The governor of Tokyo wants to buy them, Taiwan says it would like them back and China has made their return a national priority. But for the Kurihara family, the islands Japan knows as Senkaku are just a bit of land they would really rather sell.
“The conflict is escalating more and more,” Hiroyuki Kurihara told AFP in an interview about the islands, known in China as Diaoyu, where Japanese nationalists landed Sunday after a similar venture by pro-Beijing activists.
All 14 involved in that action were deported Friday in an apparent bid by Tokyo to head off a potentially destabilizing row with Beijing.
“We are worried that the government cannot cope with the situation over the islands,” said Kurihara.
His powerful merchant family are the legal owners of four of the five islands in the Senkakus, an archipelago some 2,000 kilometers from Tokyo but less than 200 kilometers from Taiwan.
China, Taiwan and Japan all say they are part of their territory. They are administered by Tokyo, which holds title to the fifth island and bans development on them all, not allowing anyone to land.
While Beijing claims more than five centuries of control, Tokyo says a Kyushu businessman landed on the uninhabited—and unclaimed—outcrops at the end of the 19th century.
That businessman was Tatsuhiro Koga, who set up factories there processing bonito fish and albatross feathers.
The tumult of war led to the islands being abandoned, and along with Okinawa they were put under US military control following Tokyo’s surrender at the end of World War II.
When Okinawa was handed back to Japan in 1972, the Senkakus were returned to Koga’s son Zenji.
Around that time geologists said the seabed nearby could contain large reserves of oil and gas, while Beijing and Taipei began asserting their claims.
With no heir of his own, Koga decided to sell the islands to the Kuriharas, long-time friends from the suburbs of Tokyo who ran a trading house and owned land throughout Japan.
The eldest brother Kunioki, now 70, holds the legal rights to Uotsurijima, Kitakojima and Minamikojima, which the national government leases for 25 million yen a year. A fourth island is owned by his sister and rented to the defense ministry for an undisclosed sum.
Koga made only one demand when he sold the islands to the family.
“My brother promised Mr Koga that he will never do anything to sever history,” said Hiroyuki Kurihara. “That means he won’t sell them to private entities.”
But with a potentially huge inheritance tax bill if the islands are passed on to the next generation, the Kurihara family want to sell.
Conveniently for them, the nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, earlier this year announced that his administration wanted to buy them, catching the governments of Japan and China off-guard.
He has since collected more than 1.4 billion yen in donations towards a reported purchase price of up to 2 billion yen.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda stepped into the row in June, saying the national government was also thinking about putting in a bid, provoking a frosty response from Beijing.
The Kuriharas insist their ownership of the islands is not political and they do not want to be involved in the dispute.
“It is not about guarding the islands,” Kurihara said. “All that matters to my brother is that he retains his honor as the 17th heir of the Kurihara family.”