Why China, Japan dispute islands once home to just albatross feathers and fish

Aside from national pride, ownership could give Japan or China control of oil and gas resources.

Kyodo News/AP/File
Pictured in this Sept. 2 file photo are Minamikojima, foreground, Kitakojima, middle right, and Uotsuri, background, the tiny islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.

For most of human history, the five rocky islets in the eye of the current diplomatic storm between China and Japan have sat in remote and irrelevant obscurity, lapped by the tropical waters of the East China Sea.

Today, leaders in Beijing are calling the barren islands "China's sacred territory since ancient times," and in Tokyo they're calling them "clearly an inherent territory of Japan."

But for generations of humbler folk on both sides, the islands have meant one thing: fish. The Chinese name for the island group, Diaoyu, means "catch fish." The Japanese name for the largest island, Uotsuri, means "fish catch."

There may be oil and gas in nearby waters, according to some surveys, making ownership of the islands – and their adjacent exclusive economic zone – even more attractive.

But all the tiny islands themselves have ever been good for is albatross feathers (for the fashion trade) and a Japanese-owned fish-processing plant that operated for the first 40 years of the past century.

Japan bases its claim to the islands, which it calls the Senkaku, on a cabinet decision in January 1895 whereby because there was no trace of anyone else controlling them they were deemed "terra nullius," nobody else's, and Tokyo incorporated them into its territory.

China disputes that claim, pointing to 15th-century accounts of sea voyages by Chinese envoys and a 17th-century map of China's sea defenses, among other documents, to show that "the Diaoyu islands were first discovered, named, and exploited by the Chinese," in the words of a Foreign Ministry statement.

Beijing says that Japan seized the islands as it was winning the Sino-Japanese war in 1895, and that they were part of another territory that Japan won in that war, Formosa (now Taiwan). At the end of World War II, Japan was forced to return Formosa to China, and Beijing has argued that it should have handed the Diaoyu/Senkaku over as well. (Taiwan also claims sovereignty over the islands.)

Tokyo says the disputed islands had never been administered from Formosa and so were not part of the "spoils of war" that Japan had seized in its imperialist expansion and that it had to give back after World War II.

Instead, Tokyo says the islands were governed from Okinawa, which the Americans took over after the war. And when Washington returned Okinawa to Japanese rule in 1972, the Senkaku/Diaoyu came with it.

At the time, nobody in China made much fuss about this. Indeed, Japan points out that Beijing did not challenge its claim to the islands for some 75 years, until a United Nations survey suggested oil and gas might be in their vicinity.

Though China did then lay formal claim to the islands, it did not press its case, preferring to cultivate good relations with Japan – a generous aid donor – and to shelve the territorial dispute. "Let the next generation resolve this issue," said supreme leader Deng Xiaoping at the time. That is something the next generation has signally failed to do.

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