There is a wonderful little Japanese restaurant near the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in downtown Taipei, where the sensuously soft and ever-so-fresh nigirizushi makes one’s toes curl up. Every morning, the chef, Abura-san, goes to the fish market in Suao (蘇澳), Yilan County, to buy the choicest catches.
Little known to the outside world, the township became close to a household name this week after dozens of fishing boats sailed out from there to the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) to protest the recent purchase of three of the islets by the Japanese government.
There’s a reason why Abura-san travels the distance every day. In his opinion, it’s the best fish one can find and the fishermen there know where to go to catch it. This oft-ignored connection between our palates and the hard work of fishermen who every day toil the sea to bring us its riches should make us pause at a time when governments engage in sloganeering and protesters call for war over the disputed islands.
As former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), a rare voice of reason in the spiraling dispute, said earlier this month, what truly matters is the livelihood of the thousands of Taiwanese fishermen who over the years have laid their nets in waters around the islets, not who owns them. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) can say whatever he wants about sovereignty, for the majority of sailors who set off for the islands on Monday, practical issues — rights of access to fishing grounds — is what is at stake.
Some could argue that one way of resolving the problem would be for Taiwanese fishermen to abandon the disputed area and fish elsewhere. Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Why fishermen prize a specific area stems from years of practice and the careful study of fish migration patterns, seasonal currents and hydrography. In other words, some areas are better than others, and the waters around the Diaoyutais meet that requirement. One therefore cannot simply order fishermen, who have families to feed and children to send to school, to abandon all that.
Taiwanese fishermen oppose the nationalization of the islets not for political reasons or nationalism, but because they fear, rightly or wrongly, that state ownership would make it easier for Japan to prevent them from fishing in the area. Even before nationalization — made in part to pre-empt plans by hardline Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara to erect structures on the then private-owned islets — Taiwanese fishermen often complained of harassment by Japanese ships.
Discussing the crisis yesterday, Ma repeated the view that Taiwan seeks to resolve the matter peacefully and to co-develop resources. As Lee has pointed out, over the years Taiwan and Japan have engaged in 16 rounds of fisheries talks, which have yielded little result. In a statement on Sept. 13, the Interchange Association, Japan, issued a fig leaf when it said it hoped additional talks between the two countries could soon resume to negotiate fishing rights in marine areas, including waters around the Diaoyutais.
A true test of the Ma administration’s commitment to a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and of its genuine desire to protect the livelihood of thousands of Taiwanese fishermen, will be the quick resumption of fisheries talks with Japan. As Tokyo has signaled its intention to resume them, the ball is now in Taiwan’s court. Hijacking the cause of hardworking fishermen by turning it into a matter of politics, or scrambling fighter aircraft carrying bombs inscribed with the characters “The Diaoyutai Islands belong to us” (釣魚台是我們的) will not help resolve the issue.