Senkaku Islands: New Sources, New Clarity?

NYT reporter Nick Kristof brought in a guest blogger, Han-Yi Shaw of Taiwan, to examine some new mid-Meiji documentation about Japan’s relationship with the contested Senkaku/Daiyou islands. The core of Shaw’s findings is

the Meiji government acknowledged Chinese ownership of the islands back in 1885.

After several abortive attempts to survey the islands, the Japanese government declared them incorporated Japanese territory during the Sino-Japanese war, despite recognizing that it should have been negotiated with China. As territory seized in 1895, it should have been reverted to China in 1945, but for a variety of reasons, including an administrative shift of the islands from Taiwan to Okinawa prefecture, it remained outside of negotiations until a few years later.

It’s a reasonably persuasive presentation, historically, though I don’t think that these details are going to shift Japanese nationalists, even mild or moderate ones, to support politicians who would abandon Japan’s claim to these useless rocks which sit in such valuable territory. And as long as there’s no particular cost to maintaining the claim — Chinese hostility to Japan is not predicated on this issue sufficiently that abandoning the claim would eliminate anti-Japanese sentiment as a nationalist motivational tool of the mainland regime — it seems unlikely that anything will change, except a few American lectures.


  1. Interesting article, but it still mostly rehashing the information that’s already been presented on Wikipedia, and despite trying to downplay his bias, he is really only giving the Chinese side of the argument (understandably, since he is Taiwanese, and Kristof himself formerly lived in China with his Chinese-American wife).

    In addition to the documents that Shaw cites, there are plenty more documents, historical events, even post WWII political speeches by Chinese statesmen that recognize Japanese sovereignty of the islands.

    I personally believe that both sides have legitimate claims, and while China more than likely had claimed the land at some point in the past. The fact remains that ownership was ambiguous at best and they were uninhabited when Japan claimed them in the 1890s, and Japan has been consistent about controlling them and maintaining sovereignty ever since.

    Most of China’s claims either reference ancient times which is problematic because of the multitude of changing governments and geographic regions over the centuries. Or their more recent arguments that hinge on trying to argue technicalities in the various treaties and international recognitions, which have all favored Japan (or US between WWII and 1971, then back to Japan). The problem with the more recent claims is that China had officially referred to them as Japanese territory on multiple occasions since WWII, but as soon as the US handed them back to Japan in 1971 (which coincidentally is around the same time that marine gas deposits were found/suspected in the area) they tried to go back and reclaim them. Granted they have a case, but they have hurt their own case multiple times over the past century.

    The recent flare up I think also needs to be considered along side the approaching change of the head of the Chinese communist party. This once per decade change appears to be going to Xi Jinping, who has some strong military ties, as head of the Central Military Commission. There is talk that all of the recent territorial uproar, both with Japan, and in the South Pacific with Vietnam, Philippines, etc has been to provoke nationalist sentiment in China and to instill a notion that China currently needs a military minded leader.

    While it seems like an easy gesture for Japan to just give the islands back, it does in a sense undermine their political standing in the world. Since the UN has already sided with US/Japan in the past, and Japan has a decent claim, it may be wise to use that international support to set some clear boundaries against a fast growing neighbor who’s flexing military muscle.

  2. I’m not sure by what legal principle Chinese statements after the Sino-Japanese war really count against China’s claim, given that Japan deliberately tried to obscure the issue, and Japan’s original accession of the islands was clearly legally flawed.

  3. I meant that China’s recent (past few decades) complaints about the legitimacy of the various post WWII treaties are undermined by their own post WWII acknowledgements of Japanese sovereignty.

    As for your point that this would be moot in light of evidence in Mr. Shaw’s research; I’m less convinced by his findings.

    Shaw overstates his case by (1) including comments from some guy’s personal biography (akin to modern day blog posts) together under the umbrella of “official Japanese documents” to bolster his accusation. And (2) in the following 1885 correspondence that he uncovered:

    “Chinese newspapers have been reporting rumors of our intention of occupying islands belonging to China located next to Taiwan.… At this time, if we were to publicly place national markers, this must necessarily invite China’s suspicion.…”

    – leaves some room for questions that he assumes are answered. Are these the same islands? Are they in fact trying to occupy the islands that the Chinese newspaper rumors are about? If they were to “publicly place national markers,” would those even be on the islands in question, or just somewhere too close for Chinese comfort? I would think if Japan knowingly took a group of Chinese islands at the time it would arouse more than “suspicion.” The quote sounds more like the foreign minister is saying that if Japan moves up right along next to (but not inside) Chinese borders, it would arouse suspicion. Outright overtaking property would arouse more outrage than suspicion, would it not?

    I think his research is worth looking into more, and definitely further complicates an already horribly complex debate, but the conclusions he draws takes a lot of assumptions for granted.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.