Japan is considering what do with 14 Chinese activists who were arrested after landing on a disputed island, further upsetting ties between the two Asian neighbors.
The activists landed Wednesday on the island in the East China Sea, planting a Chinese flag and singing the country's national anthem before being promptly arrested and accused of violating immigration laws.
Japan is sending the activists to Okinawa for questioning, and is reportedly considering deportation as a way to defuse the feud with Beijing. China has lodged a formal complaint and demanded their unconditional release.
Japan and China's Disputed Islands
Known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese
Uninhabited archipelago of 8 islands
Located in gas-rich area and surrounded by rich fishing grounds
The islands have a land area of about 6 square kilometers
The uninhabited islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyo in Chinese, are a frequent flashpoint between Tokyo and Beijing. They are located in a gas-rich area and surrounded by rich fishing grounds.
The landing came on the same day as the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, a date that often sparks regional tensions.
China's state-run Global Times
says the 14 activists brought a "sense of relief" to the Chinese people on the sensitive anniversary, saying such actions "are being backed by the state." The editorial repeated Beijing's insistence that it would not accept prosecution of the activists.
A small but emotional demonstration broke out Thursday outside Japan's consulate in Hong Kong, where the Chinese fishing vessel took off from earlier this week. Some of the protesters, including politician Elizabeth Quat, called for the activists' release.
"I feel very angry and I find this very unacceptable," she said. "We have three requests. We request the Japanese government to release our Hong Kong citizens immediately. Second, get away from our land. Third, apologize to all of the Chinese people in the world."
In Japan, Tokyo's Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who has been outspoken on the issue, dismissed those suggestions. He says the activists should be put on trial and that Japanese Prime Minister Yosihiko Noda should visit the islands personally to emphasize Japan's claim.
"This was an illegal entry. They even alerted us beforehand, so it was a premeditated crime," said Ishihara. "So, as Prime Minister [Noda] said, [they should be dealt with] based on the law."
Japan and China, which boast strong economic ties, hope to avoid a repeat of a 2010 incident, when Japan arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that collided with a Japanese coast guard vessel near the same islands.
Tokyo eventually released the captain, but only after Beijing suspended shipments of rare earth minerals to Japan and postponed talks on the joint development of undersea natural gas fields.
Jeffrey Kingston, an Asia studies professor at Tokyo's Temple University, says another issue complicating the dispute is that the Tokyo governor has said he wants to purchase the disputed islands.
"[Japan's] central government has moved in to say 'You can't buy it, we want to buy it.' And meanwhile China is looking on, nonplussed, saying 'This is besides the point. This is Chinese territory,'" said Kingston.
The islands were administered by the United States from the end of World War II until they were transferred back to Japan in 1972. They represent not only important natural resources, but also a source of national pride in both Japan and China.
While the impasse seems to be serious at the moment, analysts expect it will eventually die down, being partly being driven by domestic politics and impending leadership transitions in both countries.