Thousands of Chinese fishing boats have ignored demands that they leave the rich fishing grounds within Japan’s exclusive economic zone off the northwest coast, with the Fisheries Agency in Tokyo forced to recommend that Japanese trawlers operate elsewhere to avoid clashes.
The Fisheries Agency on Wednesday said its patrol vessels had ordered 2,589 Chinese vessels to leave Japanese waters around the Yamatotai grounds as of the end of September, nearly four times the number compared with the same period of last year.
Japan’s coastguard has confirmed that its ships had issued similar orders to 102 Chinese ships during the year through October 16, up from 12 incidents in 2019.
The Yamatotai area, some 350km off the Noto Peninsula, is a favourite among Japanese crews, who catch “surumeika” flying squid and crabs in the autumn months.
In previous years, Japanese authorities have had a similar problem with North Korean fishing boats operating in the area, with 4,000 North Korean boats ordered to leave the area in 2019, sometimes hastened on their way with water cannons.
Confrontations between the two sides have escalated, with a Japanese coastguard boat colliding with a North Korean ship in October last year. The Korean ship sank, with its 60 crew members picked up and placed on other fishing boats.
The coastguard has only encountered one North Korean vessel this year, although there is concern that it may be more difficult to dislodge thousands of Chinese ships from the area.
Akitoshi Miyashita, a professor of international relations at Tokyo International University, said the Japanese government may have made a mistake by instructing its fishermen to leave the area.
“The longer the Chinese stay in that area, the harder it becomes to force them to leave,” he said. “The Japanese government has to do something to force them to leave because if they are not challenged and are permitted to stay, then operating in those waters becomes an established fact.
“And that, in turn, will see more Chinese ships coming deeper into Japanese territorial waters,” he said.
Analysts suggest there are a number of reasons Chinese vessels have started to appear off northeast Japan. One theory is that coastal waters close to the fishermen’s home ports have been overfished, meaning the crews are having to venture farther afield for a catch.
An alternative suggestion is that China is testing Japan’s resolve over its territorial integrity and the responses of its coastguard and, potentially, the military.
“If it is a matter of seeking out new fishing grounds, then the issue should be possible to solve in talks between the two government,” said Miyashita. “If it is the second scenario and these are in fact state-sanctioned actions, then that is a far more serious problem.”
Japanese fishermen who have traditionally worked the Yamatotai area are reportedly furious at being told to leave and at the government’s weak response to the situation.
Hiroshi Kishi, the president of the national federation of fisheries co-operatives, visited officials in a number of ministries in Tokyo earlier this month and requested that members of the federation be permitted to return to the fishing grounds.
“The Japanese government should implement a firm response so that Japanese boats can resume fishing,” he told local media.
There has been no word on whether more coastguard vessels will be deployed to the area to protect Japanese vessels and to dissuade foreign boats from entering.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.