Since a law that allows the Chinese Coast Guard to use weapons took effect on Feb. 1, Japan has been on guard, especially the central government, the Defense Ministry, as well as the Japan Coast Guard (JCG).
The Senkaku Islands are the subject of a land dispute between Japan, China and Taiwan, though fishermen say they do not usually enter the area.
“Though there won’t be an immediate change in the situation, the risk of accidental future conflicts can’t be ruled out,” said a senior official at the JCG.
While government officials are alarmed, local fishermen are calling for them to calmly deal with the problem since almost no local Japanese fishing vessels travel near the Senkaku Islands.
“I understand the threat of China. But I want the government to handle the situation carefully,” said one fishery worker.
From May to December last year, there were eight incidents in which the Chinese Coast Guard tailed a Japanese fishing vessel in the Senkakus at a distance of between 600 and 1,000 meters, forcing JCG vessels to interfere.
According to JCG reports, Chinese Coast Guard vessels have repeatedly entered territorial waters near the Senkakus, including the areas of Uotsuri Island, Kuba Island and Taisho Island. Though these incidents are not new, incidents that happened last year may not be the same as those before, said an official at JCG’s 11th district overseeing the area.
Between Oct. 11 and 13, the Chinese Coast Guard’s stay in Senkaku territorial waters lasted more than 57 hours. Entries within areas nearby, on the outer edge of the territorial sea, amounted to a record 333 days in a year.
Such maritime tensions — especially against the narrative of a rising China and the Senkaku Islands — trigger nationalism. Even nonfishermen help foster the sentiment, demanding that the Yaeyama fishery cooperative fish in the area in order to assert effective control over the islands.
For workers at the fishery cooperative, however, responding to these requests is exhausting.
“It’s 170 kilometers to the Senkaku islands. In addition to the fuel expenses, there are no places to escape the high tides,” said one worker. “There are many other good fishing spots. Considering costs and the risk of getting lost, there’s really no need to travel (to the Senkakus area).”
All the talk of the rising threat of China is tiring local fishery workers, who are often asked to comment on the issue. One worker even rejected an interview, seemingly frustrated with repeated inquiries on the same topic.
“Even if I speak about the actual situation, the only part presented in the media is how we are feeling threatened,” said another person.
The reality may not be what is often highlighted in the media. According to people involved, currently, those who travel to the Senkaku area are limited to a few activists and fisheries workers, who are then tailed by the Chinese Coast Guard ships.
“Though there are no cooperative members who fish in the Senkaku waters, there is no assurance that there won’t be any in the future, and the threat becomes real when that happens,” said Kokichi Irabu, managing director of Yaeyama fishery cooperative. “I hope that the government will make efforts to prevent the situation from deteriorating.”
Nevertheless, tensions surrounding the waters are still palpable. On Feb. 6, two Chinese Coast Guard vessels moved into the territorial waters of the Senkakus, staying in the area for 8½ hours. Two Japanese fishing ships were operating at the time in the area. At one time, Chinese vessels appeared to get close to the Japanese ships.
The question of whether China will take a stronger stance in the near future, though, remains unclear. But how China responds in the South China Sea may give an indication.
“It’s important to first pay attention to China’s moves in the South China Sea,” where the country advocates for territorial rights and continues their efforts for militarization, said a JCG executive.