Tokyo's Governor Eyes Controversial Site for Marine Research

Disputed. Japan, China and Taiwan all claim the Senkaku Islands, which include these two islets.

National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photographs), Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism

The governor of Tokyo has a plan for the Senkaku Islands, a group of islets and reefs in the middle of the East China Sea controlled by Japan but also claimed by Taiwan and China: He considers them an ideal site for marine science research.

Known in Chinese as the Diaoyutai, the islands lie between Taiwan and Japan's Okinawa Island. Japan has controlled them since the late 1800s, and they hosted fish processing facilities until the 1940s. They have been uninhabited since World War II. The Japanese government owns one of the islands, but others are owned by a family living on Honshu, Japan's main island. In recent years, the islands have been the site of a series of spats between China and Japan, including a collision between a Chinese fishing boat and a Japan Coast Guard vessel in 2010 that set off a tense diplomatic standoff.

Tokyo's fiercely nationalistic governor, Shintaro Ishihara, thinks that Japan has not been tough enough in protecting its territory. So he recently launched a drive to collect private funds to buy the islands from their Japanese owners. "Because the national government would not step forward, I had to," he said at a press conference today in Tokyo.

Asked just what he would do with the islands, he described the possibilities for marine research. He noted that the Kuroshio Current, which is similar to the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic, runs through the Senkakus, bringing warm waters and nutrients that produce a rich but little-studied pocket of biodiversity. The position of the islands near the edge of the continental shelf also opens up research possibilities. "The point is, the government should be doing this, but nothing has been done," Ishihara said.

Marine researchers confirm that because of the geopolitical sensitivity of the area, research opportunities have been limited. There was a brief survey effort by a large national team in 1979 and more recent remote sensing. A spokesperson for Japan's cabinet office told ScienceInsider that there is no official policy on allowing—or not allowing—researchers to visit the Senkakus. But the lack of a policy has made scientific efforts "very difficult," says Mineo Okamoto, a coral specialist at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology who studies reefs in Okinawa. Getting to the islands is problematic, and collecting samples might require special permission from the governor of Okinawa, he says. But researchers are eager to go. Because there is very little scientific information about the area, "ecological studies would be very interesting," he says.

Ishihara did not explain just how he would resolve the restrictions. But he has never shied away from controversy. He might be best known in the United States for co-authoring the controversial 1989 book The Japan That Can Say No, in which he urged his country to stand up to American trade and diplomatic demands.