As well as the four main islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, Japan is comprised of a further 6,848 smaller islands and islets along its archipelago. However, in recent months, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced that a further 273 uninhabited islands have been absorbed into Japanese ownership, along with any fish stocks and/or natural gas stores which may be contained within their waters. ‘Many of the “islands” – some are tiny and little more than a few rocks sticking above the sea – were already identified, but this confirms their legal status and Japan’s commitment to defending them as sovereign territory,’ says Ra Mason, Lecturer in International Relations and Japanese Foreign Policy at the University of East Anglia.
‘Essentially, the designation of 273 new islands is all about facing up to Chinese “expansionism”,’ he explains, ‘which is currently not as expansionist as is being portrayed in certain sections of the Japanese and Western media. This action should be understood in the context of the Abe administration’s broader policy shift towards a more muscular and assertive role in the sphere of international security.’ He points out that the heavily armed Japanese Coast Guard is being used assertively to patrol waters as far afield as the Gulf of Aden and Straits of Malacca. ‘As such, the designation of these islands acts as a further justification to expand and maximise the Coast Guard’s roles, range and reach in and around Japan, with an obvious eye to defending land outcrops close to or within disputed territories.’
Japan is not the only Asian nation keen to expand its geographical reach within the region, as the ongoing disputes over the Spratly and Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands make quite clear. The Philippines, for example, has recently adopted the same tactic, with the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority announcing last year that the country possessed a total of 7,641 islands, 534 more than had previously been recorded.
This was published in the July 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.