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Japan official pushes to buy disputed islands

By Kyung Lah, CNN
updated 11:12 AM EDT, Wed June 13, 2012
  • Japanese people are chipping into a public fund to buy disputed islands
  • Both China and Japan claim five rocky islets in East China Sea belong to them
  • Tokyo governor is leading an effort to buy islands from a Japanese family

(CNN) -- Japanese national pride has attracted $14 million and counting. That's how much citizens have chipped into a public fund to buy a set of islands the Japanese say is rightfully theirs.

The islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, have been a diplomatic and emotional wedge between the two Asian superpowers, as both countries lay claims to the five uninhabited rocky islets in the East China Sea.

The dispute, which dates back decades, came to a boiling point in 2010 when a Chinese fishing trawler rammed into a Japan Coast Guard vessel on patrol in the island's waters. Japan detained the crew but later released them under Chinese diplomatic and trade pressure.

Solar station, water car

Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara never got over that dispute and his national government's response, which he characterizes as "weak." Ishihara, an unrepentant nationalist who is loudly anti-China, said when it comes to the islands, China is acting like "a burglar in Japan's house."

"Chinese hegemony is totally intolerable to us," said Ishihara. "We do not want to become a second Tibet and Mongolia. We have no intention of becoming China's annex. We shall stop China, who is coming to steal our land."

Driven by that nationalist fury, Ishihara cooked up a plan with a family, who claims to own four of the five disputed islands. That family, the Kuriharas, says it has documents showing the islands' Japanese ownership dating back to 1890.

Ishihara established a public fund for donors to send in money to the Tokyo metropolitan government. The city of Tokyo would eventually use that money to buy the islands from the Kurihara family, turning them from private Japanese property into government property. Hiroyuki Kurihara said his family would sell the islands to Tokyo's government, calling a sale in his country's "national interest."

"It's not possible for my family to keep protecting the island, considering the territorial issue," he said. Kurihara added that as owners, the Tokyo or national government would "protect the island in an appropriate way" from China.

Kurihara and Tokyo's governor announced the public fund last month. Ishihara said he expected to raise eyebrows and make a point to China about Japan's interest in the islands. He said he didn't expect a flood of money.

The fund has raised the equivalent of $14 million and it continues to grow daily.

Ishihara said Japan was not alone in a territory dispute with a rising China, pointing to Vietnam and the Philippines. He called his national leaders unable to defend Japan's interests in the face of China's rising economic prominence.

"That's why Japanese politicians are weak to China," he said. "They are spoiled by Chinese money."

Ishihara dismissed the idea of compromising on the islands to maintain a healthy economic partnership with China as "nonsense."

"That's what people with no pride say," he said. Ishihara said his public fund shows how Japanese people really feel about China.

Chinese Foreign Minister spokesman Liu Weimin dismissed Ishihara's actions. "The Diaoyu Islands are China's territory since ancient times," he said. "Some Japanese politicians have been making trouble, but their actions won't alter the fact that the islands belong to China. The willful talk and action of some Japanese politicians is irresponsible and tarnish and smears Japan's reputation."

Ishihara, who has long reveled in sticking a thumb in China's eye, continues to ruffle feathers by maintaining events like the Nanjing (Nanking) massacre in 1937 never happened. Historians say hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and unarmed soldiers were murdered and raped following the Japanese capture of the city of Nanjing during the second Sino-Japanese war. But Ishihara says China is twisting history and calls the claim of mass murder by the Japanese as "nonsense."

Neither Ishihara nor the Kurihara family will say when the sale of the islands to Tokyo's government will take place. It's unclear how much impact, if any, the sale will have on the island dispute with China. Ishihara said at a minimum, it's shown him that the Japanese people are more like him and less like his compromising national government.

"I am surprised and I am very happy," said Ishihara, beaming from his Tokyo governor's office. "Very happy. I am happy and it reaffirms that I can trust the Japanese people."

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