On Aug. 15—not coincidentally, the 67th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II—a group of Chinese activists who had sailed from Hong Kong landed on Uotsurijima, one of the contested Senkaku Islands, and were promptly arrested by Japanese Coast Guard troops and Okinawa prefectural police. They succeeded in planting a Chinese flag on the island before five were arrested; another two managed to return to their fishing vessel and escaped. Japanese authorities say they will determine whether the detained men, now being held in Okinawa, will be prosecuted or deported back to Hong Kong. This was the first such incident since March 2004. But since 2009, the Hong Kong government has on six occasions stopped protest vessels from going to the contested islands. (Daily Yomiuri, Aug. 16; Xinhua, Japan Times, Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 16
The movement has claimed at least one life—activist David Chan drowned in September 1996 after he and several other protesters jumped into the East China Sea when Japanese patrol boats blocked their protest ship, becoming a martyr to the cause. It's hardly surprising that the conflict over the Senkaku Islands (or the Diaoyutai, which means "fishing platform" in Chinese) has been heating up since 1969, when a report by the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) indicated the possibility of large oil reserves in the vicinity of the small archipelago. It is unclear whether, or to what degree, the Chinese activists are controlled or encouraged by Beijing.
Tokyo claims the islands have been official Japanese territory since 1895, when Japanese authorities erected a marker to formally incorporate them. An 1885 Japanese government survey of the islands reported that they were found to have been uninhabited, with no trace of Chinese rule. Tokyo maintains the islands were neither part of Taiwan nor the Pescadores, which were ceded to Japan by China's Qing Dynasty under the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki after the first Sino-Japanese war. Paradoxically, this claim works in Japan's favor: it means the Senkaku Islands are not included in the territory that Japan renounced under Article II of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which formally ended World War II. The islands in 1945 came under US control, used for occasional bombing practice by the US Air Force from its base on Liu Chiu Island. Administrative power over the islands (if not formal sovereignty) reverted to Japan under the 1971 "Agreement Between Japan and the United States of America Concerning the Ryukyu Islands and the Daito Islands." It was at this time that China began pressing its claim. Japan responded that China had relinquished any claim to the islands by failing to contest their control by the US under the San Francisco Treaty.
In support of its claim, Beijing cites Chinese historical records detailing the discovery and geographical features of the islands dating back to the year 1403. It claims that for several centuries thereafter, they were administered as part of Taiwan and were used exclusively by Chinese fishing fleets as an operational base. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1894-1945), the islands were administered as part of Taipei prefecture. To complicate matters, Taiwan also claims the islands on this basis—and of course Taiwan itself is claimed by the People's Republic of China.
China also asserts that Okinotorishima, the southernmost island in the chain, is merely a rock, not an island as defined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea—and therefore cannot be used to designate an exclusive economic zone, as the Japanese government has done. This question has particular implications for exploitation of the putative oil reserves of the East China Sea. China's offers to jointly develop the oil field have been rebuffed by Tokyo. (Global Security)
Far from coincidentally, Aug. 15 also saw a defiant visit by two Japanese cabinet ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo—where among the more than 2 million war dead honored are 14 "Class A" war criminals (those convicted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East), including wartime prime minister and war minister Hideki Tojo. The two ministers—National Public Safety Commission Chairman Jin Matsubara and Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Yuichiro Hata—insisted they were acting as private citizens. "I followed my principles as a Japanese citizen," said Matsubara. The Chinese Foreign Ministry of course issued a requisite scolding.
It was the first time that cabinet ministers visited the shrine on the anniversary of the war's end since the center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) ousted the long-ruling center-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from power in 2009. Since becoming prime minister last year, Yoshihiko Noda, who also heads the DPJ, has called on his cabinet ministers to refrain from making official visits to the shrine. The last cabinet minister to visit the shrine on the anniversary was Seiko Noda in 2009, when she was consumer affairs minister under former Prime Minister Taro Aso of the LDP. (Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, AFP, Aug. 16; Xinhua, Aug. 15) Then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also visited the shrine on VJ Day 2006.