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Nationalist Tokyo Governor Starts a Fire in East China Sea

A dispute over a few rocky outcroppings in the middle of the ocean threatens to have Japan and China at each others throats.

The problem began back in April when Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara announced that the city intended to buy the disputed Diaoyu Islands (see map). The word “islands,” is a bit of an exaggeration; they are really just a group of uninhabited rocks in the middle of the East China Sea.

Governor Ishihara and other Japanese officials are becoming more vocal about “protecting” the islets from Chinese or Taiwanese encroachment. The surrounding seabed is thought to contain significant oil and gas deposits

Until recently, Tokyo has been content to leave the islets alone, while Japanese and Chinese officials promise each other to keep things calm. But the rhetoric of some officials is hardening.

Governor Ishihara got emotional during a speech to a parliament committee: “Who is going to defend the islands? I want the (central) government to do so. It is absurd for Tokyo to step in, but we have to… What kind of country leaves the door unlocked when another country has already declared its intention to commit robbery?”

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman responded: “The Diaoyou Islands have been China’s inherent territory since ancient times and China holds indisputable sovereignty over them.”

Governor Ishihara is a well known supporter of some vivid and even virulent far-right positions: Time reports that he “claimed that the Nanking Massacre during the Second World War was a lie invented by the Chinese, and was forced to apologize last year for saying the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami were ‘divine punishment’ for the ‘egoism’ of Japanese people. He has blamed foreigners for increased crime in Japan, and made derogatory comments about women and gays.”

Nationalism has deep roots in Japan. The same goes for China, the Koreas and Vietnam. Things are hot in the South China Sea, and they may become more intense in the East China Sea too, if Governor Ishihara has his way.

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