Tokyo governor holds outdated wish

Monday, April 23, 2012
By Joe Hung, special to The China Post

There's a song all Japanese schoolchildren were taught to sing before Japan surrendered at the end of the Pacific War, which the Japanese used to call the Great East Asia War. It's “Ware-wa Uminoko” (我は海の子, I am a son of the sea). At the end of the last stanza of the very popular song are the two lines: “Now, let me board a big ship to gather treasures of the seas/Now, let me board a war ship to defend the country of the seas.” Shintaro Ishihara, governor of Tokyo, must have loved the song to the extent that he believes he must live up to the wish he sang in school. He wants to make the city of Tokyo buy three of the eight tiny uninhabited islands under the jurisdiction of the prefecture of Okinawa, the former kingdom of the Ryukyus, thousands of miles away from the Japanese capital he rules.

The eight islands are known as the Senkaku Islands (尖閣諸島) in Japan and Tiaoyutais (釣魚台列島) in Chinese but spelt Diaoyutais according to the Chinese pinyin system. Senkaku is the literal translation of the Pinnacle Islands the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom put on its charts in the 19th century. Tiaoyutai means Fishing Platform. As a matter of fact, one of the three islands and the largest of the eight of the tiny archipelago Ishihara has proposed to buy is Uotsuri-jima (魚釣り島), the same as Tiaoyutai save “tai” or platform. The other two the governor of Tokyo wishes to purchase are Kitakojima (北小島) and (南小島), meaning North Little Isle and South Little Isle.

Ishihara, the son of the sea, didn't have the chance of getting aboard any big ship to seek treasures of the seas. Nor could he join the army or navy to defend his divine country of Japan, because the Great East Asia War ended when he was still in his very early teens. While in college, he began to write novels, and his first bestseller was “Taiyo-no Kisetsu” (太陽の季節, The Season of the Sun), which revolutionized Japanese fiction writing, creating in the process a generation of what are known as the Taiyozoku who were young urban intellectuals rebelling against Japan's ages-old tradition. Riding on the success of his novels, Ishihara turned to politics, building a career spanning over four decades.

An ultranationalist, Ishihara, the novelist turned politician, hasn't been able to form a mainstream faction in the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, and the best he could do was to get elected governor of Tokyo for a third term. But that term will expire in a few years and he is getting old — almost 80 — and his days as a politician are numbered, but he may take one last try at the nation's highest elected office to achieve his boyhood dream to gather the treasures of the seas and fight, if need be, for the country of the seas. He wants to get the rising star, Mayor Toru Hashishita of Osaka, to join him in forming a party of his own that he hopes could defeat the discredited Liberal Party of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda as well as the Liberal Democratic Party if a general election is called before the end of this year or has to be held in the fall of next year. Well, Ishihara the politician had to do something spectacular now in order just to get back the popularity he enjoyed as a novelist. He went to Washington to broach his plan to buy the three islands of the Senkakus at a forum sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

But Ishihara's master plan won't work. He said in Washington he is close to reaching an agreement with the private Japanese owner of the three isles and the sale would be completed by the end of this year at the latest. Why should Tokyo buy the islands? It's because the Japanese government can't prevent China from taking over the islands surrounded by rich fishing grounds under which there are richer oil reserves waiting to be tapped, according to a jingoist Ishihara. “Tokyo has decided to buy the Senkaku Islands. Tokyo will protect the Senkakus,” he stressed, adding: “The Japanese are acquiring the islands to protect our own territory. Would anyone have a problem with that?”

Taiwan has a problem with it. So has the People's Republic of China. Both claim sovereignty over the Tiaoyutais. So far as the competing claims are concerned, Japan's is the hardest to justify, although Tokyo insists that its sovereignty over the Sankakus is indisputable. The only ground for the claim is the American authorization of its administration of the islets. Washington also extends coverage of the U.S.-Japan Security Agreement to the Senkakus. Nevertheless, the United States makes clear it takes no positions on the sovereignty issue between Japan on the one hand and China and Taiwan on the other.

The claim of to the islets by Taipei and Beijing is based on the “discovery” of terra nullius and derives from a range of Chinese governmental contacts and references going back to 1372. Japan's claim is also based on the “discovery” of supposedly unclaimed territory, despite the fact that official Japanese documents, several of which demonstrate that the Japanese government was well aware of China's historic claim when it began to take an interesting the islets in 1885. In the subsequent decade, contrary to the assertions now made by Japan, its officials not only failed to complete surveys of the islets necessary to confirm their alleged unclaimed status, but also recognized that the matter “would need to involve negotiations with Qing China.” To avoid China's suspicion, Japan chose to conceal its intention to occupy the islets “until a more appropriate time.” That time came in January 1895, when Japan, by then on its way to defeating Qing China in their 1894-95 war, adopted a cabinet decision that the Senkakus were Japanese territory. Yet even that cabinet decision was not made public until after World War II.

China would have to fight it out if Ishihara were at the helm of the government to protect the three islets. Could he get Uncle Sam to help by invoking the security agreement? Unlikely. And Ishihara knows it. So, what is he trying to pull out by renewing the controversy over the sovereignty claim? Perhaps Ishihara the politician wants to emulate Yukio Mishima the novelist. An ultranationalist Mishima chose to grandstand his finale as a novelist by taking General Kanetoshi Mashita, commander of the Eastern Army hostage at Tokyo's Ichigaya military base and committing suicide by hara-kiri after failing to urge the army to overturn the government in 1957. Perhaps Ishihara hopes to emulate Mishima the ultranationalist novelist by bringing the last glory to his political life like the ultranationalist novelist he once was, though he doesn't want any hara-kiri.

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