On the verge of destroying Japanese fishing boats, what is the true face of Chinese and Taiwanese fishermen who are raiding Senkaku waters?

On the verge of destroying Japanese fishing boats, what is the true face of Chinese and Taiwanese fishermen who are raiding Senkaku waters?

Japan’s fishing industry was in such a state of limbo.

Article on March 5th, 2022 by Minetoshi Yasuda

About Minetoshi Yasuda: (Reportage writer. Born in Shiga Prefecture in 1982. Graduated from Ritsumeikan University, Faculty of Letters, Department of History, Oriental History, and completed the Graduate School of Letters, Hiroshima University. His major at the time was modern and contemporary Chinese history. Author of “Waqiao” and “Borderland People” (KADOKAWA), “Ambition: The Biography of Guo Tai-Ming” (President, Inc.), and editor and translator of “Escape from ‘Darkness, China'” and other works. His book “Hakkurokuso: Tiananmen Incident” (KADOKAWA), which closely follows the Tiananmen generation in China, won both the 5th Shiroyama Saburo Award and the 50th Oya Soichi Nonfiction Award.)

Reportage writer Mine-toshi Yasuda met fishermen in Taiwan who were raiding Senkaku waters. What kind of people are they? How are they different from Japanese fishermen?

 Japan’s “border industry,” the fishing industry, is in a critical situation. The number of workers and the volume of fish landed continue to shrink, and the East China Sea is on the verge of being wiped out by the growing power of China and Taiwan.

Fisheries economist Takafumi Sasaki, associate professor at Hokkaido University’s Graduate School of Economics and author of “East China Sea: Fishermen’s Border Disputes” (Kadokawa Shinsho), warns that “Japan’s fishing industry will not be saved unless it undergoes drastic treatment. Yasuda interviewed Sasaki about the real situation of the Japanese fishing industry, which stands on the brink in the East China Sea. (JBpress)

Weakness” of the Japanese fishing industry

Yasuda: This book, “The East China Sea: Fishermen’s Border Dispute,” uses the East China Sea as a keyword to also highlight the structural problems facing the Japanese fishing industry. According to the book’s description, there are 150,000 fishermen in Japan. However, there is hardly a day that goes by when we Japanese do not eat some kind of seafood, including bonito soup. The number of fishery workers seems very small.

Sasaki: Moreover, the “150,000” includes all of the pelagic fisheries, offshore fisheries, coastal fisheries, and aquaculture. Furthermore, since this number was ascertained by the fishery census, it means “those who were engaged in at-sea work for 30 days or more in the past year. Nowadays, the percentage of fishermen aged 65 or older has reached 40%, so this figure includes grandpas and grandmas who receive a pension and spend only a few days a month at the shore or offshore.

Yasuda: “150,000” includes even those who might have retired if they were in other industries. It is a much starker number.

Sasaki: Grandpas and grandmas are doing their best, but the volume of people who will continue to be engaged in fishery production for a long time to come is much smaller than the publicized figures suggest. I would like to say that we should have a sense of crisis, but the fishing industry is too old-fashioned for new people to try to work in it. For example, the pension system is more fragile than that of agriculture, and there are fishermen who only have the national pension. If you are self-employed, you are expected to continue catching fish until you die.

Yasuda: It is a precarious job, even though it can be life-threatening at times.

Sasaki: Not many parents would want their sons to work that way. The production structure that was formed in the once vigorous and profitable era has remained like a time capsule, and the industry has become one in which people have no choice but to work within it.

Yasuda: Dependence on foreigners, lack of successors, and weak industry.

Sasaki: All in all, we have come this far without knowing what kind of future anyone envisions and without taking drastic measures. The government has had to deal with diplomatic issues surrounding the sea area, for example, about 10 years ago, there was a diplomatic dispute with Taiwan over the Senkaku Islands area, and the government sometimes prioritized not to expand the diplomatic issue over the continuation of fishing in that area. Of course, the Fisheries Agency is doing its best, but the balance of power in the haze-seki makes it difficult for the fisheries side to have their opinions heard. Also, with the number of fishery workers decreasing and becoming harder to get votes, fewer politicians are showing interest in the fishing industry. The people were the people, and everyone was still indifferent. The same is true not only for the fishing industry, but also for agriculture. How many citizens can correctly answer the question of Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate?

From a “boom-and-bust” economy to a state of extreme stagnation

Yasuda: Reading this book, I felt that the decline of the Japanese fishing industry began with the decline of the pelagic fishery.

Sasaki That is correct; in 1977, Japan accepted the 200 nautical mile water zone limit set by the U.S., the Soviet Union, and others. The Japanese fishing industry had been accelerating hard up to that time, pursuing bigger vessels and larger equipment, and continued to expand in the world’s oceans. The Japanese fishing industry was at its peak. It was forced to hit the brakes suddenly. As a result, landings in the pelagic fishery have plummeted from 4 million tons to 330,000 tons in 2019.

Yasuda: Just when the Japanese fishery was getting off to a flying start, the coastal nations began to take stronger measures to enclose their fisheries resources, causing the Japanese fishery to shrink. The Japanese fishing industry fell into a state of extreme stagnation and fell behind neighboring countries such as China, South Korea, and Taiwan, which continued to step on the gas pedal. This story is reminiscent of the “lost 30 years” of the Japanese economy after the collapse of the bubble economy. In the fishing industry, the phenomenon came about 15 years earlier than in the general society.

Sasaki: After that, it was exactly the disposal of non-performing loans. Until then, financial institutions were not hesitant to provide loans, so they were aggressively investing in equipment, with big boats and big engines. However, the reverse turnaround began, abandoning vessels in the form of “ship reduction” and “business closure,” and the Japanese fishing industry had to continue to cut its losses and sell at a loss. However, China and Taiwan continued to step on the gas pedal with policy backup such as government subsidies, even as Japan was struggling in the 200 nautical mile era. This has led to the current difference in fishing power among the countries.

Yasuda: I see.

Sasaki Of course, Japan’s fisheries industry is also in a situation where it cannot survive without subsidies. However, there are many areas that have been omitted in the process of selection and concentration. For example, it is no longer easy to maintain human resources and productivity in the coastal fishing industry. As a result, the population is aging in fishing villages where metabolism is stagnant, and as mentioned at the beginning of this article, Japanese employment is leaving the sea in increasing numbers. Even in pelagic fisheries, squid fishing, bottom longlines, crab baskets, etc., are shrinking in scale, and China and Taiwan are entering the niches left vacant there. Similarly, in the offshore fishery in the East China Sea, there is an ongoing struggle to stay on the edge in the longline and seine fisheries. And this has even led to a retreat of Japan’s presence in those operating waters. In recent years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has become concerned about China’s expanding presence in the southern fishing grounds, and this trend seems to have reached the Fisheries Agency, which is in charge of fisheries administration. The Japanese fishing industry has already been losing power, and it seems as if the bill for not having a vision at the government level is now being paid.

What kind of people are Taiwanese fishermen?

Yasuda: In terms of the lack of vision in the past leading to major problems in the present, the same can be said of the Japan-China negotiations over the East China Sea. I think it is a good idea.

Sasaki: The fact that the name “East China Sea” is used in the Japan-China Fisheries Treaty as “East Sea,” which is the name used by China, is a legacy of the use of “East Sea” in the Japan-China Civilian Fisheries Agreement of 1955. Therefore, “East China Sea” cannot be used in the treaty even if it is now in the official Japanese language. The same is true of the delineation of the sea area and the conditions for its use. The Japanese fishing industry should have insisted on what it should have insisted on when it was healthy, but the result of the accumulation of minor compromises has created numerous problems that cannot be reversed now. The fact that Chinese fishing vessels continue to operate in the waters immediately offshore of Okinawa Prefecture south of 27 degrees north latitude and in the Senkaku Islands today is partly due to the fact that they are following the precedent of the lax times of yesteryear. This is also in line with the story that the collapse of the Soviet Union may have been the last chance for the return of the Northern Territories.

Yasuda: On the other hand, what was Taiwan’s interest in the Senkaku Sea area? I actually visited Su-Ao Town, the home port of Taiwan’s Senkaku fishing boats, around 2015 and interviewed the head of the local fishing association (fisheries association). My impression at the time was that they were surprisingly psychologically distant from the KMT and the then Ma Ying-jeou administration. I became friends with a local elder brother who was on a fishing boat ramming into Senkaku waters and uploading videos on YouTube, and he was, to my surprise, a participant in the Sunflower Student Movement of the previous year. In other words, he is an anti-China, anti-Ma Ying-jeou Taiwanese. And yet, he is working obsessively on the Senkaku Islands.

Sasaki: It is easy to make a mistake if you have the image of a Japanese fisherman, or a “fisherman” like a father going out to sea in a boat with his son. Taiwanese fishermen are basically business owners. They run guest houses and gas stations, and also engage in fishing. If it is profitable, they will operate not only in the East China Sea but also in the South China Sea. And when they run out of bait or fishing gear, they sometimes enter a port around Hainan Island in China to supply their needs at a reasonable price.

Yasuda: It is not well known in Japan, but Taiwanese people act “pro-Japanese” when dealing with Japanese people, but when they face the mainland, they have a look that says, “We are Chinese, too. It is not a matter of good or bad, but very tactful. Especially the middle-aged and older generation.

Sasaki: Taiwanese fishermen have a tough mentality. They look at the East China Sea and South China Sea as a delicious business. They are local merchants of commerce and industry, so they are very vocal. Naturally, if politics gets involved, some people will jump on it, and if there is a company that funds the campaign, they will take advantage of it as well. The administration will not take their voices in stride. The fishermen who operate on the sea border are important for maintaining our sovereignty, and by showing our support for them, we can appeal to the Taiwanese people at large.

Do Chinese fishermen have “pride”?

Yasuda: In addition to Taiwan, please tell us about the nature of Chinese fishermen. In the past, on September 7, 2010, a Fujian fishing boat collided with a Coast Guard patrol vessel off the Senkaku Islands, foreshadowing the Senkaku nationalization uproar and violent anti-Japanese demonstrations that would occur two years later, and the first major incident to show the reversal of power relations between China and Japan. However, the identity of the man involved, Captain Chan Qixiong, is unknown. Some believe that he was a Chinese military official, but a few years after the incident, there were reports on the Chinese side about the captain’s distress.

Sasaki: In the past, I have conducted research in a fishing village in Zhejiang Province. If you actually meet the local fishermen, you can tell from the atmosphere whether they are regular fishermen or not. What kind of people are they? However, they also feel that they are putting themselves in danger if they do not follow their superiors to a certain extent.

Yasuda That is typical of China. This may also be helpful in considering the true face of Captain Chan Qixiong.

Sasaki Yes. However, I also have a sense of distrust toward the authorities, wondering if they will really compensate us if there is a problem with Japan and we are unable to operate for a period of time. So, if a policy of reducing the number of vessels is taken, some people protest violently, while others simply abandon their vessels and go into other businesses. Some small and medium-sized fishermen who approach the Senkaku Islands are more interested in catching profitable gemstone corals than catching fish in the first place. It is not uncommon for fishermen to think of it as a speculative business, so much so that if they can get a branch or two of red coral, that’s all they need.

Yasuda: This is just an overall trend, but in China, there is a tendency for people to have a “single-minded devotion to this path” and a low professional conscience toward jobs other than intellectual labor. Agriculture is indeed the oldest job in China, so there are cases where the people involved have a sense of pride and attachment to it, but the fishing industry….

Sasaki: I have the impression that there is not much pride in being a fisherman, and the Chinese people also view it as a highly speculative occupation, so the image of fishermen in society is not good. Therefore, they themselves do not have a strong desire to protect the sovereignty of their country and the sea out of pride as fishermen.

Provocative actions on the part of Japan in the East China Sea are counterproductive.

Yasuda: In the waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Chinese maritime police ships are said to be chasing Japanese fishing boats. Is the Japanese Coast Guard still able to compete with the “enemy” on equal terms?

Sasaki: I think we are doing our best so far. I get the impression that the Japanese Coast Guard is still confident in its deterrent fire control capabilities, such as concentrating fire on the bow and stern of a vessel in the worst extreme conditions to reduce crew damage while reducing the opponent’s ability to navigate. However, when the Japanese side loses its advantage, it may start to feel less comfortable. Naturally, they will not feel good if the Chinese Coast Guard’s most elite vessels of over 10,000 tons, such as those confirmed in the southern sea area, are deployed in Senkaku waters.

Yasuda: From China’s point of view, the most important sea area is the South China Sea, where the so-called nine-dash line is located. The East China Sea, on the other hand, is treated relatively lightly, is that right?

Sasaki: I have heard that 10,000-ton class maritime police vessels will be deployed throughout the East China Sea, but in the Senkaku Sea area, according to local fishermen on the Japanese side, there is a surprising degree of “consideration” in the movements of the Chinese maritime police. They say that the Chinese maritime police often move in a planned manner, letting their boats run side by side and saying, “After this amount of running, we’ll be done for the day. Recently, however, there have been an increasing number of cases where this is not the case. They suddenly change course and seriously chase after the target fishing boat.

Yasuda: So provocative behavior is noticeable.

Sasaki: More than that, there are also cases where activists from the Japanese side go to the local waters to mess with the fishermen. When hardliners go there, the Chinese maritime police become tense, and it becomes easier for them to take a hard-line stance in response. As a result, ordinary fishermen on the Japanese side who really want to fish will not be able to do so.

Yasuda: It is important for Japan to assert its claim to the Senkaku Islands. However, if people who want to achieve self-fulfillment through a political movement act provocatively in a half-hearted manner, it will give the other side an excuse to intervene.

Sasaki: China surpasses Japan in terms of quantitative manpower and shipbuilding capacity. We must not forget that if we go head-to-head, it will be tough, even if Japan is superior in terms of quality.

Japan’s Fishing Industry is on the Edge

Yasuda: Let me return to the Japanese fishing industry. Following the descriptions in this book, one gets the impression that the lack of multifaceted sustainability is a major problem for the Japanese fishing industry.

Sasaki: That’s right. Fishing is also an industry set in border waters, but it is unsustainable. It is often argued that the future of the fishing industry should depend on aquaculture, but in fact, the bait for farmed fish is sardines and other fish that are currently being caught by fishing boats. So as long as there are problems with bait and seedlings, aquaculture cannot solve everything. Of course, there is the idea that we should rely more on foreign workers and imports….

Yasuda: But excessive dependence on foreign countries would be dangerous. For example, the shortage of masks in the early days of the Corona disaster was largely due to the fact that mask production was dependent on China. A worldwide panic or a deterioration in relations with a particular major power would cause products to disappear from store shelves. I fear a similar situation in the food sector.

Sasaki: The public is in a state of boiled octopus without knowing it. There is a fear that it would not be surprising if one day, seafood suddenly disappears from the places close to us. Most recently, if economic sanctions against Russia are strengthened due to the invasion of Ukraine, imports of Russian crabs and other products could be slimmed down. I feel that Japan’s fisheries industry is currently in a state of crisis, regardless of ideology.

Yasuda: Serious regardless of ideology.

Sasaki: Yes. First of all, if we think about it from a conservative-leaning logic, is it really okay for an industry that operates on the front lines of Japan’s “borders” on the sea to be on the edge of its edge so much? And from a liberal point of view, is it right to preserve such a risky employment structure for the fishermen on the frontlines? The reason I mention the radical solution of “nationalization” of the fishing industry at the end of this book is that I want to convey the idea that the Japanese fishing industry, as it is now, will not be saved without such a drastic measure.

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