Monday, August 20, 2012

Japan-China dispute: little islands, big problem

Source: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/featurenews/view/1220919/1/.html

TOKYO: The governor of Tokyo wants to buy them, Taiwan says it would like them back and China has made 
their return a national priority. But for the Kurihara family, the islands Japan knows as Senkaku are just a bit of land they would really rather sell.

"The conflict is escalating more and more," Hiroyuki Kurihara told AFP in an interview 
about the islands, known in China as Diaoyu, where Japanese nationalists landed Sunday after a similar venture by pro-Beijing activists.

All 14 involved in that action were deported Friday in an apparent bid by Tokyo to head off a potentially destabilising row with Beijing.

"We are worried that the government cannot cope with the situation over the islands," said Kurihara.

His powerful merchant family are the legal owners of four of the five islands in the Senkakus, an archipelago some 2,000 kilometres (1,250 miles) from Tokyo but less than 200 kilometres from Taiwan.

China, Taiwan and Japan all say they are part of their territory. They are administered by Tokyo, which holds title to the fifth island and bans development on them all, not allowing anyone to land.

While Beijing claims more than five centuries of control, Tokyo says a Kyushu businessman landed on the uninhabited -- and unclaimed -- outcrops at the end of the 19th century.

That businessman was Tatsuhiro Koga, who set up factories there processing bonito fish and albatross feathers.

The tumult of war led to the islands being abandoned, and along with Okinawa they were put under US military control following Tokyo's surrender at the end of World War II.

When Okinawa was handed back to Japan in 1972, the Senkakus were returned to Koga's son Zenji.

Around that time
 geologists said the seabed nearby could contain large reserves of oil and gas, while Beijing and Taipei began asserting their claims.

With no heir of his own, Koga decided to sell the islands to the Kuriharas, long-time friends from the suburbs of Tokyo who ran a trading house and owned land throughout Japan.

The eldest brother Kunioki, now 70, holds the legal rights to Uotsurijima, Kitakojima and Minamikojima, which the national government leases for 25 million yen (US$300,000) a year. A fourth island is owned by his sister and rented to the defence ministry for an undisclosed sum.

Koga made only one demand when he sold the islands to the family.

"My brother promised Mr Koga that he will never do anything to sever history," said Hiroyuki Kurihara. "That means he won't sell them to private entities."

But with a potentially huge inheritance tax bill if the islands are passed on to the next generation, the Kurihara family want to sell up.

Conveniently for them, the nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, earlier this year announced that his administration wanted to buy them, catching the governments of Japan and China off-guard.

He has since collected more than 1.4 billion yen ($18 million) in donations towards a reported purchase price of up to 2 billion yen.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda stepped into the row in June, saying the national government was also thinking about putting in a bid, provoking a frosty response from Beijing.

The Kuriharas insist their ownership of the islands is not political and they do not want to be involved in the dispute.

"It is not about guarding the islands," Kurihara said. "All that matters to my brother is that he retains his honour as the 17th heir of the Kurihara family."
Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute timeline

Key dates in the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan:

- 15th-16th centuries: Chinese books, published in 1403 and 1534 during the Ming Dynasty, mention Diaoyu in chronicling journeys through the island area.

- 1895: The Japanese government annexes a group of five uninhabited islands and three rocks as part of Okinawa on January 14 on the grounds that they have never been controlled by any other country.

- 1896: The Japanese government leases the island group to Japanese entrepreneur Tatsushiro Koga. Koga builds plants to process bonito fish and albatross feathers, later employing up to 280 workers.

- 1918: Koga dies and his son Zenji takes over his business.

- 1932: The Japanese government sells four of the islands to Zenji Koga.

- 1940: Koga abandons the business, leaving the islands uninhabited again.

- 1945: Japan surrenders to the US-led allied nations at the end of World War II. The islands remain under US occupation as part of Okinawa until 1972.

-
 1949: The People's Republic of China is founded by the Communist Party, with the Nationalists retreating to the island of Taiwan.

- 1969: The UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific reports there may be potential undersea oil reserves in the vicinity of the islands
.

- 1971: The governments of China and Taiwan formally declare ownership of the islands.

- 1972: Okinawa is returned to Japanese rule.

- 1972-1985: Koga sells the islands in individual transactions to the Kurihara family, which runs a trading house and owns land throughout Japan.

- 1978: About 100 Chinese fishing boats sail close to the islands. A Japanese nationalist group builds a lighthouse on Uotsuri, one of the islands. (In 2005, the lighthouse is handed over to the Japanese government.)

- 1996: The nationalist group builds another lighthouse on another of the islands. Several activists from Hong Kong dive into waters off the islands on a protest journey. One of them drowns.

- 2002: The Japanese ministry of internal affairs starts renting three of the four Kurihara-owned islands. The other is rented by the defence ministry.

- 2004: A group of Chinese activists lands on one of the disputed islands. The then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi orders their deportation after two days.

- September, 2010: A Chinese fishing boat rams two Japanese coastguard patrol boats off the islands. Its captain is arrested but freed around two weeks later amid a heated diplomatic row that affects trade and political ties.

- April 16, 2012: Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara announces he has reached a basic agreement to buy the Kurihara-owned islands.

- July 7, 2012: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda says his government is considering buying the islands.

- August 15, 2012: Japanese police arrest 14 pro-China activists, five of them on one of the islands.

- August 17, 2012: All 14 are deported.

- August 19, 2012: Japanese nationalists land on the islands without permission.

- AFP/wm


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