“We want to fish in the Senkakus.” Listen to the voices of the Uminchu who are standing up to the Chinese threat.
by Yasushi Nishimuta (Non-fiction writer, freelance writer)
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the following in a joint press release after his meeting with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi last month.
An unidentified Japanese fishing boat has entered the sensitive waters around the Diaoyu Islands (the Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands), and the Chinese side has no choice but to react as necessary.
December 6, Mainichi Shimbun
Foreign Minister Mogi did not respond to this. Instead, he made the following “excuses” at his regular press conference after the meeting (November 27).
During the Japan-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, we conveyed our strong concern and strongly suggested that China should not take such actions.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs website
This “excuse” by Foreign Minister Mogi was met with a series of criticisms, and rightly so. The fact is that China’s effective control of the area has been gradually advancing.
Since the Japanese government nationalized the three main Senkaku islands (Uotsuri, Beisho, and Minamisho) in September 2012, Chinese official ships have been stationed in the surrounding waters. They have intruded into the connected waters for more than 200 days since 2013 (Coast Guard Report 2020). According to the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters, the number of days in 2020 will reach 328 (as of December 24).
In light of China’s economic development and its policy of strengthening its national power, one would expect that under the Xi Jinping administration, which is conducting warlord diplomacy, effective control of the Senkaku Islands will continue to increase.
In these talks between the leaders of Japan and China, the topic of discussion is the movement of Japanese fishermen, mainly from Okinawa, who are engaged in fishing in the Senkaku waters. To begin with, what kind of fishing boats are the ones that Foreign Minister Wang refers to as “Japanese fishing boats of unknown affiliation”?
According to an article on Record China, a news site that provides information on China, the following was reported by the U.S. Chinese media, “Taiwan News”.
In May of this year, a Japanese right-wing activist sailed in the waters near the Senkaku Islands on a fishing boat and was driven away by a Chinese official vessel, and in June, the same activist sailed on a fishing boat to conduct “work” in the same waters while being monitored by a Chinese marine patrol vessel.
December 18, Record China
In addition, journalist Takeshi Takano stated in his email newsletter that “It is a ‘right-wing demonstration ship,’ and (omission) the people backing it up are right-wing lawmakers, mainly influential members of the pro-Abe group.
I wonder if the content of these articles is true.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Mogi exchange elbows before their meeting at Iikura Kokan in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on November 24, 2020.
According to statistics from the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters, there were seven cases in 2020 (as of December 24) of Chinese maritime police vessels tracking fishing boats in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands (connected waters and territorial waters), and the Coast Guard “did not confirm” the fishing boat in June, as pointed out by Taibai Shimbun and Mr. Takano. Hence, the actual number of cases is eight.
After checking with reports on various websites and other sources, we found that the fishing boats for that June were the “Dai-Ichi Sakura Maru” and “Emi Maru” from Ishigaki Island, and that most of the other fishing boats were operated by the “Zuiho Maru” from Yonaguni Island (at least five times in May, July, August, September, and October).
In his newsletter, Mr. Takano, who was mentioned earlier, wrote about the “right-wing demonstration ships” and said, “In recent years, they seem to be focusing on chartering fishing boats on Ishigaki Island, actually fishing around the Senkaku Islands, and holding events where they actually eat some of the catch to campaign, ‘Don’t let China steal our rich fishing grounds like this. It seems to be focusing on a campaign to say, ‘Let’s not let China steal these rich fishing grounds.
The TV program production and satellite broadcasting company Nippon Cultural Channel Sakura chartered the Sakura Maru No. 1 and the Emi Maru to operate in June and return to port. The fish were then flown to Tokyo, where they were tasted by what Takano calls “far-right members of the LDP.
However, these boats only went to the Senkakus once in 2020. In other words, Mr. Takano is referring to only this one case and saying that the Japanese ships are right-wing demonstration ships.
I have talked to the fisherman who owns the two boats, and he is an ordinary, good-natured Uminchu (fisherman). It is rude to label him as a right-winger.
Now, what about the Zuiho Maru, which makes up the majority of fishing trips to the Senkakus? In August this year, I visited Yonaguni Island, the home base of the Zuiho Maru.
The captain’s parents’ house is located near Kubura Port, which has been turned into a pension that also serves as a fishing tackle store. Incidentally, according to the Zuiho Maru’s website and related videos, the captain has often cooperated with TV filming of celebrities fishing on location, indicating that he is quite familiar with the mass media.
When I asked some of the fishermen on the island about the Zuiho Maru, they told me the following
He knows the fishing grounds very well,” “He is always trying to develop new fishing grounds,” and “He was once captured by the Coast Guard for getting too close to Taiwan,” which gave me the impression that he was a very greedy fisherman. On the other hand, we did not hear anything about “fishing in the Senkakus to lure Chinese public ships” or “right-wing demonstration ships”.
The fishermen who told us their stories also used to go to the Senkakus.
We were told by the Coast Guard that we should stop buying boats because we won’t be able to go to the Senkakus from next year (2014),” he said. On the other hand, he said, “That is a rich fishing ground. I really want to go there and fish,” he said.
The Senkaku Islands. From the front: Minami Kojima, Kita Kojima, and Uotsuri Island.
The Zuiho Maru is a fishing boat that is willing to be captured. That’s why she continues to fish boldly even though Chinese ships appear on a regular basis.
I asked some of the fishermen on the island about the Zuiho Maru’s fishing trip to the Senkakus.
In July, we were planning to fish on Uotsuri Island (the main island) and then go to Okinawa Island. Rather than fishing and returning to the island to land the fish, we could take the fish to Naha and land it, which would sell at a higher price and save on transportation costs. The story goes that they were chased to Taisho Island (about 110 kilometers east-northeast of Uotsuri Island) on the way, and were interrupted; when they fished on Uotsuri Island in May, they were marked by Chinese ships, so they were chased relentlessly to Taisho Island.
After that, the Zuiho Maru was chased by Chinese ships again in October. The incident was televised by NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), so many people may have seen the footage.
It is clear that the Zuiho Maru is a well-built fishing boat belonging to the Yonaguni Town Fishermen’s Cooperative Association, and that it is going to the Senkakus for a reason. The fact that the Chinese government went to the trouble of calling the Zuiho Maru a “fishing boat of unknown affiliation,” when it has a solid identity and purpose, can only be seen as an expression of their frustration at the Zuiho Maru’s courageous refusal to stop fishing.
I found the Zuiho Maru during my interview that August. It was not in Yonaguni Island, but in Tomari Port in Naha. At that time, the captain was out playing golf, his hobby, and I was unable to talk to him.
Instead, I was able to talk to Mr. Kina (pseudonym, 50), who is in charge of fishing. He was tanned and dark-skinned, and you could tell at a glance that he was a true Uminchu.
–Where do you usually fish?
From spring to autumn, I leave Yonaguni Island and go to Naha as a base, mainly to Okinawa and as far north as Kyushu to fish. On the way, we refuel at various ports and head north. There is a registration number on the boat, so we just pay a fee at the port. We catch red snapper (a high-class fish) and snapper. You can also catch yellowfin, bigeye, and other tuna. You can also catch bluefin tuna or mammachi in shallow waters up to 150 meters deep.
–What kind of fishing do you do?
The captain runs the boat. The captain runs the boat, and the other apprentice makes the traps. The captain looks at the fish finder and gives instructions, drops the traps, and if a school of fish is above, he raises the traps 50 meters.
The Zuiho Maru (foreground) at anchor in the harbor on Yonaguni Island in August 2020 (courtesy of the author).
–What is the value of the fish you land?
What is the value of the fish that are landed? “Red snapper is 300,000-400,000 yen. A blue sea bream costs between 2,300 yen and 3,000 yen. The price changes a lot depending on where you land the fish. In Okinawa, Tomari Port in Naha is expensive on average. On the outlying islands, there are no auctions, just middlemen, so it’s cheaper.
This story fits with what the other fishermen in Yonaguni told us. The Zuiho Maru wanted to take the boat to Naha to make a profit.
–Is there any difference when fishing in the Senkaku Islands?
Before we leave port, we tell the fishing cooperative that we are going to the Senkakus. Then we are inspected. When we went there in May, we were fishing for red sea bream in shallow water about 300 meters deep, about 500 meters away from the island, when we were surrounded by six Coast Guard ships and two Chinese official ships.
–I was surprised to see so many ships following a boat of less than 10 tons. I was surprised. So, what was the situation with the Chinese official ships?
I could see the faces of the crew on the deck when they came within 300 meters. Of course, they didn’t wave at us. They were just staring at us.
–Wasn’t the Chinese ship scary?
I’m used to them, they don’t do anything to me. I’m used to them, they don’t do anything to us, but they’re annoying and I’m scared inside. I’m afraid of what they might do.
–What about the Coast Guard ships?
The Coast Guard’s patrol boats are much smaller. The Coast Guard’s patrol boat is much smaller, and we can watch Wang’s ship and the Chinese ship from a distance. When the Chinese ship came close to Wang’s ship, they immediately intervened.
–Isn’t that dependable?
If we go all the way to the Senkakus and don’t catch any fish, we’ll lose money, so we have to fish properly. If we go all the way to the Senkakus and don’t catch any fish, we lose money. The Coast Guard even inspects the area before we go fishing, and when we get there, they order us to evacuate because a Chinese ship is coming. We can’t stop the Chinese ships, and they interfere with our fishing. We’re not doing anything wrong, we’re just here to catch fish.
–What do you want from the country?
What do you want from the government? If you build a sheltered port, we can fish all the time. It’s just a matter of dividing the sea. But if we don’t, the Chinese will steal it, and then we won’t be able to fish. I don’t know why China stole so much. Even so, our boats will continue to go to the Senkakus, we will continue to fish, and we will protect the islands as a fishing ground.
Mr. Kina comes from a family that has been Uminchu for generations. Mr. Kina has been a member of a Uminchu family for generations, and while it was easy to visit the Senkakus when his grandfather was active, it has become more difficult every year. According to “The History and Present State of Fishing in the Senkaku Islands” (2011, Senkaku Archives), 164 fishing boats went out in 1977. Compared to that, the number is now in the single digits, or at most a dozen. In fact, the number of fishing boats has plummeted to one-tenth.
This is due to the fact that fishing boats are smaller and fewer in number, making day trips the norm, and that soaring fuel prices and slumping fishing prices make it impossible to justify the cost unless you have a big catch. Above all, the most important reason is the increased movement of Chinese public vessels in the area (public vessels intruding into the connected waters and territorial waters).
Chinese public vessels have been spotted in the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands (courtesy of the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters).
There is nothing wrong with the Uminchu people. But because the Japanese government did not protect them well, they gradually became unable to go.
Instead of forcing the fishermen to endure, shouldn’t the Japanese government back them up so that they can fish as they did before?
The Japanese government should not allow the Uminchu to be referred to as “fishing boats of unknown affiliation.