TOKYO – Japan has been in the news lately, owing to its dispute with China over six square kilometers of barren islets in the East China Sea that Japan calls the Senkakus and China calls the Diaoyu Islands. The rival claims date back to the late nineteenth century, but the recent flare-up, which led to widespread anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, started in September when Japan’s government purchased three of the tiny islets from their private Japanese owner.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has said that he decided to purchase the islands for the Japanese central government to prevent Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara from purchasing them with municipal funds. Ishihara, who has since resigned from office to launch a new political party, is well known for nationalist provocation, and Noda feared that he would try to occupy the islands or find other ways to use them to provoke China and whip up popular support in Japan. Top Chinese officials, however, did not accept Noda’s explanation, and interpreted the purchase as proof that Japan is trying to disrupt the status quo.
In May 1972, when the United States returned the Okinawa Prefecture to Japan, the transfer included the Senkaku Islands, which the US had administered from Okinawa. A few months later, when China and Japan normalized their post-World War II relations, Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka asked Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai about the Senkakus, and was told that rather than let the dispute delay normalization, the issue should be left for future generations.
So both countries maintained their claims to sovereignty. Though Japan had administrative control, Chinese ships would occasionally enter Japanese waters to assert their legal position. For China, this was the status quo that Japan upended in September. In Beijing recently, Chinese analysts told me that they believe that Japan is entering a period of right-wing militaristic nationalism, and that purchasing the islands was a deliberate effort to begin eroding the post-WWII settlement.