What constitutes an island? For the purposes of the UN Law of the Sea, a ‘naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide’. Rocks that cannot sustain human or economic life do not fall under this categorisation and thus are not legally considered to be islands. Since 2004, China has been referring to Japan’s remote Okinotorishima as a set of rocks, not islets. Why is this important? Because under the Law of the Sea, it means that Japan would not be able to claim the 400 000 km2 exclusive economic zone surrounding Okinotorishima that it does now.
Okinotorishima is a Japanese atoll located in the Philippine Sea about 1 740 km south of Tokyo, 700 km east of Okinawa, and 535 km southeast of the nearest Japanese archipelago, the Daito Islands. While visited by Spanish (who called it Parece Vela, or ‘looks like a sail’) and British ships (‘Douglass Reef’) very infrequently since the 16th century, it went unclaimed until the Japanese did so in 1931, naming it Okintorishima (‘remote bird islands’). In the aftermath of World War II, the United States controlled the island from 1945 to 1968, when it was given back to Japan.Legally, the islands are part of Ogasawara village, Tokyo.
The atoll consists of a submerged spearhead-shaped coral reef 4.5 km in length and 1.7 wide, forming a fish-rich lagoon in the middle. The contentious issue revolves around two islets/rocks that stick out of the western side of the lagoon. In 1939, this number was five, but erosion has worn away three of them to the point where they are permanently submerged.One of the two exposed parts of the reef is roughly the size of a twin bed and rises just 8 cm above the water at high tide; the other parts is the size of a small room and twice as high. Japan began responding in 1987 by encasing the remaining two barren islets/rocks in a 60 metre-diameter circle of concrete covered in a titanium net to prevent further erosion, producing an effect akin to looking down through a sewer grate to the rocks below. The concrete encasements make the islets appear entirely artificial, and conversely prevent vegetation from sticking around. A third concrete islet is entirely of human origin, built as a helicopter pad to serve a 100 x 50 metre stilted platform constructed in 1989 by the Japan Marine Science and Technology Centre (click here for pictures of both the artificial pad and of the titanium grate). The platform hosts a three-story meteorological and marine research building.
Kitakojima (Northern Islet), one of the three islets of Okinotorishima.
The artificially-created islet Minamikojima (Southern Islet) lies next to the stilted platform hosting the Japan Marine Science and Technology Centre facility.
All told, the Japanese government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on reinforcements (US$250 million on the concrete casing alone). To further cement their claims, a radar station has been installed on the research platform, and an address plaque claiming the atoll for Ogasawara village has been laid down. Fishing expeditions are sometimes sent to Okinotorishima to demonstrate its economic use.Some nationalists have even proposed growing the islets naturally via the breeding of coral and foraminifera (hardshelled microorganisms that become sand after death). The coral would be pulverised into sand by waves, while foraminifera would be lured to the atoll’s lagoon via the planting of artificial turf on the lagoon floor, upon which the creatures would feed. Over decades, their remains would pile up and form a permanent natural island.
If the landforms of Okinotorishima are considered rocks, then under the Law of the Sea, Japan is only entitled to a 12 nautical mile zone around the atoll.If they are islets, then Japan could claim an exclusive economic zone covering all of the ocean within 200 nautical miles – the 400 000 km2 zone mentioned at the top of the article. This is important for Japan since it is believed large petroleum resources exist in the region. What’s China’s stake in this issue? Okinotorishima is about halfway between Taiwan and Guam, and a potential waypoint for US warships, so China wishes to investigate the seabed for potential submarine operations in case of military conflict, which it would not be allowed to do with the region under Japanese control.
The video below is in Japanese, but even if you don’t understand Japanese, the point of the video comes across. It demonstrates the remoteness of the atoll, the plentiful aquatic life and resources, the exclusive economic zone claim, its strategic location, and, perhaps most importantly, the appearance of the actual islets/rocks encased in concrete and viewed through the grate. Islets or rocks? You make the call.
Fackler, M. (2005). Japan’s ultranationalists: Stuck between a rock and a hard sell. Wall Street Journal, 20 February 2005. Available at http://web.archive.org/web/20081013101456/http://www.cdnn.info/news/industry/i050220.html. Accessed 29 June 2011.
Japan Probe (2007). Okinotorishima…island? 10 April 2007. Available at http://www.japanprobe.com/2007/04/10/okinotorishimaisland/. Accessed 29 June 2011.
Mizokami, K. (2010). Keeping Okinotorishima above water. Japan Security Watch, 3 July 2010. Available at http://newpacificinstitute.org/jsw/?p=1746. Accessed 29 June 2011.
Tyner, C. (2010). Cultivating Okinotorishima. 28 June 2010. Available at http://colintyner.wordpress.com/2010/06/28/cultivating-okinotorishima/. Accessed 29 June 2011.
Yoshikawa, Y. (2005). Okinotorishima: Just the Tip of the Iceberg. Harvard Asian Monthly 9(4). Available at http://web.archive.org/web/20080218215631/http://www.asiaquarterly.com/content/view/29/40/. Accessed 29 June 2011.