Wake up Japan! After 27 years of struggle, Japan’s Senkaku “guardians” have fought hard
Yasushi Nishimuta (Non-fiction writer, freelance writer)
He has been involved in the Senkaku Islands issue for 27 years and has landed 16 times. He has been documented 13 times and fined once (100,000 yen). There is such a person in Okinawa who can be called the “guardian” of the Senkaku Islands. He is Hitoshi Nakama, 72, a member of the Ishigaki City Council. His background is as follows.
Born in 1949 on Miyako Island in Okinawa Prefecture (then under US rule). He has been a member of the Ishigaki City Council for seven terms. He was first elected to the Ishigaki City Council in 1994, landed on the Senkaku Islands for the first time in 1995, and has since conducted various surveys. In 2012, he registered “Senkaku” as a trademark and has been working to promote Senkaku-branded fish throughout Japan. He has also been instrumental in changing the character name of Senkaku (it was changed last October). He is the author of the book, “The Senkaku Islands in Crisis.
What does Mr. Nakama think of the changes in the Senkaku waters since the stationing of Chinese official ships since 2012? We also asked him about the Japan-China foreign ministers’ meeting in November last year, his operation off the Senkakus in December of the same year, and the passage of the Chinese Maritime Police Law (interviewed by phone in late January 2009).
–China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Japan in November last year and met with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Mogi.
When I saw the joint press release after the meeting, I thought Foreign Minister Mogi was an idiot. He just laughed and didn’t protest even though he said, “Let’s protect the waters around the area by the Chinese Maritime Police Bureau and Coast Guard ships. It’s people like this who are the ministers that are ruining the country of Japan. That’s why I made a statement in a general question at the Ishigaki City Council in December. I said in a general question at the Ishigaki City Assembly in December, “I want the stupid minister who does not serve the national interest to quit as soon as possible.
–Wang Yi, the foreign minister, made comments at that meeting such as “fishing boats of unknown affiliation” and “unidentified fishing boats are intruding into sensitive waters. Mr. Nakama belongs to the Ishigaki City Council, so he doesn’t fall under the category of unknown affiliation, does he?
No, he was talking about me (laughs). (laughs) I’m always traveling alone without any help from anyone. So it’s about me. But I’m not afraid of being called that. It’s been 27 years since I became a member of the Ishigaki City Council and started working on the Senkaku Islands. I just go out and do it regardless of the profitability. That’s why my family’s finances are always on fire (laughs).
–Have you been fishing in the Senkakus again this year (2021)?
Yes, I went fishing at the end of the year. The forecast said that the waves would be 2.5 meters high, so we set sail when it was calm. But as soon as we got to the Senkaku Islands, there was a four-meter choppy sea (laughs).
–I heard that you got a new fishing boat.
I went with the newly acquired Tsurumaru (9.1 tons). The tuna fishing boat was floating in the harbor, unused, in Kushimoto Town, Wakayama Prefecture. After purchasing it in May 2019, we spent six months repairing, painting, and installing equipment such as a GPS (satellite-based positioning system) and automatic steering.
The Tsurumaru prepares to set sail on December 26, 2020 (Courtesy of Hitoshi Nakama)
–Even if we negotiate the purchase of the ship, it’s a long way from Ishigaki to Wakayama, isn’t it?
Mr. Tenju Wada (67), who lives in Wakayama, helped us with everything from purchase to maintenance. He used to be a Shinto priest of a shrine and has helped many people. He said to me, a complete stranger, “Since you have risked your life for the Senkaku Islands, please let me help you. Let’s sweat to protect the Japanese nation, even if we don’t have any money. When we sailed out of Kushimoto, I was so grateful that I couldn’t stop crying.
–I see, so you had the cooperation of like-minded people. Then, after bringing Tsurumaru to Ishigaki, you headed for the Senkaku Islands, didn’t you?
Yes, that’s right. However, it had been very chilly since the beginning of November. We couldn’t sail very far. As I mentioned earlier, the forecast for December 26 showed that the waves would be 2.5 meters, which was calmer than before, so we set sail at 5:00 a.m. on December 26 from Tonoshiro Fishing Port in Ishigaki City after being inspected by the Coast Guard.
–How many crew members were on board?
Besides the captain and myself, there were four fishermen and an apprentice. After we set sail, we realized that the GPS was not working, so we turned back to Tonoshiro Port. So we made sure the GPS was working and set sail again at 9:00 am.
–When did you arrive at the site?
Around 2:30 p.m. that day, in the connecting waters between 12 and 24 nautical miles. It was in the vicinity of North and South Kohima, about 20 kilometers southeast of Uotsuri Island. It was raining, cloudy and dim, and the sea was choppy with waves as high as four meters. It was a tough day. But the Tsurumaru was originally a tuna fishing boat that was resistant to choppy seas, so it didn’t capsize and we were safe.
–What kind of difficulties did you have?
If you don’t hold on to the railing or some part of the boat, your whole body will be taken away. The captain, who was piloting the boat, rolled over to me and I hit my back. I couldn’t move for about a week after we got back (laughs). I didn’t get seasick. People don’t get seasick when they worry.
–First of all, please tell us what it was like when you were catching fish.
I started fishing at a point about one kilometer southeast of North and South Kohima. The trap consisted of a fishing line with ten hooks in the shape of branches. I put bait on them and used a winder to lower the hooks to a depth of about 100 meters. I caught eight fish the first time and seven the second time. The first time I caught eight and the second time I caught seven, both of which were Marmite. Both fish were mamachi, a golden fish that costs about 700 yen a kilo in Ishigaki.
–Didn’t you catch any red snapper (hamadai), a high-class fish?
Of course we want to catch red snapper. Of course we wanted to catch red snapper, but it was very chilly in the waters where they were, so we couldn’t go. The New Year’s market price for red sea bream was about 5,000 yen per kilogram. If we had caught a lot of red sea bream, we could have paid for all the fuel and made a profit.
–Were there any ships of the Chinese Maritime Police Bureau in the area?
Yes, there were. One of them was a 3,000-ton class (Maritime Police 2302) and the other was a 4,000-ton class (Maritime Police 1401). However, they could not get close to the Tsurumaru. The reason is that there were small Coast Guard patrol boats (180 ton type) on either side of the Tsurumaru, sticking around 100 meters away. When the Tsurumaru entered our territorial waters a little after 4:00 p.m., the official vessels of the Maritime Police Bureau did not hesitate to invade our territorial waters and chase us. On the other hand, the Japan Coast Guard patrol boat followed the Tsurumaru from the moment it set sail.
Hitoshi Nakama, a member of the Ishigaki City Council, in August 2020
–Even though it was chilly, there were official ships of both Japan and China.
At that time, I wondered why the ships of the Maritime Police Bureau were waiting. I wondered why the Maritime Police Bureau’s ships were waiting for us. The distance between Uotsuri Island and Taisho Island is 110 kilometers. If we traveled between the two islands by sea, it would take two hours at the earliest, but this time it was very choppy, so it would probably take four hours.
–I was under the impression that the official ships of the Chinese Maritime Police Bureau are basically in the vicinity of the Uotsuri, North and South islets.
That’s not the case. The ship from Miyakojima that was chased a week before ours was on Taisho Island. Before that, the Zuiho Maru of Yonaguni Island was also on Taisho Island. When we contacted the Japan Coast Guard before we left, they told us that the Chinese ship was in the Taisho Island area. This means that there is a high possibility that all the information was leaked. Are there spies in Ishigaki who are passing on information to the Chinese Maritime Police Bureau? Is there a spy in Ishigaki who is passing on information to the Chinese Maritime Police Bureau, or is it the Coast Guard that is doing it?
–There was a report last year about the alleged spies, wasn’t there?
One more thing. It’s a satellite of China’s People’s Liberation Army. The satellites of the Maritime Police Bureau are not accurate enough to pick up the movements of fishing boats. However, the military’s satellites may be able to. This is because the China Maritime Police Bureau was placed under the command of the military in July 2018. Now that it is under the command of the military, the military’s satellites may be picking up the location of our fishing boats and telling the Chinese Maritime Police Bureau. That’s my view.
–I see, so the official vessels of the Maritime Police Bureau were somehow informed and were waiting for us at the site.
And there was a Japan Coast Guard patrol boat (1,000 to 1,500 ton class) outside the official vessel. There were two ships in front of Tsurumaru and one in the rear. In total, there were seven Coast Guard vessels. There were seven Coast Guard patrol boats covering the area to prevent Chinese vessels from approaching our fishing boats. The vessels of the Maritime Police Bureau were about 250 meters away from us, no matter how far they were.
–I’ve often heard rumors that the official ships of the China Maritime Police Bureau are armed, is that true?
The larger ships (3,000-4,000 tons) looked and were equipped the same as the Coast Guard ships, while the 2,000-ton class ships had only water cannons at first glance, but they must have concealed weapons. But even with a water discharge gun, the ship could still be destroyed.
–At that time, what did the official ships of the Maritime Police Bureau and the patrol ships of the Coast Guard do? Did they fire at you?
Basically, they didn’t move and just stared at us. They never fired warning shots at us. But when we were fishing, they sounded their whistle four times and threatened us.
–What time did you fish?
It was 6:50 p.m., after sunset. The marmot were swimming in shallow waters, and the boat was not moving, so it was even more bumpy. It was hard work to remove the needle. I thought it was a matter of life and death, so I pulled out. As soon as the Tsurumaru left the connecting waters, the official vessels of the Maritime Police Bureau started chasing us. In the end, we were followed until 8 p.m., I think. It was about 13 hours later when the Tsurumaru returned to Tonoshiro Port in Ishigaki City. By that time, it was long past morning. It was because the GPS had fallen and broken due to the chill.
–How do you look back on this fishing trip?
When we went out for the first time in two years, we found that the movement of the Chinese Maritime Police Bureau ships had changed dramatically. In 2012, when Chinese ships started coming to the Senkakus frequently, they were hesitant to invade our territorial waters. In other words, China continues to take advantage of us because they know that we won’t attack them. Japan is too sloppy!
–I heard that the Maritime Police Law, which allows the use of weapons in China, has been passed and will go into effect on February 1.
I think the next time we go to the Senkaku Islands, the official ships of the Chinese Maritime Police Bureau will probably shoot at us. It will be interesting to see what kind of action they will take and how they will attack. Maybe I’ll be the first one to be attacked. Isn’t that interesting (laughs)?
A Japan Coast Guard patrol boat on alert around the Senkaku Islands, December 27, 2020 (Courtesy of Hitoshi Nakama)
–No, no, no, it’s not funny. Please save your life.
Thank you very much. But, Nishimuta-san. Now that I have Tsurumaru, I will continue to go to the Senkakus. I want to fish in the Senkakus and introduce Senkaku brand fish to the world. The Senkakus belong to Japan, and since they are in the administrative district of Ishigaki City, there is no problem. I don’t care if Chinese ships attack us or not. If that wakes up this country, it will be a blessing (laughs).