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How Senkaku Islands became part of Japan

Publication Date : 03-04-2013


The Senkaku Islands, a chain of rocky, uninhabited islands in Okinawa Prefecture, have been a source of confrontation between Japan and China ever since a UN committee released a report in 1969 that raised prospects for rich oil and gas reserves beneath the continental shelf in the East China Sea, prompting China and Taiwan to claim the islands.

Tension over the islands has escalated to a new height since the Japanese government bought three of the eight islands from a Japanese citizen in September, bringing all but one islet into the state's possession.

The following article looks at how the Senkaku Islands became an inherent part of Japan's territory and identifies flaws in China's claims to the islands.

Main points

Japan confirmed the Senkaku Islands did not belong to any nation nearly 10 years before the 1894-5 Sino-Japanese War.

The 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki signed after the Sino-Japanese War contained no mention of the Senkaku Islands.

Ever since autumn, the Haijian and other surveillance vessels from China's State Oceanic Administration have repeatedly and brazenly intruded into Japan's territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands in reaction to the government's purchase of three of the islands.

Chinese frigates have been dispatched to the waters near the Senkakus and engaged in provocative actions that can be considered "threats of force" banned under the UN Charter.

In January, Chinese Navy ships locked fire-control radar on a Maritime Self-Defence Force destroyer and helicopter, stoking fears of an armed clash at sea.

In addition to outright provocations, China has engaged in a fierce propaganda campaign in an attempt to legitimise its claims.

A case in point was then Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi's speech at the UN General Assembly in September. He accused Japan of stealing the islands during the Sino-Japanese War at the end of 19th Century, trying to cast the Senkaku issue as a historical thorn between the two nations.

No matter how vehemently China attempts to claim sovereignty of the islands, history shows its claims are groundless.

The Senkaku Islands are mentioned as a navigational mark on the sea route between the Ryukyus (now Okinawa Prefecture) and China in various documents dating back to as early as the late 14th Century.

In 1885, the Japanese government dispatched a ship named the Izumo Maru at the request of Okinawa Prefecture to conduct detailed surveys on the isolated islands. As a result, the government confirmed the uninhabited islands were "terra nullius" (land belonging to no one) under international law.

Japan had the option of erecting a marker to indicate its sovereignty over the islands and of declaring the incorporation of the islands into its territory.

But at that time, China under the Qing dynasty had some of the most powerful warships in the world, including the 7,400-ton Ting Yuen, demonstrating overwhelming naval superiority over Japan and other neighboring countries.

Japan, in particular, was in the infancy of its modern statehood, having ended shogunate rule less than 20 years earlier.

In 1886, the Qing dynasty's Northern Ocean Fleet appeared off Nagasaki, and sailors from a fleet who came ashore in the city went on the rampage--assaulting citizens, raping women and looting local stores. The rampage, known as "Nagasaki Incident", left two people dead and 29 injured. Japan was intimidated by the Chinese behaviour.

Although China had not made claims to the Senkaku Islands by that time, the Japanese government decided not to provoke China by declaring sovereignty over the islands and chose, instead, to send fishermen to the islands to establish a foothold.

As Japan received no protest from China or any other nation against its fishery activities based on the Senkaku Islands as constituting a territorial infringement, the Japanese government declared the islands part of its territory in January 1895, 10 years after it conducted the on-site surveys.

At that time, the Sino-Japanese War was drawing to its close. Three months later, the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed to stipulate terms of compensation and territorial concessions from China to Japan, the victor in the war. In the process of negotiating terms of the treaty, the issue of Senkakus was never raised by either side. Thus, there was no mention of the Senkaku Islands in the treaty.

Main points

A letter from the Chinese government recognised Japan's sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands.

After World War II, the Senkaku Islands were placed under the administrative control of the United States. China, one of the victor nations, did not lodge a protest.

For a nation to successfully make a territorial claim, the discovery and declaration that the territory is its own are not sufficient. Under international law, the claimant must effectively control the territory in question.

With this stipulation in mind, the Japanese government erected a marker on the Senkaku Islands indicating they were part of Japan's territory in 1895 and launched various development projects. Immigrants were sent to the islands to gather shellfish, catch turtles for their shells and collect seabird feathers.

The government sold Uotsuri Island, the biggest island in the inland chain, to a private party in 1932. Up until the start of World War II, hundreds of people were engaged in processing dried bonito on the island.

Evidence abounds for China's past acknowledgement of Japan's sovereignty of the islands.

In 1919, residents of Ishigaki Island and Uotsuri Island rescued 31 shipwrecked fishermen from Fujian Province, China. The next year, the consul of the Republic of China in Nagasaki, presented a letter of appreciation to the Japanese islanders. The letter specifically referred to the site of shipwreck as the "Senkaku Islands, Yaeyama District, Okinawa Prefecture, the Empire of Japan."

After Japan's defeat in World War II, Okinawa Prefecture was placed under the administrative control of the United States.

Article 3 of the San Francisco Peace Treaty signed in September 1951 specified the area over which the United States would exercise its administrative rights by giving precise latitudes and longitudes. As the Senkaku Islands were included in the area under the US administrative control, the US military managed the islands as firing ranges.

It is important to note that China, a victor nation, never objected to the process or terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty.

In June 1971, Japan and the United States signed an accord on the reversion of Okinawa to Japan. With this agreement, the area the United States administered under the peace treaty was returned to Japan.

Main points

China and Taiwan suddenly made territorial claims over the Senkaku Islands after a UN commission report said there were potentially rich reserves of oil and gas around the islands.

Right after making their claims, China and Taiwan each gave Chinese names to the islands.

China made an about-face in its stance on the Senkakus after the UN Economic commission for Asia and the Far East issued a report on mineral resources in Asian offshore areas in May 1969.

The report said, "The shallow seafloor between Japan and Taiwan appears to have great promise as a future oil province of the world."

Two years later, China and Taiwan made territorial claims over the islands as the Japan-US agreement on reversion of Okinawa was signed.

Taiwan and China--in June and December 1971, respectively --issued protests against the Senkakus' incorporation into the areas to be returned from the United States to Japan, saying the islands had been China's territory for centuries.

It was the first time ever for China and Taiwan to have made territorial claims over the Senkakus. And it took 76 years--since Japan's incorporation of the islands into its territory--for them to dispute Japan's sovereignty.

During talks in 1972 on normalization of Japan-China diplomatic relations with his Japanese counterpart, Kakuei Tanaka, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was quoted as saying: "The Senkakus became an issue because of oil. We wouldn't make an issue out of it if there were no oil."

In fact, China previously used Japanese names such as "Senkaku shoto" and "Uotsurijima" in maps, school textbooks and an article in the People's Daily published in China when referring to the islands. Right after making claims to the islands, however, it started using Chinese names for them.

Between the late 1970s and early 1990s, activists from Taiwan and Hong Kong intruded into Japanese waters and landed on Uotsuri Island. The Senkakus emerged as a key issue between Japan and China in 1992, when the latter began to import oil.

The year 1992 marked the 20th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two nations, with the Emperor and Empress making their first visit to China.

China, apparently aware of Japan's reluctance to make waves in bilateral relations during that festive period, enforced its Law on Territorial Sea and unilaterally declared the nationalisation of the islands.

Territorial issues should be resolved under international law and not based on interpretations of or inference from ancient documents. The Senkaku Islands have been Japan's under international law for more than a century, and China's motive for disputing Japan's sovereignty over the islands is clear: oil and natural gas. To conclude, there is no issue of territorial sovereignty to be resolved concerning the Senkaku Islands.

Facts about Senkaku Islands

The Senkaku Islands are located at the western end of the Nansei Islands in Okinawa Prefecture and comprise eight islets, the biggest being Uotsuri Island, with an area of 3.6 square kilometres and the smallest, Okinominamiiwa islet, with 0.01 square kilometres.

Before World War II, Uotsuri Island and three other islands were sold to a private party. After the reversion of Okinawa from the United States in 1972, the Senkaku Islands were administered by Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture. On September 11, last year, Uotsuri and two other islands were bought by the state from a private party.

Katsumata has covered defence issues at The Yomiuri Shimbun since 1993. He is the first civilian to have acquired a master's degree from Graduate School of Security Studies, National Defence Academy.

(The Yomiuri Research Institute is a unique organisation: a think tank run by a newspaper publisher. Tasked with conducting comprehensive research on matters that the editorial bureau cannot cover following the daily news, the institute was launched in 1982 within The Yomiuri Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the world.

Among its major achievements are drafts of constitutional amendments and proposals for administrative reforms and economic policy, which have greatly affected the nation's politics and society.

Its research associates are experienced Yomiuri Shimbun reporters, while its guest research fellows include Dr. Eisuke Sakakibara, who is a former vice finance minister but is better known as "Mr. Yen".)


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