50 years on / Senkaku waters are no longer peaceful

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Fisherman Ryuya Kanna in Miyakojima City, Okinawa Prefecture

This year, Okinawa marks the 50th anniversary of its return to Japan. This is the fourth installment of a series that explores some of the issues that have affected Okinawa people since the handover, leading up to the present day.

In the East China Sea, a war memorial stands quietly on Uotsuri Island, one of the Senkaku Islands under the jurisdiction of Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture.

In July 1945, shortly before the end of World War II, two evacuation ships on their way from Ishigakijima island to Taiwan carrying about 180 people were attacked by U.S. warplanes. One sank, and the other drifted ashore on Uotsuri Island.

Masako Ishigaki, 88, from the city is one of the about 120 survivors of the attack. They managed to survive for about 50 days on scant food and water that dripped from the cliffs.

“It was a time of ravenous hunger and suffering, unthinkable today,” Ishigaki said.

The Ishigaki city government built the monument on the island three years before Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972. A memorial service was held at the time, with the participation of bereaved families, but no such service has been conducted on the island since then, to avoid heightening tensions in the waters around the Senkakus.

In the late 1960s, Taiwan ships illegally entered waters around the Senkakus. In 1970, the Ryukyu government, after consulting with the United States, placed a sign on each island of the Senkakus warning that anyone other than Ryukyu residents would be prosecuted if they entered the area.

Japan had incorporated the Senkakus into its territory in 1895. The situation surrounding the islands changed when China and Taiwan began trying to claim sovereignty over the islands in 1971, a year before Okinawa’s return. This was apparently prompted by a U.N. agency survey in 1969 that indicated the possibility of oil reserves in the area.

At first, China did not take any hard-line measures, partly because of the normalization of Japan-China relations, which occurred the same year as Okinawa’s return. However, since the administration under the then Democratic Party of Japan nationalized the Senkaku Islands in September 2012, China has frequently sent state vessels into Japanese territorial waters.

In February last year, the Chinese Coast Guard Law was enacted to allow China Coast Guard ships to use weapons, further inflaming tensions in the area.

Pole-and-line bonito fisherman Ryuya Kanna, 45, from Miyakojima City in the prefecture encountered a huge CCG vessel near the Senkaku island of Taishojima in the early morning of Dec. 20 last year.

The vessel entered Japanese territorial waters and came within several hundred meters of Kanna’s boat. His boat was safe, as three Japan Coast Guard patrol boats got between them, but it wasn’t the only time that Kanna has been in that situation.

“Why do we have to go through this just coming here to fish?” Kanna said.

Last year, CCG vessels entered the contiguous zone — which extends 22 kilometers from the territorial waters — off the Senkaku Islands on 332 days. Currently, only two fishing boats set sail from Miyakojima City for the Senkakus.

Kanna’s father, Kazuhiro, 73, remembers the maritime situation around the time of Okinawa’s return. Back then, the area was a rich fishing ground where many boats came not only from Okinawa but also from Kyushu. When there was a storm, between 40 and 50 boats would shelter from the wind and rain in the lee of Uotsuri Island.

“Gourmet fish such as sumagatsuo (black skipjack) and akamachi (ruby snapper) were caught there, and we all shared the large haul,” Kazuhiro said, lamenting these bygone days. “There was no conflict.”