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Chinese and Japanese vessels pass close to each other near the disputed Diaoyu Islands in 2013. Photo: Kyodo

ExplainerJapan’s territorial disputes: China, South Korea, Russia and more

  • Tokyo has competing claims with all its immediate neighbours over territory, including the governments of North Korea and Taiwan
  • The Diaoyu Islands dispute is seen as the most volatile, while analysts see little likelihood of progress with Moscow over the Kuril Islands
Japan is in disputes with all its immediate neighbours over territory, with those competing claims largely dating back to its imperial past of a century ago.

Tokyo insists that it has no ambitions to obtain new territory and is merely claiming sovereignty over islands and their surrounding waters that have long been recognised as Japanese.

But that position is disputed by the governments of China, Russia, Taiwan and both North and South Korea.


China: Beijing claims the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea that are currently controlled by Japan, which calls them the Senkakus. China claims it discovered the islands in the 14th century, while Japan insists they were uninhabited, used only as maritime navigational markers and therefore terra nullius before being settled by Japanese fishermen from the late 1890s.

Chinese, Japanese ships chase each other near disputed Diaoyu Islands as tensions rise in East China Sea

Tokyo says Beijing only began to claim the islands after surveys in the 1960s indicated the possibility of oil and gas deposits beneath the seabed nearby. With tensions growing over the competing claims, the Japanese government in September 2012 purchased three of the five islands from their owners, the Kurihara family, for 2.05 billion yen (US$19.5 million).

Taiwan: Taipei also lays claim to the islands, which it knows as the Diaoyutai Islands, and says they have been part of Chinese territory since at least 1534.

South Korea: Seoul’s sovereignty dispute with Tokyo involves a separate set of rocky outcroppings that are known in Korean as Dokdo. To bolster its claim to their sovereignty, South Korea has stationed a police unit on the islets in the Sea of Japan – that Tokyo calls Takeshima – since Japan was defeated in World War II and the Korean peninsula was liberated from Japanese colonial rule.

Japan, however, claims sovereignty over the remote islands off the east coast of the Korean peninsula was not detailed in post-war treaties, and that the islands should therefore be handed over to Japanese control.

There are also some in South Korea who claim that the Japanese island of Tsushima – halfway between the Korean peninsula and Nagasaki prefecture in mainland Japan – is historically a Korean territory known as Daemado and should be returned.

North Korea: Pyongyang echoes Seoul’s claims to Dokdo, which it calls by the same name.

Russia: Soviet forces seized and annexed the islands of Iturup (known in Japanese as Etorofu), Kunashir, Shikotan and the Habomai islets, on the very southern tip of the Kuril Islands, in the closing days of World War II. Japan’s position is that the islands – which it knows as the Northern Territories – were not a part of the Kuril archipelago and therefore their sovereignty should not have been part of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty between the Allies and Japan.

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Diaoyu Islands: Japan does not accept that there is a territorial dispute, as it administers the Senkaku islands as an “integral part” of the nation. China has, in recent years, stepped up a campaign designed to weaken Tokyo’s claim to control the islands by sending coastguard vessels into the territorial waters around the archipelago, which refuse to leave when ordered to do so by their Japanese counterparts.

Chinese fishing boats have also been seen operating within these waters, a development that Tokyo assumes is at the behest of Beijing and is similarly designed to reduce Japan’s claim to control.

Takeshima/Dokdo: Tokyo has marked Takeshima Day every February 22 since 2005 and has repeated its calls for the islands to be returned. Each event is followed by Japan’s diplomatic representative to Seoul being summoned by the foreign ministry for a formal complaint to be registered.

Japan is continuing its efforts to publicise the issue through web pages and media coverage, pointing out that it has invited South Korea to have the International Court of Justice decide on the issue of sovereignty on three occasions since the 1950s. Seoul has declined each time.

Tsushima/Daemado: The Korean government’s 1948 claim to Tsushima was rejected by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers the following year, a decision that was accepted by the government in Seoul, though some in the country today still want the islands returned.

Kuril Islands/Northern Territories: Japan has in the past made offers of financial assistance to residents of the islands in an attempt to win them over to the idea of Tokyo assuming control, although locals’ resolve to remain part of Russia appears to have hardened in recent years as a result of investment in the region by Moscow.

There have been suggestions that Russia might be willing to return the two southernmost islands to Japan if it gives up its claims to the remainder of the territory, but that suggestion was rejected by Tokyo. The issue has been a sticking point in bilateral relations, with the two nations not yet signing a post-World War II peace treaty because of the dispute.

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russian attitudes to the islands’ future have hardened and there is little likelihood of the territory being returned.


China: Of all Japan’s territorial disputes, the one over the Diaoyu Islands is considered the most volatile, especially since Beijing passed new legislation earlier this month to allow coastguard vessels to use force in waters it believes are its territory, even if these are disputed.

Japanese officials have since responded by saying Japan’s coastguard could directly fire a weapon against foreign official vessels aiming to land on the islands.

Analysts also say there is always the possibility that an accident – such as a minor collision between coastguard ships – could lead to a rapid escalation of hostilities. Japan, which has a security treaty with the United States, has welcomed Washington’s reassurances that it will defend Japan in the event of a conflict over the islands.

Taiwan: On rare occasions, Taiwanese fishing boats have been sighted close to the Diaoyu Islands, but not in a concerted or organised way. There have been no confrontations between coastguard or military vessels sent by Taipei.

South Korea: Despite the strongly worded claims to sovereignty by Japan and equally stern rebuttals from Seoul, there have – until recently – been no indications that the situation might escalate. Tensions did rise in December 2018, however, when Japan claimed that a South Korean warship locked its fire-control radar on to a Japanese maritime patrol aircraft for several minutes in waters close to the islands. Tokyo condemned the incident as “extremely dangerous”.

North Korea: The islands lie off the coast of South Korea and there have been no incidents involving Pyongyang.

Russia: Moscow has stationed significant military assets on the islands – including anti-shipping missiles and advanced fighter jets – and there is little likelihood of Japan testing the Russians’ military resolve. The most likely incident is an accidental clash between sea or air units.

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Analysts expect constant manoeuvring between the rival powers over the question of these disputed territories’ sovereignty, but little change in the status quo.

“China has undoubtedly become very provocative on the issue of the Senkakus, but it is not clear quite how far Beijing is willing to go given that the US has clearly confirmed that it is committed to its security pact with Japan,” said Akitoshi Miyashita, a professor of international relations at Tokyo International University. “It would take the use of force there to change the sovereignty of that territory and I do not know if China is ready to go to those lengths.”

Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University, said he expected China to “continue its efforts to press its claims to the islands and to delegitimise Japan’s sovereignty” of the Diaoyus.

Both Nagy and Miyashita suggested there was close to no possibility of Russia’s Putin agreeing to return the Northern Territories to Japan, although he might be convinced to propose the joint development of natural resources in the region.

Miyashita pointed out, however, that Tokyo was unlikely to agree to assist in the development of the islands unless there was a firm commitment for their return. That leaves the two sides at an impasse.

And with bilateral relations between Tokyo and Seoul at a 40-year low, the analysts suggested there was similarly negligible likelihood of progress on the issue of Korean-held Dokdo.