“Japan has established its territorial rights over the Senkaku Islands through deeds conducted up until its Cabinet decision in 1895, a series of actions after 1895, and the absence of protests by China and other countries for a long period of time, and this status has remained unchanged since the end of World War II.”
In May 1969, the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) released a survey report indicating the possible existence of abundant crude oil and natural gas resources in the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands.
Although neither China nor Taiwan had made any objection to Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands until then, they suddenly changed their stance following the report and began to assert that “the Senkaku Islands are the territory of China.” Such behavior by a state is itself compelled to be regarded as lacking validity from the viewpoint of international law.
While I will refer to this point later, I would like to clarify here that China’s assertions when analyzed in detail are supported neither by international law nor historically.
There are three major points of contention about the question of the Senkaku Islands when assertions by Japan and China are compared.
The first point is whether a series of measures the Japanese government has taken since January 1895 to incorporate the Senkaku Islands into Japan cleared the prerequisites for occupation in international law and thus legally justifies Japan’s assertion that it validly acquired territorial sovereignty over the islands.
The second point is whether the Senkaku Islands were the territory of China or a terra nullius in 1895, when Japan incorporated them, in accordance with international law.
The third point is whether the assertion China began to make in 1971 that it has territorial sovereignty based on historical rights can be an effective counterargument against Japan’s assertion of occupation of a terra nullius.
Occupation in international law means that a state makes a terra nullius into its own territory by validly controlling it before other nations do. Occupation is recognized (1) when a nation’s intention to keep possession of a terra nullius – a land belonging to no state – is explicitly exhibited in one way or another, and (2) when the state occupies that land in an effective manner.
According to a recent international judicial precedent, furthermore, state functions of this kind must be exercised in the form of “peaceful and continuous display,” as Judge Max Huber said in his ruling on the Island of Palmas case.
A series of measures the Japanese government has taken since 1895 in connection with the Senkaku Islands meets the above-mentioned prerequisites for occupation (Contention No. 1). Let us examine this.
Examining Japan’s declaration of its intention to gain sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, it is fair to say that this intention was clearly expressed externally through various actions taken by the Japanese central government and the Okinawa prefectural government. Specifically:
(1) The Japanese government made a Cabinet decision on January 14, 1895 (28th year of the Meiji era) to “recognize the islands as under the jurisdiction of Okinawa Prefecture” and allowed Okinawa Prefecture to erect a “marker” on the islands.
(2) A private citizen named Tatsushiro Koga engaged in the development of the islands after winning approval from the government, and planted poles there – Koga’s planting of a pole on both Kubajima (Kobi-sho) and Kumeakashima (Sekibi-sho) has been confirmed by records.
(3) Koga and other people on the islands regularly hoisted the Japanese national flag.
(4) The steamship Izumo-maru, dispatched by the Okinawa prefectural government, conducted a survey of the islands in 1885 and submitted a survey report to the prefecture.
(5) Japan’s intention, moreover, to keep possession of the islands was expressed implicitly as well through land surveys, academic researches, preparation of maps and marine charts describing the Senkaku Islands, their recitation in governmental documents, and other sovereign acts continued by the Japanese national government and the Okinawa prefectural government since 1895. Expression of intention to keep possession, even if not explicit, may be inferred through the peaceful and continuous display of state authority with regard to the land in question.
The exercise of sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands by Japan since 1895 fully met the prerequisites of “effective occupation”, or its extension “peaceful and continuous display of functions by a state.”
The Senkaku Islands were incorporated into Okinawa Prefecture in 1895 and designated as a state-owned land. In June of the same year, Koga, a resident of Okinawa, applied for the lease of the land, and approval was granted the following year. After receiving approval, Koga began full-scale development of the Senkaku Islands, sending immigrants to the islands every year, building homes and workshops, collecting albatross feathers and guano, producing canned foods from shark fins and sea birds, processing seashells and turtle shells, collecting coral, and producing dried bonito.
The fact that the Meiji government gave approval concerning the use of this state-owned land to a private citizen, who in turn was authorized to exclusively use the land and run these businesses, demonstrates Japan’s effective control of the islands.
In addition, Japan has since 1895 conducted a variety of sovereign acts for the islands, such as designating them as state-owned land and registering them in the national land ledger, setting lot numbers, leasing and subsequently selling the islands to a private citizen, levying taxes on the owner, conducting land surveys and preparing scale maps through the Okinawa prefectural government’s hydrographic and forestry offices, dispatching officials from the state and the prefectural governments to the islands for various purposes, undertaking field surveys for exploration of resources or academic purposes under approval or recommendation by the state or the prefectural government, and mobilizing police and military personnel for the rescue of people in maritime accidents.
Taking into account that the Senkaku Islands are in the distant ocean and unsuitable for residence, these facts are more than enough to prove that the islands were under effective control before World War II. (Although the exercise of sovereignty over the islands was not as active as before in the Showa era, as Koga’s development work subsided, the display of sovereignty was never suspended. In addition, there were no competitive activities for the islands by other countries.)
This section takes up the second point of contention in which I will discuss whether the Senkaku Islands were the territory of China or a terra nullius in 1895 in accordance with international law. Needless to say, this point (should it be legally possible for China and Taiwan to contend for sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands as of 1971) is legally a vitally important issue.
(i) A book written by Chen Kan, a Chinese envoy dispatched to the Ryukyu Islands in 1534, under the title “Shiryukyuroku” (record of the imperial mission to Ryukyu) is the first Chinese work that refers to the Senkaku Islands. According to the book, Chen Kan and other members of the mission sailed out from Fuzhou, Fujian Province, in May 1534 (13th year of the Jiajing era) for Naha. Sailing by Pengjia Shan (Hoka-sho), Chogyo-sho, Kobi-sho and Seki-sho, they “could see the Gumi Mountain (Kumejima), on the evening of the 11th day of May. This is an island belonging to Ryukyu”. “People from Ryukyu were happy to return to their country, playing drums and dancing aboard the ship,” the book says.
Taking this sentence as a clue, historian Kiyoshi Inoue and Chinese scholars conclude that the territory of Ryukyu extended to Kumejima, while Seki-sho and the other islands in the Senkaku group beyond Kumejima were the territory of China. But this conclusion is simply a distorted interpretation.
The sentence, if read with no bias, should be simply taken as stressing that Kumejima was the territory of Ryukyu. No one thought at that time that Seki-sho was the territory of China. Why the sentence referred to Kumejima as part of the territory of Ryukyu was because Chen Kan asked the Ryukyuans aboard the ship what made them so happy seeing Kumejima. In other words, Chen Kan arrived there without knowing anything about Kumejima and learned that it was part of the territory of Ryukyu when he was taught by the Ryukyuans aboard the ship.
This interpretation is also proven correct when the book says, “No Chinese have visited Ryukyu by themselves and so we decided to rely on the Ryukyuans for our round-trip voyage.”
About 50 years later (1582), Yan Congjian, a bureaucrat of the Ming Dynasty, quoted Chen Kan’s sentence almost as it was in the fourth volume, titled “Ryukyu Kingdom,” of his “Records on Journeys to Foreign Territories”. It reads,
“I saw the Gumi Mountain for the first time in the evening of the 11th day, and as I asked, I knew it was in the territory of Ryukyu.”
It is evident that the island of Taiwan was not the territory of China when Chen Kan visited Ryukyu in 1534. In addition, no one ever imagined that three islets – Kabin-sho, Menka-sho and Hoka-sho – and the Senkaku Islands far away from them were the territory of China.
The description by Chen Kan should literally be taken to mean that Kumejima was an island belonging to Ryukyu. No other interpretation should be drawn.
(ii) According to a book titled “Juhen Shiryukyuroku” (records of the imperial missions to Ryukyu) written by Guo Rulin, who visited Ryukyu in 1561 (40th year of the Jiajing era) as the first Chinese envoy after Chen Kan, the ship carrying his mission arrived at Seki-sho on the 3rd day of the leap month of March after passing by Tungchung (now the island of Dongying along the coast of Fujian Province), Shoryukyu (the northern tip of the island of Taiwan), Huangmao (probably Kobi-sho or Kubajima) and Chosho (Chogyo-sho). Guo Rulin added that Seki-sho was an island “verging on the Ryukyu region”.
As is known, this additional sentence is taken as a piece of effective historical evidence proving that the territory of China extended to Sekibi-sho (Senkaku Islands). But as the sentence merely states that Seki-sho is an island verging on the Ryukyu region, it is quite possible to interpret Seki-sho as being the furthest island within the territory of Ryukyu. This interpretation is supported by the original sentence which, while describing the ship as “passing by” all islands from Dongying to Tsuri-sho (Diao Yu), says the ship “arrived” at Seki-sho, implying that it was the destination of the voyage.
Since Taiwan was not the territory of China at that time as described above, it was impossible that islands east of it belonged to the territory of China.
In an address to the throne contained in Volume 7 of Guo Rulin’s “Sekisensanbobunshu”, the envoy stated that the ship on the visit to Ryukyu in the 40th year of the Jiajing era had “reached into the territory of Ryukyu on the 3rd day of the leap month of May” and that “the island on the border was named Seki-sho by the Ryukyuans.” Finding this description, Nozomu Ishii, an expert on Chinese literature, argues that Guo Rulin considered Seki-sho as belonging to the territory of Ryukyu. This view fundamentally overturns China’s interpretation mentioned above.
Based on these facts, the records left by the Chinese envoys offer no proof that the Senkaku Islands were the territory of China at that time.
As the Ming Dynasty struggled to deal with wako pirates almost throughout its rule, it published a variety of documents discussing countermeasures against them, and maritime defense documents including studies on Japan where they were believed to have bases. Among them, the 13-volume “Chukaizuhen” (1562 or 41st year of the Jiajing era) and the “Nihon Ikkan” (1565 or 44th year of the era) are not only outstanding as historical maritime defense documents but also contain important passages that cannot be overlooked with regard to the question of the Senkaku Islands.
Since China and Taiwan refer to the two documents as important historical evidence to prove that the Senkaku Islands were the territory of China during the Ming Dynasty, their arguments are reviewed as follows to determine whether they are accurate or not.
The first volume of the document consists of a double-page spread map “Yochizenzu” showing the territory of China at that time and a 72-page set of spread maps named “Enkai Sansazu.”
The upper part of the “Yochizenzu” shows central Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, Ryukyu, Japan, Silla and Korea from the south as areas which, separated by the China Sea, were not the territory of China. The map evidently proves that Taiwan was not included in the territory of China at that time. Furthermore, it is naturally supposed that the Senkaku Islands, located between Taiwan and Ryukyu, were not considered as part of the territory of China.
The “Enkai Sansazu” consists of province-by-province maps showing China’s entire coast exposed to attacks by the wako pirates. They are not necessarily accurate maps because they were prepared mainly to show the maritime defense system from the coast to offshore areas. As the islands drawn here are those selected as strategic points for the pirates’ entry and defense against them, Shoryukyu (Taiwan), which was apparently not the territory of China at that time, and the Senkaku Islands beyond Shoryukyu (Taiwan) are also included in the “Enkai Sansazu”.
Accordingly, the presence of the Senkaku Islands in the seventh and eighth maps for Fujian Province in the “Enkai Sansazu” does not serve as evidence that the Senkaku Islands were the territory of China at that time as claimed by Kiyoshi Inoue and Chinese scholars.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government claims that “the various small islands under review were within China’s maritime defense area (not territory) already during the Ming Dynasty.” But it offers no clear explanation as to what the “maritime defense area” means.
If it is interpreted as an area where China exercised its military power on the high seas as a protection against pirates, the sphere of actual control by the navy of the Ming Dynasty must have extended to the waters around the Senkaku Islands. Actually, however, such military control had not extended to the northern part of the island of Taiwan by the end of the Ming Dynasty. There is no historical evidence whatsoever proving that the sphere of defense of the Ming Dynasty covered the Senkaku Islands, much further from the island of Taiwan. The presence of the Senkaku Islands in the “Enkai Sansazu” offers no proof of it.
In addition, the “Chukaizuhen” makes no mention that the Ming Dynasty mobilized its navy to the Senkaku Islands. Had the sphere of defense by the Ming Dynasty extended to the Senkaku Islands, there must be records referring to it in Okinawa. But there are no such historical materials in Okinawa.
As a result, the “Chukaizuhen” proves that the Senkaku Islands were neither the territory of China nor within the maritime defense area of China during the Ming Dynasty as a historical fact.
Zheng Shungong states in the first volume – “Banri Choka” – in the third section titled “Fukai Zukei” of his “Nihon Ikkan” that “Chogyo-sho is a small island of Shoto.” China takes this description as a piece of important evidence to prove that the Senkaku Islands were historically the territory of China. But such an interpretation of the Banri Choka is inaccurate and is an illogical argument in disregard of a historical fact.
As a historical fact, it must be pointed out that the island of Penghu and the island of Taiwan were not the territory of China at that time. During the Yuan Dynasty, the island of Penghu belonged to Tongan Prefecture in Fujian Province as government officials were stationed there. But the island of Penghu was abandoned during the Ming Dynasty because, suffering from pirate attacks, the dynasty had imposed a maritime ban, prohibiting its people from going to sea and ordering them to relinquish isolated islands.
In 1372 (21st year of the Hongwu era), the Ming Dynasty used its military power to have residents on the island of Penghu move to the mainland of China and left the island deserted by discontinuing the stationing of government officials. This kind of situation continued almost throughout the Ming Dynasty.
There is no evidence to prove, accordingly, that China extended its sphere of control to the island of Penghu during the days when the “Nihon Ikkan” was written (in the 1560s).
Taiwan had been under no control of any state until the middle of the 16th century. It was placed in the territory of China in 1684 (23rd year of the Kangxi era), according to all of the Chinese local documents including the Taiwan Fushi authorized by the Qing Dynasty. Official documents of China after World War II also endorsed this historical fact.
Given this fact, it is apparent that neither the island of Taiwan nor the island of Penghu was the territory of China when the “Nihon Ikkan” was written. Hence,even if the reference to Chogyo-sho as “a small island belonging to the island of Taiwan” is accepted, it does not prove that Chogyo-sho (Senkaku Islands) was the territory of China at that time.
How should the reference be interpreted? A close analysis of the context before and after it shows that the term “Shoto” did not mean “Shoryukyu” (Taiwan).
Zheng Shungong clearly stated the island of Taiwan as “Shoto Island” or “the island of Shoto.” This is evident from the passage of the author, Zheng Shungong: “Shoto Island is Shoryukyu (Taiwan)”. As a piece of collateral evidence, furthermore, he described a small island belonging to the island of Taiwan as “Keirozan of Shoto Island.”
In addition, Zheng Shungong said in a footnote for the reference under review: “I think this sea island (Shoto Island) exists in the sea lying in front (east, in other words) of the coast of China from Quanzhou to the Yung-ning guard station. The island of Penghu is on the way to the sea island, and Dairyukyu and Japan form a row of existence northeast of this island of Shoto. The region of Shoto has the mount of Keiro (today’s Kiryu-sho). The mountain is a stone crest higher than surrounding mountains and has fresh water flowing out of its middle.” (underlined by the present writer)
The island of Shoto is interpreted as the “island in Shoto” and there should be no other interpretation. This example clearly shows that the marine area in the region of Shoto was described with the term “Shoto”, and that the passage “the island of Shoto” represented the island in that area, namely the island of Taiwan.
So which marine area is Shoto? Regarding the location of Shoto Island (Taiwan), the sentence says, as we have seen, “This sea island (Shoto Island) exists in the sea lying in front (east, in other words) of the coast of China from Quanzhou to the Yung-ning guard station” (this writer’s paraphrase). In the subsequent sentence, the sea island floating in the marine area was called “the island of Shoto”.
In view of this context, it is evident that “Shoto” points to the marine area lying in front of the coast of China from Quanzhou to the Yung-ning guard station. (“Shoto” – literally meaning “little east” – is considered to indicate a relatively short-distance marine area east of the coast of China.)
A different footnote to the “Banri Choka” says, “The island of Penghu is in the Quan sea (sea of Quanzhou, namely the coastal area of China) and then, “Chogyo-sho is a small island of Shoto (possibly marine area).” The footnote continues, “Netsukabe (possibly Iheya), Yumeka (possibly Kakeroma) and Ora (possibly Oshima) are all the names of sea islands existing in Ryukyuyo.”
In other words, the marine area between Quan sea and Ryukyuyo is the “Shoto”. Specifically, “Shoto” is considered to have indicated the marine area which extends northeasterly from Taiwan toward Chogyo-sho, Kobi-sho and Sekibi-sho of the Senkaku Islands, passing by three small islands – Kabin-sho, Menka-sho and Hoka-sho. [For Zheng Shungong, having ample information from Japan, the marine area was Shoto or Shotoyo (the Pacific region along the archipelagic arc extending from the Japanese archipelago to the area close to Taiwan via the Okinawa archipelago). It is a concept compared with Daitoyo (central part of the Pacific), Shoseiyo (Indian Ocean) and Taiseiyo (the Atlantic as it is now).]
According to Zheng Shungong’s terminology, the big island, namely “Shoto Island”, in the sea area of Shoto is the island of Taiwan and the small island floating in the marine area, namely the Shoto-shosho, is Chogyo-sho.
Considering the above, the following can be said in conclusion. Chinese advocates uniformly take the “Nihon Ikkan” reference: “Chogyo-sho is a small island in Shoto” as meaning that “Chogyo-sho is a small island belonging to the island of Taiwan.” As discussed, this interpretation should be regarded as a rude understanding based on complete ignorance of the author’s terminology.
The sentence under review was probably added to explain that Chogyo-sho, known as a landmark for voyages at that time, was “a small island floating in the marine area of Shoto.” It is therefore natural and correct to read it as meaning that “Chogyo-sho is a small island in the sea of Shoto (Shotoyo).”
Lastly, China’s assertion in terms of international law is briefly analyzed here. The question is whether it is equivalent to “discovery” – as defined by international law – that Chen Kan saw the Senkaku Islands from a distance during a sea voyage to Ryukyu as an envoy of the Ming Dynasty in 1534 and wrote down the name of the island group in Chinese in an official document.
It should be noted, first of all, that none of the envoy records of Chen Kan and subsequent envoys showed the intention of China whatsoever to possess the Senkaku Islands’. The island group was given importance as a landmark for voyages and was named for that purpose.
Chen Kan is conjectured to have learned the name of the island group from Ryukyuan officials and pilots who boarded his ship to escort him, and translated it into Chinese for entry into his report.
The fleet of two ships of the Chen Kan envoy carried the welcoming officials dispatched by the king of Ryukyu, and 30 Ryukyuan seamen including the pilots handling a mariner’s compass and those seamen familiar with the sea route between Fujian and Ryukyu.
As Chen Kan was very worried that sailors from Fujian knew nothing about the sea route, he was so pleased with the Ryukyuan seamen on board that he totally relied on them, asked them about the name of each island used as a landmark on the route, and recorded the names. (This is why different Chinese characters were used to describe the name of each island in the Senkaku group in reports of the early envoys.)
The assertion that Chen Kan “discovered” the Senkaku Islands, therefore, is nothing but a speculation.
The islands drew attention merely as landmarks, and the envoys saw the islands from a relatively far distance during sea voyages. They never approached the islands and searched around them with the intention to possess them, neither landed, nor proclaimed that those islands were the territory of China, nor made any symbolic act for annexation.
Undoubtedly, Ryukyuans had long sailed by the Senkaku Islands and observed them from their ships. The problem is merely that such activities of Ryukyuans at that time cannot be proven directly by documents due to the absence of writings about them left in Ryukyu.
When the Ming Dynasty started, official relations between Ming China and Ryukyu officially started. According to historical materials available from that time, ships from Ryukyu (all belonging to the office of the king) are confirmed to have observed the Senkaku Islands from much earlier days and in an overwhelming number in comparison with Chinese ships (all official vessels as well).
According to data available in the diplomatic history document “Rekidai Hoan” (precious documents of successive generations) authorized by the office of the king of Ryukyu, a total of 441 ships from the Kingdom of Ryukyu are confirmed to have sailed by the Senkaku Islands in the 162 years between 1372 (when official relations between China and Ryukyu started) and 1534 (when Chen Kan visited Ryukyu). The number broke down into 349 official ships bound for Ming China (for trade or dispatch of officials) and 92 official ships for trade with southern countries.
In contrast, only 21 Chinese ships (official ships of the Ming Dynasty) were sent to Ryukyu during the period.
The “Rekidai Hoan” and other historical documents confirm that such sailing of ships from the Kingdom of Ryukyu started in 1372 when official relations between Ming China and Ryukyu began, while the Chen Kan’s voyage to Ryukyu in 1534 was the first time for China to send official vessels to Ryukyu ‘according to his report.
Given these facts, China’s proposition that Chen Kan was the first to “discover” the Senkaku Islands is absolutely unfounded.
Meanwhile, it is now an accepted notion in academic circles that the “Junpu Soso”, a voyage book written during the Ming Dynasty, was compiled in the current form in the last phase of the dynasty in the 1570s (pages 210 and 305 to 306 in Kyoko Takase’s “Asia no Umi no Koryukyu – Tonan Asia/Chosen/Chugoku,” Old Ryukyu in the Sea of Asia – Southeast Asia, Korea and China, published by Youju Shorin in 2009). Accordingly, it is wrong to refer to the book as historical material that is older than Chen Kan’s report and that proves China’s “discovery” of the Senkaku Islands.
In light of the above-mentioned facts, China’s assertion that it acquired sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands because of its “discovery” in 1534 does not stand up at all.
In addition, it can be said with absolute certainty that China exercised no effective control whatsoever over the Senkaku Islands during the Ming Dynasty (and the Qing Dynasty). This point will be taken up later together with Ryukyu’s exercise of control.
Historical documents in the Ming Dynasty, as confirmed by the analysis in the preceding section, prove that “the Senkaku Islands were not the territory of China during the Ming Dynasty.”
As a supplementary point, a fatally important element when it comes to considering the legal status of the Senkaku Islands during the Ming Dynasty is the need to take into account an undeniable historical fact that the island of Taiwan was not the territory of China during the Ming Dynasty. On the basis of this condition, it could never be possible that the Senkaku Islands much farther from the island of Taiwan were the territory of China at that time. Besides, it could never be logically reasonable that the Senkaku Islands, a group of solitary islands far off in the ocean (for people at that time), formed enclaves of the Fujian Province of the mainland China much farther from Taiwan, or that they were under the direct control of the Chinese central government (the Ming Dynasty).
Many of China’s assertions are extremely rude because they brush this point aside and state that the Senkaku Islands were or became the territory of China during the Ming Dynasty, merely stating that the Senkaku Islands were mentioned in voyage reports by Chen Kan and others.
But an assertion by Mr. Han-Yi Shaw, a shrewd emerging scholar in Taiwan, is the sole exception that deserves attention. As pointed out by the present writer, Mr. Shaw admits that Taiwan did not belong to China during the Ming Dynasty. Based on this fact he also unhesitatingly admits that the Senkaku Islands were not the territory of China during the Ming Dynasty.
Nevertheless, Mr. Shaw then says that the Senkaku Islands “automatically” became the territory of China when Taiwan was officially annexed by China in 1684 during the Qing Dynasty – a unique argument by Mr. Shaw but an unacceptable one.
The key point in determining whether Mr. Shaw’s assertion is correct or not is, of course, the passage in the “Nihon Ikkan” reciting “Chogyo-sho is a small island in Shoto.” Based on this passage, Mr. Shaw argues that the Senkaku Islands were geographically, though not legally or politically, recognized as part of Taiwan in the 1560s.
But Mr. Shaw’s interpretation of the passage, if understood in the context of the “Banri Choka” of “Nihon Ikkan” as previously mentioned in detail, is wrong. In any event, it is impossible to consider that an islet in the sea as far as 170 kilometers away from Taiwan was regarded as geographically belonging to the territory of Taiwan in the days when it did not belong to China yet and when even its presence was little known.
Accordingly, from the passage that “Chogyo-sho is a small island in Shoto,” it is by no means possible to draw a conclusion that “the Senkaku Islands are islets belonging to the territory of Taiwan.”
Let us briefly review a Chinese historical material in the Qing Dynasty quoted by Mr. Shaw in his argument.
Wang Ji visited Ryukyu in June 1683 (22nd year of the Kangxi era) as the second envoy dispatched by the Qing Dynasty to Ryukyu (it was one year before the Qing Dynasty officially annexed Taiwan and when the navy of the dynasty was about to cross the Taiwan Strait in full force in a bid to conquer the Deng regime continuing resistance in Penghu and Taiwan).
The fifth volume titled “Shin-i” in Wang Ji’s “Shiryukyu Zatsuroku” says that he saw the island on the morning of the 25th day of the month after his ship passed by Hokazan and Chogyo-sho on the way to Ryukyu, reaching Seki-sho (Sekibi-sho) before seeing Kobi-sho.
The ship passed by ko – literally meaning skirt (or another kanji character also read as ko that literally means abyss) – in the evening under stormy weather. A ritual to calm the sea was solemnly held.
“What does ko mean?” Wang Ji asked someone aboard the ship, who replied, “It means a border between the inside and outside.” Wang Ji then asked, “How do you tell the border?” “Just guessing,” was the reply. “We are just there, and my answer is not a shot in the dark at all. We could sail through here safely by making a grand offer to the god of the sea and showing a dignified military ship.”
As this voyage report uses the word ko for the black tide (kuroshio current), which the envoy’s ship crossed before entering the waters near Ryukyu, as a “border between the inside and outside,” the Chinese side frequently quoted it as a piece of evidence to prove that the territory of China extended to Sekibi-sho on the grounds that the black tide was a natural border between China and Ryukyu.
But there are a number of questions about this interpretation.
First, the definition of ko as a “border between the inside and outside” was not made by Wang Ji, the Qing Dynasty’s official envoy. He merely wrote down what he heard from someone aboard his ship (whose name and title are unknown, let alone whether he was Chinese or Ryukyuan). In addition, the information appeared new to Wang Ji who did not seem satisfied with the answer and he repeated the question over and over again.
The explanation was also very vague. If the recognition of Sekibi-sho as the territory of China were established at that time, there should have been no such answer as “Just guessing.” The seaman should have given a more clear and sufficient explanation :”Because Sekibi-sho is the border with Ryukyu.”
Taking these things into account, the “border between the inside and outside” is recognized as an extremely vague rhetorical expression, compared with such expressions as “border of Japan,” “southwest end of Ryukyu”, “border between Minhai and Zhejiang” and “land belonging to the Kingdom of Ryukyu” in other envoys’ reports.
Wang Ji’s greatest interest at that time was not where the border was but rather the safe passage of his ship through the most difficult part in the voyage under divine assistance (ritual to calm the sea). This episode, therefore, is in the volume of “Shin-i” (divine inspiration). In particular, it should be noted that the abstract expression of “border between the inside and outside” regarding a marine area can hardly be considered to be crucial in determining where an island belongs.
Secondly, it is important that the “border between the inside and outside” is related to a marine area. Wang Ji did not directly point to Sekibi-sho or other islets as the “border between the inside and outside” but said the marine area he reached after a voyage of around 10 hours from Sekibi-sho was ko – namely the “border between the inside and outside.” Having heard of it from someone, Wang Ji naturally wondered what it meant. Ko was not a land area but a body of water between China and Ryukyu where currents of the sea were violently changing and where rituals to calm the sea were regularly held. This was the “border between the inside and outside.”
In other words, the “border between the inside and outside” divided the inner and outer seas. The nearer side of the border is understood to be the inside (green sea unique to shallow waters familiar to Chinese people) and beyond the border is the outside (deep-blue high sea).
The term ko (skirt) or another character ko (abyss) represents the black tide but its location was not specified. As in the days of Wang Ji, it is impossible to locate the black tide when the weather is fine and the wind is favorable. Such a vague concept ko can never be the crucial factor to determine where an island belongs. (There is an envoy’s voyage report saying a ritual to calm the sea was held before Sekibi-sho.)
In Okinawa, neither the king nor the general public thought that a black tide was a demarcation line of territory between China and Ryukyu.
Actually, as is discussed later, there are more documents among the Chinese historical documents of the Qing Dynasty that are supposed to geographically treat the islands of the Senkaku group including Sekibi-sho as within the area of the Ryukyu Islands.
It is therefore extremely difficult to draw a conclusion from the rhetorical expression in the volume of “Shin-i” in Wang Ji’s report that a body of water on the way from Sekibi-sho to Kumejima was generally recognized as a border between China and Ryukyu at that time.
Thirdly, the expression of a “border between the inside and outside” is found in no other volume. In the second volume titled “Kyoiki” the expression is not used, while Ryukyu is said to “exist in the big ocean immeasurably far way from China.” It is difficult to match this explanation with the description that a marine area just before reaching Ryukyu is the “border between the inside and outside.” Needless to say, the reference in the “Kyoiki” should possibly be given priority over that in the “Shin-i.”
In addition, ko (skirt) and “border between the inside and outside” were used only by Wang Ji and all reports by subsequent envoys adopted the expression of ko (abyss) (or kokusui ko – black water abyss). The expression of “border between the inside and outside” was found in no subsequent envoy reports.
If the Chinese had truly believed in the presence of a China-Ryukyu border between Sekibi-sho and Kumejima, there must have been some reference to the “border between the inside and outside” in paragraphs related to the (kokusui) ko of the subsequent envoy reports.
But the fifth volume of the “Ryukyu Koku Shiryaku” (1759) – concise history of the Kingdom of Ryukyu – written by Zhou Huang, deputy to the second envoy after Wang Ji, says, “The sea west of Ryukyu is separated by kokusui-ko which is a border with Minhai.” This expression, though often quoted by the Chinese side, is extremely inaccurate because Minhai was the coastal area of Fujian Province. In other words, the description of Minhai extending to the black tide in the sea west of Okinawa is an excessive exaggeration. (The 15th volume of Zhou Huang’s “Shiryaku” contains a poem, “Songs for 36-Island Map of Ryukyu,” by Xu Baoguang, which includes a passage saying that the islands of “Ryukyu are dotted in the sea of Minhai.” The expression by Zhou Huang was as much exaggerated as this poem).
Accordingly, a rule-of-thumb expression of this kind (regarding a marine area), like Wang Ji’s “border between the inside and outside,” cannot be taken to draw an important legal and political conclusion that the territory of China extended to Sekibi-sho.
By the way, Li Dingyuan, deputy to the envoy after Zhou Huang, bitterly criticizes Zhou Huang’s report in his “Shiryukyu-ki” (1802). Li says that a guest (one of the litterateurs accompanying the envoy) asked him one day, “Although there is a kokusui-ko west of Ryukyu which is said to be the border with China’s Minhai, Ryukyuans don’t know it. And our voyage this time did not cross it. Why?”
Li replied, “Lots of people sail but only a few of them write books. Fewer people sit on the captain’s chair and keep writing what they hear and see every day without getting seasick after going on board. If a person says one thing, others say the same thing. How can we accept hearsay as it is? Ryukyuans crossed the sea every year and say they don’t know about the koku (black)-ko. Then it means that there is no koku-ko.”
In the early 19th century, Li thus flatly refused to accept the description of ko as being “a marine border between China and Ryukyu” by Wang Ji and Zhou Huang, saying it was “nothing but a rumor because Ryukyuans who cross the sea every year don’t know it and we haven’t experienced it.”
Treating the black tide west of Kumejima as ko or koku (sui)-ko, rituals for safe voyages by calming the god of the sea seem to have been regularly conducted aboard envoy ships both on their way to and from Ryukyu. But it is fair to say that the recognition of the tide as a border between China and Ryukyu “between the inside and outside” had not been established at all.
Furthermore, an important testimony was left by Zhao Xin, China’s last envoy to Ryukyu, in his “Zoku (sequel) Ryukyukoku Shiryaku” (1882). While the record book refers to the routes taken by Lin Hongnian, Zhao Xin’s predecessor, when he visited Ryukyu in 1838 (18th year of the Daoguang era) and by Zhao Xin in 1866 (5th year of the Tongzhi era), the Ryukyuan names of “Kubajima” and “Kumeakashima” are used to describe both routes, replacing the Chinese names of Kobi-sho and Sekibi-sho used in the books written by envoys before them. Specifically, the islands were described as “Uotsuriyama,” “Kubajima,” “Kumeakashima” and “Kumejima (for Kumeyama as described by Zhao Xin)” in this order.
While the island names were probably written down after hearing them from Ryukyuan seamen, the two last envoys adopted the Ryukyuan names, an important indication that they did not recognize the islands as the territory of China.
The first volume, “Shinro,” of this famous record book, which quotes the “Shinro Joki” from the “Shinan Kogi” (1708) written by Tei Junsoku of Ryukyu, says, “Kumejima is Chinzan on the southwestern border of Ryukyu,” as an explanatory note on Kumejima.
The note of the “Ryukyu Seinanpokaijo Chinzan” was probably written by Xu Baoguang as enlightened by “Prime Minister” Sai On of Ryukyu, an expert on geomancy. The description is taken to mean that Kumejima, seen from Naha, is located on the southwestern border of the land inhabited by people under the kingdom’s dominion and serves as the main mountain, namely Chinzan, to protect the principal capital.
In other words, the passage is based on the concept of good and bad omens about the location of the capital city and it is fair to say that there was no notion whatsoever of Kumejima being a border between Ryukyu and China in a political sense.
Xu Baoguang was fully aware that Yonaguni Island in Yaeyama was geographically Ryukyu’s southwestern border and accurately described Yaeyama as “Ryukyu’s south-westernmost border” (in the fourth volume titled “36 Islands in Ryukyu”).
Therefore, the description, as in the case of Chen Kan’s “an island belonging to Ryukyu” and Guo Rulin’s “border of Ryukyu,” clarifies that Kumejima is the edge of the land inhabited by Ryukyuans in the territory of the Kingdom of Ryukyu. While Chogyo-dai, Kobi-sho and Sekibi-sho on the nearer side are now conjectured not to have been a domain inhabited by Ryukyuans, there were no further descriptions.
Now, what was mentioned above in this essay about the writings by Chen Kan and Guo Rulin can directly apply to this passage “Ryukyu Seinanpokaijo Chinzan”. In short, this passage cannot be a piece of historical evidence to prove that the Senkaku Islands were the territory of China at that time.
This book was written by Huang Shujing, who was dispatched by the Qing government for an inspection tour to Taiwan in 1722, to record what he saw and heard there. The second volume of the book has a section referring to the feasibility of ships’ entrance, anchorage and exit at ports along the coast of Taiwan in the water route for the Qing naval ships. While many ports are enumerated, all of them are on the west coast of the island of Taiwan which was included in China’s maps and inhabited by Han Chinese.
Regarding the east costal area of Taiwan which was under the control of indigenous people and beyond the sphere of governance by China (the area was called “Sango” in the sense that it was behind the central mountain chain), only Setsuharan of Suko (the port of Hualian in the central part of the east coast) is mentioned.
The controversial passage about Chogyo-dai comes together with the term “Sango”: “There is an island in the ocean north of the east coast of Taiwan, which is called Diaoyu-tai (Chogyo-dai) and where more than 10 big ships can anchor.” (The same sentence is found in the “Taiwan Fushi” (or “Taiwan Shiryaku”) subsequently compiled by Fan Xian, Yu Wenyi, Li Yuanchun and others as well as in the “Fukken (Fujian) Tsushi” by Zheng Ruozeng, although the “Fukken Tsushi” uses such an exaggerated expression as to say that Chogyo-sho is capable of giving anchor to 1,000 big ships.)
China has persistently used this passage as a piece of powerful evidence that the Senkaku Islands were islets belonging to the territory of Taiwan at that time and were under effective control by China. But the present writer has grave doubts over whether the passage can be interpreted in such a way for the following reasons.
First of all, it is hardly conceivable that Chogyo-sho of the Senkaku group of islands had a port that could give anchor to 10 big ships. The Senkaku Islands are located 170 kilometers from Xiao-Jilong (the port of Keelung), and were regarded as a group of islands far off in the ocean at that time. It was difficult to land on the islands due to surrounding stormy waters. It is unthinkable that the Qing navy patrolled the islands, not to mention conducting field surveys. It is not possible to believe a story that there was a port capable of giving anchor to more than 10 big ships.
For one thing, it is unthinkable that there was any military need for the Qing navy to sail all the way to Chogyo-sho in the Senkaku group of islands to patrol there. The islands were absolutely uninhabited and there was no immigration of Han Chinese.
From the viewpoint of defense, it is also inconceivable that there was any need to patrol in the northeastern direction up to the islands of Okinawa at that time. Was there any reason for the Qing navy to patrol the Senkaku Islands so far from Taiwan, whose eastern half had yet to be brought under the control of the dynasty?
Taiwan Fu (or prefecture) – subsequently Taiwan Sho (or province) – which was under the control of the Qing Dynasty paid no attention to islets north of the island of Taiwan but was exclusively interested in developing the main island of Taiwan and expanding its effective control of the island. The island arc (Hanka Islands and Senkaku Islands) ahead of the three islets near the port of Keelong – Kabin, Menka and Hoka – had been persistently treated as those dotted in the marine area between the mainland of China and the islands of Okinawa and regarded as having nothing to do with Taiwan Prefecture.
The “Taikaishisaroku” says Chogyo-sho is in the north off the east coast of Taiwan. By the way, Sakishima islands of Okinawa (including Ishigaki and Yonaguni islands) are located directly east of the east coast of Taiwan, and Chogyo-sho of the Senkaku Islands east-northeast of Taiwan. But the entire Senkaku group of islands up to Sekibi-sho should be considered located east of the east coast of Taiwan.
Menka-sho is the first island seen directly north of the east coast of Taiwan. According to geography books, the coast of Menka-sho is surrounded by steep cliffs and the island is up to 55 meters above sea level. Menka-sho is thus not unmatched with the description of its having a port “that can give anchor to more than 10 big ships.”
The present writer considers that Huang Shujing probably assumed Menka-sho to be Chogyo-sho.
As previously mentioned, the “Chukaizuhen” (1562) written in the late Ming era points to “Chogyo-sho” being in the place where Menka-sho should be and thus the name “Menka-sho” is not found. This was carried forward to marine defense maps made by such writers as Mao Yuanyi and Shi Yongtu at the end of the Ming era. Furthermore, it is said that “Chogyo-sho” mentioned in “Banri Choka” of the “Nihon Ikkan” (1565) may actually be “Hoka-sho” in light of the context before and after the term “Chogyo-sho”.
As such, there are enough passages suggesting that people in China’s Fujian Province and Taiwan from the closing days of the Ming era to the Qing period regarded Menka-sho (or Hoka-sho) near the island of Taiwan as Chogyo-sho.
What comes to mind in this connection is the fact that there are places called “Diaoyu-tai” (Chogyo-dai) and “Diaoyu-yu (Chogyo-sho) in various parts of China. As pointed out by historians, Chinese seamen at that time, when they sailed to various places, gave islands that served as important target locations on their voyages easy-to-understand Chinese names of their choice based on their configurations, regardless of what they were called by local people.
It is therefore premature to rush to the conclusion that an island named “Diaoyu-yu” in historical materials is, no doubt, “Diaoyu-yu” (Uotsuri Island) of the Senkaku group of islands.
As a result, the conclusion here is that no historical documents in the Qing era offer direct evidence proving that “the Senkaku Islands became the territory of China in the Qing era.” Even if passages quoted from the documents are seen as indirect, suggestive evidence, they are hardly persuasive as they are ambiguous and highly metaphoric.
In connection with this, there is no confirmation that the Senkaku Islands were recognized by China (as a state) or in general as islands belonging to the territory of Taiwan throughout the Qing era.
China (as a state), as a unified empire since ancient times, had been sensitive to the sphere and boundary of its domain and clearly stated in local documents whenever it incorporated an area to its area of control (by way of, for example, mentioning “addition to the map in” a certain year). In addition, documents, maps and nautical charts made by China, Ryukyu (Japan) and Westerners include much more material (data) fully indicating that the Senkaku Islands were geologically treated as part of the Ryukyu Islands in the 19th century.
Though limiting this analysis to Chinese historical documents due to a lack of space here, it can certainly be said, at least, that “the Senkaku Islands had neither become the territory of China throughout the Ming and Qing eras nor had been regarded, by China (as a state) or in general, as islands belonging to the territory of Taiwan during those eras.”
Through these studies, it can also certainly be said, at least, that the Senkaku Islands were terra nullius, as defined by international law, as of 1895 (or 1885, to be more accurate). (The expression “at least” is used here as it would be fair to say that Japan, which inherited the status of Ryukyu, historically acquired the legal status for rightful occupation and/or effective control of the Senkaku Islands as of 1885.)
In conclusion to this essay: “Japan has established its territorial rights over the Senkaku Islands through deeds conducted up until its Cabinet decision in 1895, a series of actions after 1895, and the absence of protests by China and other countries for a long period of time, and this status has remained unchanged since the end of World War II.”
(Regarding the third point of contention mentioned in the opening part of this essay, it may be unnecessary to discuss it again because sufficient references have been made between the lines. Just for confirmation, however, it will be briefly discussed in a separate article.)
Translation of an article written exclusively for Discuss Japan–Japan Foreign Policy Forum.