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Amity, not always enmity

By Warren Reed - posted Thursday, 18 October 2012


Putting aside the politics surrounding the current Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute between China and Japan, here's a warming story from the not too distant past.

In November, 1919, a Chinese fishing boat from Fujian Province – 15.6 metres long, with a beam of 5.4 metres and powered by sail, rather than an engine – was fishing in Japanese waters off the Senkaku Islands. Thirty-one men were aboard, mainly from the one family, with the eldest aged 60 and quite a few youngsters aged between 11-16. A typhoon struck, seriously damaging the vessel, and to save it the crew had to cut the mast away to avoid capsizing. The storm raged for more than a month, with the crew tossed about by the wind and waves and drifting helplessly as they attempted to repair the boat. In late December, with no improvement in the weather they found themselves again within sight of the Senkaku Islands but unfortunately their boat was so badly damaged that it sank. The crew managed to save themselves by taking to three small dinghies they had on board.

They carefully made their way to the Islands, where Japanese fishermen from the settlement there spotted them on December 26 and helped bring them ashore. They were looked after by the Japanese and their health and spirits restored until the storm finally abated on January 10, 1920. As a result of this, no lives were lost. The leader of the Japanese settlement then took them in his fishing vessel to Ishigaki Island, which is part of the Japanese island chain that stretches all the way from southern Kyushu to Formosa – now Taiwan but then Japanese territory. Ishigaki City was the administrative headquarters of the County of Yaeyama of which the Senkaku Islands were part, and was the centre of activity in the southern region of the Prefecture of Okinawa that governed the overall island chain from Naha, the capital. Resident in Ishigaki City was a woman of Japanese and White Russian extraction – Matsuba Rovnost – who spoke Chinese and helped with both interpreting and the translation of official documents.

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The Chinese crew stayed in the city for ten days, while their health improved, after which they were taken by the regular ferry service to the port of Keelung in Formosa. From there they were repatriated to their hometown in Fujian. There were numerous communications at the time about the rescue, between the mayor of Ishigaki and the governor of the Prefecture of Okinawa, as well as with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs in Tokyo. Also in the loop was the Chinese Consul in Nagasaki in the north-western part of Kyushu, who wrote a remarkable seven official letters of gratitude in Chinese on behalf of the Government of the Republic of China. All of the key Japanese involved in the rescue and repatriation of the crew were thanked, and all expenses incurred by the Japanese reimbursed. A gratuity was also included by the Chinese in appreciation of the assistance the Japanese had rendered.

All of the official documentation raised at the time, in both Chinese and Japanese, still exists in the archives. The letter that the Chinese Consul sent to the leader of the Japanese settlement in the Senkaku Islands was lodged by his eldest son in the Yaeyama Museum in Ishigaki City in the 1990s. There was never any dispute at the time over the fact that the Senkaku Islands were Japanese territory.

As with most international political events, there is usually an interesting human story in behind the official façade. The bond between fishermen is a powerful one and they usually help each other out first and let someone else worry about the politics later.

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About the Author

Warren Reed was an Australia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee scholar in the Law Faculty of Tokyo University in the 1970s. He later spent ten years in intelligence and was also chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. He served in Asia, the Middle East and India.

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