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Japanese nationalists approach disputed islands as tensions rise

By Ruairidh Villar

EAST CHINA SEA (Reuters) - A flotilla of boats carrying more than 80 Japanese nationalists arrived on Tuesday in waters near disputed islands at the centre of tensions between China and Japan, risking further straining Tokyo's already tense relations with its Asian neighbors.

The boats were shadowed by at least 10 Japanese Coast Guard vessels, the organizers said, while three Chinese government surveillance ships moved near the islands, according to the JCG.

Last year members of the same group landed on one of the islets and triggered anti-Japanese protests in China, while lingering regional friction over Japan's wartime aggression also resurfaced in the last few days.

South Korea's foreign minister on Monday canceled a trip to Tokyo and Beijing blasted Japan for a lack of contrition over its past after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an offering to a shrine seen as a symbol of Japan's former militarism.

The nationalist Ganbare Nippon ("Stand Firm, Japan") group said the flotilla of 10 boats would sail around the rocky East China Sea islets to survey fishing grounds, and that it did not plan to land there.

It gave the same assurances when it sponsored a similar trip last August, during which about 10 activists landed on one of the islets, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.

"This is all about asserting our ownership of the islands, going there to conduct a fishing survey to prove that Japanese fishermen can indeed make a living there," said group leader Satoru Mizushima.

"With all the provocations coming from China, we've adopted the policy that we will not land on the islands before the upper house elections (expected in July), to avoid making the diplomatic situation worse."

Tit-for-tat landings by Chinese and Japanese nationalists last summer preceded a sharp flare-up in the dispute when Japan nationalized the islands in September, drawing angry rhetoric from Beijing and anti-Japanese demonstrations across China.

(Writing by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Alex Richardson and Mike Collett-White)

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