Japan yesterday deported pro-China activists who had sailed to a disputed island, as Tokyo moved swiftly to put an end to a potentially damaging row with China.
The deportations came just 48 hours after some of the 14 had become the first non-Japanese to set foot on any part of the archipelago since 2004.
Half of the group were put aboard a commercial airliner in the Okinawan city of Naha and arrived in Hong Kong late yesterday. The other half were taken back to their boat in Ishigaki.
A journalist in Ishigaki said the seven arrived by police bus and were taken on board a coast guard boat as Japanese nationalists shouted slogans nearby.
The activists told waiting journalists they were healthy and their boat was in good shape. They were expected to be escorted out of Japanese territorial waters by the coast guard.
Earlier yesterday, the government’s top spokesman told reporters the prime minister had approved the deportations.
“The prime minister has received detailed reports on the illegal landing,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said. “He yesterday decided to approve of the related agencies’ final conclusion to deport [the 14 activists].”
Fujimura denied the decision had been taken on grounds of political expediency.
“This is not something the government has decided on emotionally. We firmly and strictly responded in accordance with our domestic law,” he told a press conference.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who had been under pressure to act on an issue that is keenly felt in Beijing, and who has also been dealing with a territorial spat with South Korea, called a special Cabinet meeting yesterday.
“It is really regrettable that they entered Japan’s territorial waters and illegally landed on Uotsurijima, despite our repeated warnings,” he told his ministers.
Noda’s move was criticized by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who has declared his intention to buy some of the islands from their private owner.
“It is a distinct criminal case,” Ishihara told reporters in Tokyo. “We can’t call Japan a real law-governed country if it sends them back as mere illegal aliens.”
After he was put on board the Hong Kong-bound airplane, activist Lo Chung-cheong told Hong Kong’s Cable News television that approaching the island by boat had been “like a war.”
“We have done things that the governments from both sides [of the Taiwan Strait] won’t do or do not have the guts to do,” Lo said, adding that he does not know if there will be any chance to reach the islands in future.