Asia's Game of Thrones
Japan Pushes to Populate Islands

Japan is taking a new tack to prevent future island disputes, seeking to redevelop and repopulate its most remote islands. Financial Times has more:

Japan is launching an urgent drive to shore up the population of 148 remote islands as it tries to head off new territorial disputes with China and South Korea.

According to officials working on the plan, the government will legally designate the islands as inhabited border territories next month, with 71 singled out for special help due to their isolation and the severity of their population decline. […]

The new plan — which stems from a law passed last year — calls for the government to build civic facilities, buy land on the islands, improve ports and prevent illegal visits by foreign vessels. For the 71 specially designated islands, there is ¥5bn ($44m) a year to subsidise transport and create employment for residents.

The rationale behind the policy—that demographic flight from Japan’s remote islands has made them more vulnerable to external challengers—does seem to have some merit. The population of Japan’s remote islands has declined by 51.3% since 1955, and restoring even small populations on outlying islands could make them less susceptible to encroachments. As one official quoted by FT put it, “If there were still people living on the Senkaku Islands then perhaps there wouldn’t be an issue with China.”

It’s not just China that Japan has in mind: some of the prime targets for redevelopment are the Tsushima group of islands, located halfway between Japan and Korea. Real estate purchases by South Koreans there have previously stirred up Japanese nationalist sentiment and fears that South Korea would stake an official claim there. Tokyo, it seems, wants to make sure that never happens.

This all seems to be part of a broader strategy by Abe to unambiguously consolidate Japan’s control over its remote islands and pre-empt any rival claimants. He has also overseen a drive to give Japanese names to hundreds of tiny uninhabited islets, designated certain remote islands as UNESCO heritage sites, and led efforts to build an island out of a coral atoll in the Philippine Sea. Such efforts bear watching; time will tell whether they bolster Japan’s standing in the region or generate more pushback from neighbors like China and South Korea.

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