Japan’s recent purchase of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands has predictably reignited tensions between China, Japan, and Taiwan.
Three months ago, when Japanese ambassador to China Niwa Uichiro, warned that Japan’s purchase of the islands could spark an “extremely grave crisis” between China and Japan, Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro slammed Niwa as an unqualified ambassador, who “needs to learn more about the history of his own country.”
Niwa was forced to apologize for his remarks and was replaced.
What is most alarming about these developments is that despite Japan’s democratic and pluralist society, rising national sentiment is hampering moderate views and preventing dialogue.
The Japanese government maintains that the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are its territory, under international law and a historical point of view, and has repeatedly insisted that there is no dispute.
The rest of the world sees this as a major dispute but the Japanese government continues to overlook historical facts behind its unlawful incorporation of the islands in 1895.
The Japanese government asserts that “from 1885 on, our government conducted on-site surveys time and again, which confirmed that the islands were uninhabited. There were no signs of control by the Qing Empire.”
My research of over 40 official Meiji-period documents unearthed from the Japanese National Archives, Diplomatic Records Office, and the National Institute for Defense Studies Library clearly reveals that the Meiji government acknowledged Chinese ownership of the islands in 1885.
Following the first on-site survey, in 1885, the Japanese foreign minister wrote, “Chinese newspapers have been reporting rumors of our intention of occupying islands belonging to China located next to Taiwan.”
In November 1885, the Okinawa governor confirmed “since this matter is not unrelated to China, if problems do arise I would be in grave repentance for my responsibility.”
“Surveys of the islands are incomplete” wrote the new Okinawa governor in 1892. He requested that the naval ship Kaimon be sent to survey the islands, but a combination of miscommunication and bad weather made that impossible.
A letter from the Japanese Diplomatic Records Office, dated May 12, 1894, affirmed that the Meiji government did not repeatedly investigate the disputed islands.
“Ever since the islands were investigated by Okinawa police agencies back in 1885, there have been no subsequent field surveys conducted,” the Okinawa governor wrote in 1894.
After a number of Chinese defeats in the Sino-Japanese War, a report from Japan’s Home Ministry said “this matter involved negotiations with China … but the situation today is different from back then.”
The Meiji government, following a cabinet decision in early 1895, promptly incorporated the islands.
Negotiations with China never took place and this decision was passed during the Sino-Japanese War. It was never made public.
In his biography Koga Tatsushiro, the first Japanese citizen to lease the islands from the Meiji government, attributed Japan’s possession of the islands to “the gallant military victory of our Imperial forces.”
Collectively, these official documents leave no doubt that the Meiji government did not base its occupation of the islands following “on-site surveys time and again,” but instead annexed them as booty of war.
This is the inconvenient truth that the Japanese government has conveniently kept hidden.
Japan asserts that neither Beijing nor Taipei made any objections of this to the US administration after World War II.
That’s true, but what Japan does not mention is that neither Beijing nor Taipei were invited as signatories of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, from which the US derived administrative rights.
When Japan annexed the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in 1895, it detached them from Taiwan and placed them under the Okinawa Prefecture.
Moreover, the Japanese name “Senkaku Islands” was first introduced in 1900 by academic Kuroiwa Hisashi and adopted by the Japanese government thereafter.
Half a century later, when Japan returned Taiwan to China, both sides adopted the 1945 administrative arrangement of Taiwan, with the Chinese unaware that the uninhabited “Senkaku Islands” were the former Diaoyu Islands.
This explains the belated protest from Taipei and Beijing after the war.
In a report dated Aug. 12, 1892 a navy commander affirmed that the islands had not been fully investigated, according to the National Institute for Defense Studies.
The Japanese government frequently cites two documents as evidence that China did not consider the islands to be its own. The first is an official letter from a Chinese consul in Nagasaki dated May 20, 1920, that listed the islands as Japanese territory.
Neither Beijing nor Taipei dispute that the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands — along with the entire island of Taiwan — were formally under Japanese occupation.
However, per post-WW II arrangements, Japan was required to surrender territories obtained from aggression, and return them to their pre-1895 legal status.
The second piece of evidence is a Chinese map from 1958 that excludes the Senkaku Islands as part of its territory. But the Japanese government’s partial unveiling leaves out important information from the map’s label, which states, “certain national boundaries are based on maps compiled prior to the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).”
The Qing-period (1644-1911) records substantiate Chinese ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands prior to 1895.
Envoy documents indicate that the islands reside inside the “border that separates Chinese and foreign lands.”
And according to Taiwan gazetteers, “Diaoyu Island accommodates 10 or more large ships” under the jurisdiction of Kavalan, Taiwan.
The right to know is the bedrock of every democracy. The Japanese public deserves to know the other side of the story.
It is the politicians who flame public sentiment under the name of national interests who pose the greatest risk, not the islands themselves.
The New York Times
Han-yi Shaw is a Research Fellow at the Research Center for International Legal Studies, National Chengchi University, in Taipei.