If you took an actual pin and pressed it into a world map, the hole it would make would dwarf the size of the tiny speck of an island of Ishigaki in the East China Sea.
The lush paradise is 88 square miles of jungle and white sand beaches. It’s 150 miles off the coast of Taiwan, and although it’s part of Japan, it’s 1,000 miles away from Tokyo. It’s surrounded by coral reef and turquoise water – making it one of the best diving spots in Asia.
Tour operator Anichi Miyazato prepares a group of foreign tourists for a dive. In the distance, a fleet of Japanese coast guard ships loom over fishing and tour boats in Ishigaki’s tiny harbor. They’re here to patrol a chain of islands the Japanese call the Senkaku – and the Chinese call the Diaoyu – just 100 miles away.
“We have to protect our nation, our land, our ocean,” says Miyazato when asked about the dispute. “Please go away, Chinese military!”
But it seems the Chinese military is here to stay. Just two weeks ago, a Chinese fighter jet flew less than 100 feet away from Japanese air force jets above the disputed islands. Late last year, China’s government declared the airspace over the islands as its exclusive area to protect, requiring other aircraft to identify themselves.
The U.S. responded by flying two B-52 bombers through the area, unannounced.
Below, among the sugar cane fields and palm trees of Ishigaki island, tour operators watched the escalation, worried about how it would impact their business, and wondering when the first shot would be fired.
“Personally, I think it’s inevitable,” says tour operator Mike Quinn, one of the few Americans on the island. “The first time a missile is fired or the Chinese overrun the Senkaku islands, a lot of tours are going to be canceled, it’s going to affect the bottom line, big time.”
For tiny Ishigaki, it’s the ultimate China conundrum — bracing for an invasion by China’s military while courting an invasion of Chinese tourists.
Ishigaki’s bustling new airport — complete with runways that can accommodate jumbo jets — just opened last year. There are already flights to and from Taiwan. As of now, Ishigaki isn’t on the radar of the world’s fastest growing tourist population in mainland China. But Hirohito Kakazu, who plans tourism for the island’s government, would like to change that.
“Japan’s population is shrinking and domestic tourism to the island will decline,” says Kakazu, “so we need to develop tourism from elsewhere — that’s why we built a new airport.”
Kakazu is working on establishing routes from mainland China. A charter flight from Shanghai is planned for the fall.
“If there were a plane from Shanghai, it would only take a couple of hours and then suddenly you’re surrounded by nature, fresh air, you can catch and eat fresh fish, and you’ve got some of the best diving in the world,” says Ichiro Ohama, president of the local entrepreneur’s club. “These are things you can’t find in China — and it’s just two hours away!”
It’s that proximity to China that has defined local attitudes in Ishigaki. Older residents who were born here see China as an old friend — the island is part of Okinawa, known to many here as the Ryukyu islands, which has maintained close historical and cultural connections with China.
Shigeo Arakaki owns a noodle shop on the island — he’s a retired assistant to a member of Japan’s parliament. He’d like to see a more diplomatic approach to resolving the dispute.
“I think Japan and China should explore how to jointly develop the islands rather than fight over them,” he says over a cup of tea.
At the moment, this solution doesn’t look likely.
“China is becoming more aggressive and they’re invading our territory,” says Ishigaki mayor Yoshitaka Nakayama. “These are Japan’s islands, and by international law, that’s a fact. This is non-negotiable.”
Japan’s government is considering the construction of a military base on Ishigaki, and it’s hired local fishing boats to help patrol the disputed islands and ward off Chinese vessels. Still, back on his boat over a coral reef, diving tour operator Anichi Miyazaki says sharing the islands might not be such a bad idea.
China and Japan could combine forces to build something on those uninhabited rocks that would attract tourists. Maybe a theme park?
“I don’t know… Disneyland?” asks Miyazaki, breaking down into giggles. Miyazaki says everyone on this island is a businessman — and war is never good for business.