Govt moves to safeguard border islands

The string of islands in the East China Sea involved in the dispute.

With repeated incursions by Chinese government ships into Japanese waters near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, local and national authorities in Japan are intensifying efforts to safeguard remote islands, which serve as points for defining territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.

The nation's southernmost island, Okinotorishima in Tokyo's Ogasawara village, is one such example.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry has begun constructing a port facility there for various purposes, including the development of maritime resources.

Another example is a group of remote islets off the Goto Islands in Nagasaki Prefecture, which is located near prime fishing grounds. There are growing calls among local residents to rename them. Because the isles currently bear names that include "iwa" (rock), the locals are concerned that such names could be misleading to other nations.

There are 6,847 remote islands in the country, according to the ministry and others. More than 90 of the islands are uninhabited. In many cases, the owners or management status are unknown.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that "...rocks which could not sustain human habitation or economic life of their own would have no economic zone or continental shelf."

The government has decided to safeguard about 400 remote islands around the country.

Wharf under construction

Okinotorishima is an oval-shaped territory located about 1,700 kilometers south of central Tokyo. Under a land ministry construction project, a pier about 160 meters long will be built in its western region along with a portside road to allow access to the island's interior.

Work began in April with the building of a cargo loading area to serve as a temporary holding space for cargo unloaded from ships. Due to severe seasonal weather such as typhoons and seasonal winds, the period for construction work is restricted to spring and summer. About 100 construction workers have been working on the project. The entire port facility is expected to be completed in three years, according to the ministry.

The territory, which measures about 11 kilometers in circumference, comprises two small islets that are not submerged at high tide. Their combined area is about nine square meters. Their concrete encasings, designed to prevent erosion from waves, require annual maintenance. Because large ships cannot approach the island, construction materials are loaded onto small boats on the ocean. After the wharf is completed, a 130-meter-class vessel can enter a port about eight meters deep.

The total project cost is about 75 billion yen. According to one estimate, about 116 billion yen in profits will be generated if cobalt and nickel desposits believed to exist on the seafloor near the island are successfully exploited.

China has claimed that Okinotorishima is an area consisting of rocks. A senior Japanese ministry official said: "After a port is constructed, it will serve as a hub for research vessels. If economic activity based on resource development picks up, it will become clearer that it is an 'island.'"

'Rocks' a misnomer

Due to its abundance of prime fishing spots, the waters around the Goto Islands in Nagasaki Prefecture have attracted foreign fishing boats, including those from China. Hizen Torishima is located about 61 kilometers southeast from Fukuejima island, which is at the centre of the city of Goto. It consists of three uninhibited islets--Minamiiwa, Iwasenakaiwa and Kitaiwa. Locals have been strongly hoping the names of the islets will be changed.

Because all the islet names contain the word "rock," some are concerned that it may invite a misunderstanding in the international community amid heightened tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands.

A local association comprising representatives of the business community and other organisations has been seeking to preserve and develop the islets. It asked the Goto municipal government to change their names. The Nagasaki prefectural government also announced that it will work together with the central government to help the city to facilitate the name changes. The city will ask its residents to consider new names for the islets. It plans to file a name change application with the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan as early as autumn.

Prefectural assembly member Hiroshi Yamada, an adviser to the association, said, "By changing their names, each of the islands will be recognised as an 'island at the national border,' not only by the Japanese people but also the international community."

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