Double-dealing sparked China, Japan row
Insight into how debts and double-dealing sparked the Japan, China islets row.
TOKYO - The road to China's breakdown in relations with Japan began here - a sleepy Tokyo suburb that is home to the reclusive real-estate investor at the centre of the explosive property deal that enraged Beijing.
Surrounded by concrete walls, security cameras and warnings of guard dogs, Kunioki Kurihara has shunned the spotlight in his compound since closing a deal to sell three uninhabited islands in the East China Sea to Japan's government in September.
The islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan, are also claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyu and deemed part of its national territory for centuries.
Their $25.5 million (16.0 million pounds) sale sent tension soaring between Tokyo and Beijing. Seen in Beijing as a nationalisation of private property, it sparked violent protests and a boycott of Japanese goods. Chinese ships were dispatched to patrol disputed waters.
Participants close to the deal describe how a property magnate with heavy debts clinched a deal he had sought with the government for at least six years by playing it off against a fiery nationalist - Tokyo's then-governor, Shintaro Ishihara.
Ishihara has since resigned to return to national politics at age 80. It was his initial offer to buy the islands that led to a quick government purchase - at a mark-up of at least half a million dollars.
Kurihara, 70, declined a request for an interview.
His younger brother Hiroyuki, who describes himself as family spokesman, has used his sudden fame to promote a book, "Senkaku Islands for Sale" -- and a long shot plan to turn the islands into a centre for medical tourism.
"It's odd that they owned the islands for so long," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asia Studies at Temple University in Japan. "It's only now that the ante is up."
FROM FISH PROCESSING TO FLASHPOINT
Mostly rocky outcroppings which serve as a home to migratory birds and a herd of wild goats, the islands are closest to Taiwan, about 210 km (125 miles) northeast of Taipei and 1,800 km from Tokyo.
The largest, Uotsurijima in Japanese, rises up like a forest-canopied mountain from the sea, with no port for landing. A little larger than New York's Central Park, the island's highest point tops the Eiffel Tower.
The Kuriharas obtained the islands for an undisclosed amount in the 1970s from Zenji Koga, a journalist from Okinawa, an island to the northeast. Before World War Two, his father had run a fish processing plant on Uotsurijima.
Japan annexed the islands in 1895 and Koga rented them, then bought them in 1932, when they fell under the jurisdiction of colonial Taiwan, also annexed by Japan.
Taiwan also claims the islands.
The Kuriharas obtained the islands after the United States returned Okinawa to Japan in 1972 and interest grew in potential oil and gas deposits.
But the family's focus was on commercial and residential property in Omiya, a legacy of wealth built up in the rice trade. Records show Kunioki pledged at least 75 real estate parcels in Omiya and Tokyo against his bank borrowing.
One building next to his house served until recently as headquarters of a Buddhist-affiliated group, Kenshokai, which preaches that Japan faces an apocalyptic reckoning and invasion by China. The group, a former Kurihara tenant, has described the isles as a potential flashpoint in that conflict.
In the summer of 2011, Kurihara approached Akiko Santo, a lawmaker from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, saying he wanted to try to sell the islands to Tokyo governor Ishihara.
Ishihara became internationally known in 1989 for his best-seller "The Japan that Can Say No," an argument to reduce Japan's reliance on the protection of the United States.