Aside from national pride, ownership could give Japan or China control of oil and gas resources.
The China and Japan face off over five islands has sunk relations to a 40-year low - the worst since diplomatic relations began. But the sabre rattling is just for show, say analysts.
Boats from China and Japan chased each other around a set of disputed islets, setting off a diplomatic crisis. But when Taiwan entered the fray, neither side seemed to care.
Every presidential election seems to create a foreign bogeyman. But China in 2012 is no more a threat than NAFTA in 1996.
Japan is sending a top diplomat to China for talks. But Taiwan is now sending ships to patrol the disputed region, threatening to further complicate things.