JAPANESE nationalists landed yesterday on a rocky island in the East China Sea at the heart of a territorial row with Beijing, sparking angry protests in several Chinese cities and a diplomatic rebuke from Beijing.
Tokyo and Beijing have been feuding for decades over the island chain, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, near potentially huge maritime gas fields.
Tensions flared last week after seven of a group of 14 Chinese activists slipped past Japan’s coastguard to land on one of the uninhabited isles and raise a Chinese flag.
Japan, keen to avoid a rerun of a nasty feud that chilled economic and diplomatic ties in 2010, deported the activists within days, but the dispute lingers because of China’s bitter memories of Tokyo’s past military occupation.
Early yesterday, ten members of a group of more than 100 Japanese nationalists who sailed to the island chain swam ashore to one of the islets and waved Japanese flags.
“I was hoping that someone with a real sense of Japanese spirit and courage would go and land and raise the flag. I just feel they’ve done a good job,” said Kazuko Uematsu, an MP from Shizuoka Prefecture who was part of the flotilla.
The activists later swam back to their boats and were being questioned by Japanese customs officials.
“The illegal behaviour of Japanese right-wingers has violated China’s territorial sovereignty,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
“An official from the foreign ministry has solemnly expressed to the Japanese ambassador in China [our] strong protest, and urge the Japanese side to stop behaviours that hurt China’s territorial sovereignty.”
In several Chinese cities, thousands of people took to the streets to protest, including in Shenzhen where small groups of demonstrators overturned Japanese cars and shouted slogans denouncing Japan’s claims over the islands.
Japan’s government had denied the group permission to land on the islands, which it leases from private Japanese citizens.
“This is a way of saying to not mess around,” Toshio Tamogami, a leader of the Japanese group, said before the flotilla set sail on Saturday.
The flotilla included several members of parliament.
“We hope to convey … both to China and the Japanese people that the Senkaku are our territory,” Mr Tamogami said.
The renewed maritime tension with China has parallels with Beijing’s other recent tangles with Southeast Asian countries over rival territorial claims in the South China Sea.
China’s expanding naval reach, with new warships being launched on a regular basis this year, has fed worries that it could brandish its military might to get its way.
The Sino-Japanese row has intensified in recent months since the nationalist governor of Tokyo proposed that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buy the isles, prompting the central government to make its own bid to purchase them instead.
Japan’s ties with South Korea, where resentment over its 1910-1945 colonisation still remains, have also frayed since South Korean president Lee Myung-bak visited an uninhabited island claimed by both countries.
Japan’s prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, his ratings in tatters ahead of an election that may come soon, faces domestic pressure to take tough stances with the country’s neighbours over the island disputes.