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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Out with the old, in with the...old

A picture of my class of third-graders, taken yesterday afternoon at the cram school where I work. Many of the children are bundled up because even though the outside temperature was just around 15°C (less than 60°F), the lack of central heating (as you would find in the U.S.) or kerosene heaters (commonly used in Japan during the winter months) means that the concrete-and-tile classrooms can get extremely chilly. The girl in the lower right is Cherry, one of my brightest and most inquisitive students. She loves nothing better than to draw, and her caricatures are quite good. I wonder, though, if the Taiwanese educational system will eventually grind that love of art right out of her. The "examination hell" system that constitutes schooling in this country begins to kick in from the fourth grade.

It may be a new year, but 2012 begins with a same old tired story. As the BBC and other news outlets have reported (article and video), the Senkaku Islands 尖閣諸島 are back in the news again. China is upset that a small group of Japanese citizens, including a couple of local politicians from Ishigaki Island 石垣島, which has administrative jurisdiction over the Senkakus), made a brief landing on one of the islands on Tuesday. The Chinese government issued a formal protest, and a dozen rabid Chinese nationalists attempted to set sail for what they refer as the Diaoyu Islands, or Diaoyutai 釣魚台群島. It appears that cooler heads will prevail over this latest incident, however, as authorities in Hong Kong moved to stop the planned flotilla, while police in Japanese are investigating the matter as the Japanese who ventured to the Senkakus landed without permission. 

While the media are characterizing this as a Sino-Japanese dispute, AFP's report on the story does make brief mention of Taiwan's position:

"Taiwan also protested to Japan. 'We reiterate that the Diaoyu islands are part of our territory and we oppose any remarks or actions by Japan that violate our sovereignty,' said foreign ministry spokesman James Chang.

Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Tōkyō 東京 has been instructed to lodge a formal protest to Japan, he added."

(link to the full article in Japan Today) 

Territorial disputes between nations are complicated affairs (the BBC has a short Q&A on the Senkakus), but basically Japan annexed the islands in early 1895, declaring them to be Terra nullius ("territory which has never been subject to the sovereignty of any state, or over which any prior sovereign has expressly or implicitly relinquished sovereignty" - Wikipedia). The Senkaku group became part of what is now modern-day Okinawa Prefecture 沖縄県. For decades, the Chinese government seemingly accepted the Senkakus as Japanese territory, and made no claim to the island group when the United States took over administration of Okinawa at the end of the Second World War - the Chinese Communist rulers in the early 1950's even went so far as to include the Senkakus (using the Japanese name instead of Diaoyu) in demanding independence for American-controlled Okinawa. It wasn't until geologic surveys in the mid-to-late 1960's suggested the possibility of oil and gas reserves in the waters around the Senkakus that the rival governments in Taiwan and China began asserting sovereignty over them. Control over the islands returned to Japan in 1972 as part of the reversion of Okinawa from American to Japanese control, and the dispute has continued since then.

For the longest time, a key pillar in Taiwan's claim to the Senkakus was that supposedly in 1940 a Tōkyō court ruled that the islands should be under the jurisdiction of Taiwan (at the time a Japanese colony) and not Okinawa. However, there appears to be little evidence of such a ruling having ever been handed down, and mentions of it have disappeared in recent years. Beijing frequently trots out the "indisputable sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands which have been an inherent part of China since ancient times" line, with its underlying inference of "once Chinese, always Chinese". It may not happen over the Senkaku Islands, but somewhere down the line there is going to be a serious clash between 21st-century notions of international law and China's aspirations to re-establish the boundaries of the Manchu Empire of the 17th and 18th centuries.

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