Tokyo city officials intending to buy tiny islands, the Diayoutais (釣魚台), at the center of a longtime territorial dispute with China, traveled by boat yesterday to survey the area ahead of the purchase they hope will bolster Japan’s claim.
The five uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, are controlled by Japan, but also claimed by China and Taiwan, and have become a major symbol of patriotic pride for some people in China and Japan. They are near key sea lanes and surrounded by rich fishing grounds and untapped natural resources.
Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has already raised ￥1.45 billion (US$19 million) in private donations over the last several months to buy the islands from individual Japanese owners.
Ishihara, a popular nationalist and prize-winning fiction writer, told reporters on Friday he had spoken with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, and offered to turn over ownership to the central government for free.
The Japanese think having the government own the islands will strengthen their control over them, and send a tougher message to China. Noda said he would consider the proposal, but did not have an immediate reply, Ishihara said.
The city government says the purpose of the trip, composed of a team of 25 experts and officials, is to survey the area to assess real-estate value in preparation for the purchase. The central government did not grant permission to land on the islands, possibly to avoid a flare-up of tensions with China. No official reason was given.
The boat, which was scheduled to leave southwestern Japan late yesterday, will circle the islands today for about 10 hours to study the area, check out animal and plant life, and measure the depth of the coastal waters, according to the city government.
Ishihara wants to eventually build a lighthouse, a dock and weather observatory on the islands. He has expressed interest in going to the islands, possibly next month, but is not part of this weekend voyage.
Last month, Japan detained and later released 14 Hong Kong activists who landed on the islands. Japanese activists have made similar trips. One such group, including several lawmakers, landed a few days after the Chinese were detained.
Hundreds of Chinese have staged anti-Japanese demonstrations in several Chinese cities over the islands.
Anti-Japanese sentiments run deep in China because of bitter memories of atrocities committed by imperialist Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Earlier this week, a car carrying the Japanese ambassador to China was attacked by a man who ripped the Japanese flag off. No one was injured.