ISHIGAKI, Japan: Japan on Friday deported pro-Beijing activists who had sailed to a disputed island, as Tokyo moved swiftly to put an end to a potentially damaging row with China.
The deportations came just 48 hours after some of the 14 had become the first non-Japanese to set foot on any part of the archipelago since 2004.
Half of the group were put aboard a commercial airliner in the Okinawan main city of Naha and arrived in Hong Kong late on Friday.
They walked into the airport arrivals hall waving a Chinese flag and a banner reading “successful landing on Diaoyu Islands” and were greeted by a small crowd of cheering supporters.
“Down with Japanese militarism. Get out of Diaoyu Islands, Japan,” they shouted in unison. The other half were taken back to their boat in the Japanese port of Ishigaki.
An AFP journalist in Ishigaki said the seven arrived by police bus and were taken on board a coastguard boat as Japanese nationalists shouted slogans nearby.
The activists told waiting journalists they were healthy and their boat was in good shape. They were expected to be escorted out of Japanese territorial waters by the coastguard.
Earlier on Friday, the government’s top spokesman had told reporters the prime minister had approved the deportations. “The prime minister has received detailed reports on the illegal landing,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura. “He yesterday decided to approve of the related agencies’ final conclusion to deport” the 14 activists.
Fujimura denied the decision had been taken on grounds of political expediency. “This is not something the government has decided on emotionally. We firmly and strictly responded in accordance with our domestic law,” he told a news conference.
Premier Yoshihiko Noda, who had been under pressure to act on an issue that is keenly felt in Beijing, and who has also been dealing with a territorial spat with South Korea, called a special cabinet meeting on Friday.
“It is really regrettable that they entered Japan’s territorial waters and illegally landed on Uotsurijima, despite our repeated warnings,” he told his ministers, referring to the archipelago’s main island.
Noda’s move was criticised by Tokyo’s nationalist governor Shintaro Ishihara, who has declared his intention to buy the islands from their private owner. “It is a distinct criminal case,” Ishihara told reporters in Tokyo. “We can’t call Japan a real law-governed country if it sends them back as mere illegal aliens.”
As the group of five activists and two journalists arrived in Hong Kong, activist Tsang Kin-shing lashed out at the Japanese authorities: “Without reason, Japan arrested us on our own territory.”
But activist Koo Sze-yiu added: “This time we didn’t really succeed, we didn’t really win. Diaoyu Islands are still occupied by the Japanese.” The group set off from Hong Kong on Sunday. Five of them were arrested on one of the islands — known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese — on Wednesday, the 67th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender.
A commentary on Xinhua, China’s official news agency, welcomed the release of the activists but added Japan should drop its plans of “nationalising” the islands.
“Tokyo has made a wise move by releasing all 14 Chinese captured Wednesday on and off the Diaoyu Islands, easing the anguish of millions of Chinese, who, along with the activists, are determined to safeguard China’s sovereign rights,” the commentary said.
But, it added: “The dispute over the islands will never be settled unless the Japanese government drops its ‘island-purchasing’ farce.”