism. Research conducted in the late 1960s and released in 1971 indicated the presence of oil and gas, Kurihara points out. 'It was only after those reports came out that China began to make noise over the issue,' he says.

More recently, Beijing's concerns have to do with its military, he says. A map on his office wall shows the sweep of islands that run down from the Russian Far East, through the Japanese archipelago and Taiwan and into the island states of the South China Sea. China's navy - which is expanding rapidly and has ambitions of becoming a blue-water fleet - must pass between the islands of neighbouring states to get to the Pacific Ocean, a route that Beijing may feel leaves ships too exposed. That, military analysts believe, is why China is being more aggressive in its disputes over the Senkaku Islands, as well as the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea.

'China claims it has maps that prove its claim to the Senkaku islands, but it was really the sailors and fishermen of the Ryukyu kingdom - or Okinawa today - who knew where the islands were and used them as navigation marks,' Kurihara says. 'Not many Chinese sailors went that far because it was too dangerous for them.'

It was not until the late 1800s that work began to develop the islands, long after the Ryukyu kingdom had been incorporated into greater Japan, and an entrepreneur, Tatsuhiro Koga, built a fishing business on the islands.

At its peak, the little colony had 290 residents but they were forced to leave in 1943 because the US navy and air force made it impossible to bring in water and food.

Kurihara is grateful Ishihara is putting attention on the islands. He has little time for the administration's stance - or lack of one - on the future of the islands. 'The Japanese government is weak,' he says dismissively. 'This is an opportunity for foreign countries to take advantage of our weaknesses.'