Channel Sakura’s crowdfunded boat activism

A few months after the boat collision crisis, Channel Sakura and Ganbare Nippon launched a new form of activism - boat journeys to the disputed islands. The move was prompted by the actions of politicians in Okinawa prefecture. Ishigaki City assembly members Nakama Hitoshi and Minosoko Yoichi landed on Minamikojima on December 12, 2010, reportedly to carry out a survey of the island.109 They were briefly questioned by the Japan Coast Guard but not detained. Shortly afterwards, they traveled to Tokyo, where they participated in the December 18 Ganbare Nippon demonstration.110 Channel Sakura devoted a December 21 news program to an interview with the two men, and the video they filmed during their landing was shown on Channel Sakura in January 2011.111 After presenting the video, Mizushima announced that Channel Sakura was planning to raise money and purchase its own fishing boat for the “national defense” of Japanese territory'. It would be used to help assert Japan’s sovereignty' in June 2011, the same month that Chinese nationalist groups were reportedly' planning their own trip to the islands.112

Activists hoped that several thousand viewers would donate money, allowing for the purchase of a used fishing boat. Channel Sakura adopted a crowdfunding strategy, employing YouTube videos and e-mailing lists to solicit donations from the “people” (kokumin) for the defense of Japan’s threatened territory'.113 Funds were raised quickly' - going from 8,837,040 yen from 280 donors on February' 3,114 to 12,153,072 yen from 442 donors on February 9,115 to 15,180,823 yen from 594 donors on February' 24.116 This came out to roughly 25,000 yen per donor (over 200 USD).117 The exact donation data was not made public, so it is a matter of speculation whether many people were willing to donate about 25,000 each, or whether a small number of donors had given much larger sums. Following the fundraising campaign, a boat was purchased for an undisclosed amount. Mizushima had predicted in January that it would probably' cost between 10 and 20 million yen.

Channel Sakura and Ganbare Nippon continued to organize offline demonstrations in the early months of 2011. Over 500 people joined a Ganbare Nippon demonstration in front of the National Diet building on January 12. While attendance was much lower than earlier events, it was nonetheless remarkable because

Mizushima had announced the event only one day beforehand.118 Ganbare Nippon also held a protest on February 27 in front of the Chinese consulate, with about 400 people, including Mizushima, participating.119

Protest activities were planned for March 2011, but the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami caused a temporary halt to the campaign. Like many organizations in Japan, Channel Sakura raised money and collected supplies to assist with disaster relief. They also created programs about the state of evacuees in temporary housing.

At the end of May 2011 Mizushima revealed photos of the fishing boat they had purchased, which would be named the Daiichi Sakura Marti. A few weeks later, Mizushima delivered an on-the-scene status report about the boat from Naha. He showed the viewers the interior of the boat they helped purchase, telling them that “we” (Mizushima and the viewers) would soon be going to Ishigaki Island and onward to the Senkakus. The mission would be carried to help defend the islands for the sake of the fishermen of Ishigaki. Landing on the Senkakus was not discussed. Instead, Mizushima stated that the plan would be to conduct fishing missions around the islands and film news reports. He wanted to perform activism that both would abide by Japanese law and support the fishermen of Ishigaki.

In celebration of the Daiichi Sakura Maru’s upcoming voyage to the islands, a Channel Sakura viewer from Chiba prefecture donated a custom-made fishing flag (tairyd bata). The vibrantly colored flag featured waves splashing around Mount Fuji, with a sakura flower petal in one corner, the characters for “big catch” in another, and Daichi Sakura Mara in huge characters in its center. Mizushima shared his excitement about the flag with viewers by unwrapping and opening its box in front of the camera.120 This performance was remarkably similar to unboxing videos that are popular on other YouTube channels, in which viewers and the creator share in the experience of opening the box of a new product.

Another program provided a detailed explanation of the purpose and meaning of Channel Sakura’s fishing missions. Standing in front of the colorful fishing flag on July 1, Mizushima expressed his thanks to the viewer who donated money, flags, and other necessary materials. He talked about the beautiful Mt. Fuji and flower petal on the flag, both traditional symbols of the Japanese nation. Mizushima then lamented that the concept of having an obligation to defend your country did not exist in mainstream postwar Japanese society. However, “we,” the people of Ganbare Nippon, were different. Ganbare Nippon was cartying out activism for the future, for “our” ancestors who created the 2,000-year-old country of Japan. Alleging that certain unnamed government officials had warned Ganbare Nippon not to bring a cameraman on their fishing trip, Mizushima blasted this attempted suppression of the people’s “right to know” and the “freedom of the press.” The most important way to defend Japan, he argued, would be to “protect the livelihood of the fishermen.”121 Thus, the boat’s primary mission was to provide such protection for fishermen. Through this narrative, the activists and their supporters were depicted as collectively defending the basic rights of Japan and its people.

Fishing as territorial activism

The first activist fishing expedition was carried out on July 3, 2011. A Channel Sakura report that aired on July 7 deemed a resounding success. By carrying out the everyday activity of fishing in the area of the islands, they stated that they were reaffirming and defending the rights of Ishigaki’s fishermen. A clear message was delivered to viewers: the Japanese government had failed to properly protect the fishermen, so it was up to Channel Sakura’s grassroots movement to defend the country and its people. It was noted that this mission was only made possible thanks to everyone who watched Channel Sakura and made donations.122 They also pointed to the fact that the Chinese government officially condemned their fishing mission as proof that their activities were exercising Japanese sovereignty over the islands.123 That the JCG had blocked a Chinese activist boat from entering the same area days earlier served as an additional topic of celebration for Mizushima and his organization.124

A second fishing expedition was planned for October or November 2011. Mizushima emphasized beforehand that Ganbare Nippon’s first fishing mission had honored a promise not to land on the islands. He also displayed photos of the islands, commenting on how beautiful they looked.125 By stating that there would be no surprise landings on the island, Mizushima framed Channel Sakura and Ganbare Nippon’s activism within the limits of the existing rules of the field of contestation. Setting a plan, submitting it to authorities, and following it without major deviation was the demonstration of his organization’s willingness to not cross boundaries set by the Japanese state. This could have also been an attempt to gain recognition as a legitimate actor within the field. Since the start of Channel Sakura and Ganbare Nippon’s activist campaigns, Mizushima had strived to differentiate himself from traditional uyoku organizations. They did not want to be seen as similar to lawbreaking extremist groups like Nihon Seinensha.

The second fishing expedition took place without major problems. Fish caught on the expeditions were brought to Tokyo and served to Diet lawmakers at a special luncheon in the National Diet building on November 15.126 The flag of the Daiichi Sakura Marti, well-worn from the salty winds of two expeditions, was displayed on the wall of the room. Sushi chefs were brought in to prepare sashimi for the lawmakers. Over a dozen lawmakers from the LDP and DPJ attended the event. Among them was LDP lawmaker Kishi Nobuo, brother of former and future prime minister Abe Shinzo.

Through their support of a crowdfunding campaign that allowed the fishing missions to become a reality, Channel Sakura’s viewers had “opened the road” to the Senkakus.127 Between 2011 and the nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in 2012, nine successful missions were carried out.128 Each mission was an affirmation of their belief that they were patriots protecting their country. The missions were recorded in detail and shared via the internet, bringing the virtual experience of visiting the Senkakus to thousands of supporters. Channel Sakura also allowed some viewers to directly participate in the fishing missions by selling tour packages that included airfare to Okinawa, hotel rooms, and a ride along on the fishing boat to one of the Senkaku Islands.

The nationalization of the Senkakus and more boat landings

The Senkaku field of contestation entered a new phase in April 2012 when plans to shift several of the islands from private to public ownership were announced in Washington, DC. The man who made this announcement was Ishihara Shintarô, who bankrolled the 1978 construction of a lighthouse on Uotsurijima and had since risen in the political world to become Governor of Tokyo. According to early press reports, it was not the first time that Ishihara had approached the Kurihara family and tried to purchase their land. However, because he made the previous offers as a private individual, they were unwilling to sell it. Now that the offer was being made on behalf of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the owners had changed their minds.129 Purchasing the three largest islands, including Uotsurijima, would have allowed Ishihara to use his powers as governor to develop the Senkakus. Possibilities included the construction of port facilities or a police station.130

Rather than use tax revenue to make the purchase, Ishihara announced a fund-raising campaign. Individuals who supported the plan were asked to send in contributions. Channel Sakura became an enthusiastic cheerleader for the campaign, producing videos calling on viewers to send money to Ishihara’s Senkaku fund.131

The national government, which had been paying rental fees for the islands since 2002, had until the beginning of the 2013 fiscal year to take action and prevent the sale. The DPJ administration under Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko decided to outbid Ishihara and nationalize the islands. The national government aimed to end the flare-up of the dispute by taking ownership of the Senkakus and preventing Ishihara from building facilities or using the islands for other purposes that could worsen relations with China. Foreign Minister Genba Koichiro stated that the purchase would ensure the “peaceful and stable maintenance and management” of the islands.132

The national government reportedly estimated the value of the three islands at around 500 million yen. However, Ishihara’s fundraising campaign proved highly successful and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government collected more than 1.4 billion yen in contributions from the public for its bid. The central government was forced to counter with a higher offer of over 2 billion yen. The owners accepted the national government’s offer, and Ishihara donated the 1.4 billion yen to the national government.133

Channel Sakura delivered glowing praise for Ishihara’s push for change in the territorial dispute.134 Viewers were told that the “anti-Japanese” mainstream media in Japan was earning out a smear campaign to make Ishihara’s plan appear like a waste of government resources and an unfair provocation. Ishihara needed to make his announcement in America, it was claimed, because the Western media would be on hand to report his remarks. This was because Japanese mainstream media could not be trusted to report the truth.135 Such a claim reinforced the notion that Channel Sakura was one of the few media outlets in Japan that was trustworthy and willing to tell the people about important issues. Thus, its viewers were members of an exclusive group who had access to the truth and a responsibility to help spread the word to people who were being exposed to untruthful news reports from the mainstream media.

A Landing and counter-landing on Uotsurijima

Japanese boat activists had ambitious plans for summer 2012. Channel Sakura and Ganbare Nippon would turn their August fishing expedition into a large-scale ceremony to pray for the Japanese who had died on Uotsurijima in the closing weeks of World War II. Commemorating the tragedy of 1945 had taken on a major significance for activists, who saw such ceremonies as spiritually linking the physical territory of the islands to the Japanese people and nation. An application was made asking for government permission to land on the islands, but it was rejected by authorities. When reporting the rejection, Mizushima mentioned news articles about Hong Kong activists who planned a landing on the islands. He incorrectly predicted that a single foreign ship could easily be stopped by the Japan Coast Guard.136

The pro-China activists evaded the JCG and reached the islands on August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II. Seven activists from Hong Kong and Taiwan landed on Uotsurijima and raised flags as a means of “claiming our sovereign rights to the world.” The activists, members of the same organization that had landed in 1996, were briefly detained by Japanese authorities and then deported. They were not charged with any crime.137

On the same day Mizushima and a group of Ganbare Nippon members were cartying out their annual march to the Yasukuni Shrine (a ritual discussed in Chapter 4). Mizushima delivered a short speech to a crowd of supporters, expressing his intent to travel to the islands and not mentioning any plan to make a landing.138 An August 16 Channel Sakura news report portrayed the pro-China activists as sneakily taking advantage of a day when “people across Japan had been quietly gather to pray to the spirits of their ancestors and the heroic war dead.” Mizushima denounced the DPJ government for quickly releasing the activists without taking the time to verify whether or not they were Chinese soldiers or spies.139

This landing marked a major change in the conditions of the Senkaku field of contestation. Pro-China activists had just performed an act that had increased their stature. Not only could the landing be seen as an assertion of China’s sovereignty over the islands, but it was also a major embarrassment on a sacred day of remembrance for the Japanese right. Moreover, the Japanese government demonstrated an unwillingness to file any trespassing charges against the activists. If foreign activists could land on the island and not be punished, what about Japanese activists? It looked unlikely that the Japanese government would try’ to arrest and charge Japanese citizens for trespassing just days after it had let foreign activists get away’ with the same act. Mizushima and his fellow activists would take full advantage of this window of opportunity.

Events initially played out according to the plan that had been approved by authorities. Around 150 people gathered at Yonaguni and Ishigaki Islands on August 18 and boarded 20 fishing boats.140 They included Ganbare Nippon and allied activists, conservative politicians, journalists from domestic and international media outlets, Shinto priests, and fishermen whose boats had been chartered for the journey. The politicians included Diet members from the Lawmakers Federation to Protect Japanese Territory (Nihon no Ryodo wo Mamoru Tame Kbdo Suru Giin Renmei). Ganbare Nippon leader Tamogami Toshio was also present. The fleet arrived near Uotsurijima in the early morning of August 19 and a Shinto ceremony was held on one of the ships, offering prayers to dead of 1945.

Shortly after the ceremony Mizushima declared that he was going to swim ashore. With the help of Channel Sakura staff, he tied a rope around himself and jumped into the sea. After some minor difficulty with rough waves, he made it ashore.141 The rope was then used to guide another nine people ashore: four from Ganbare Nippon/Channel Sakura and five politicians. The Ganbare Nippon members who joined Mizushima were Asano Kumi (Channel Sakura/Ganbare Nippon), Ito Sukeyasu142 (Ganbare Nippon/retired Maritime Self-Defense Forces officer), and a Channel Sakura cameraman. The lawmakers were Kojima Yoshiro (Ibaraki Prefectural Assembly), Tanaka Yutaro (Tokyo Suginami Ward Assembly), Kosaka Eiji (Tokyo Arakawa Ward Assembly), Wada Yuichiro (Hyogo Prefectural Assembly), and Suzuki Akihiro143 (Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly). They spent two hours on the island, some of which was spent in offering prayer to the war dead. Channel Sakura representatives explored with their camera, documenting the existence of a small stream and taking note of the environmental degradation of the island. Their camera operator filmed plastic bottles and other garbage that had been swept ashore. The plastic bottles had Chinese labels, an indication that pollution from China was harming the islands.144 JCG patrol ships were visible offshore, but the JCG did not take any action until the activists had returned to their own boats.145 Rubber speedboats approached, and a team of JCG personnel briefly questioned them about the landing. No one was arrested.

Justifying the landing on Uotsurijima

Justifying his actions at a press conference on August 30, Mizushima claimed that the original and main intent of the trip to the islands was to carry out prayers for the war dead. Noting that their request to land had been rejected by authorities several days earlier, he insisted that he set off on his boat intending to honor the rules set by the government. His decision to jump into the water and swim ashore was a spontaneous action. He contrasted his actions with the landing carried out days earlier by the Hong Kong activists, referring to it as a Chinese military action. The pro-China landing party had included reporters from Phoenix TV, a station owned by individuals with ties to the Chinese Communist Party, thus making the reporters “paramilitary” agents of the Chinese state.146

Mizushima also portrayed his activists as environmentalists. The footage filmed by Channel Sakura represented a record of the environmental degradation on Uotsurijima. A lack of government management of the island had apparently led to a situation in which local flora and fauna were threatened. Moreover, Channel Sakura’s videos were freely available for the public to view on YouTube and NicoNico Douga.147 This was in contrast to the Japanese government, which Mizushima criticized for hiding information from the public.

Speaking to Channel Sakura viewers in an editorial video shortly after returning from Okinawa, Mizushima explained why he had broken with the procedure of only carrying out acts with prior government permission. He compared the Senkaku Islands to the yard of a neighbor’s house. One usually will not enter the neighbor’s property without permission. He raised a hypothetical question: what if you saw a crime happening in your neighbor’s yard and your neighbor was deliberately doing nothing to stop it? Surely, Mizushima argued, such an emergency would call for entry into the neighbor’s yard without permission. In this story, the neighbor represented the weak-kneed Japanese government, which was not doing enough to punish the Chinese, who had rammed its ships and landed on its islands. Channel Sakura, as a good neighbor, was standing up for the peace of the neighborhood.148 From this description, Mizushima’s decision to swim ashore almost sounded like it was a premeditated act, rather than a spur of the moment decision.

YouTube comments from viewers expressed praise and joy at Mizushima’s landing on the island. For example, one user wrote, “Thinking of the importance of August 15th, one couldn’t simply be quiet and do nothing!” Another stated their joy at the possibility of seeing video footage filmed by Mizushima and the landing party. Meanwhile, yet another added a simple, “I resolutely support Mizushima!”149

Whether it had been planned or was a decision made on that day, the landing on the Uotsurijima demonstrated that the Japanese government was unwilling to take strict measures against activists. Channel Sakura and Ganbare Nippon abruptly broke with their previous boat activism policy of firmly observing government-mandated rules. Their acts of disobedience took place within a window' of opportunity in which it could be reasonably assumed that the Japanese authorities would be unwilling to arrest them. As skilled social actors, they used their social connections, monetary resources, and organizational skills to organize a small fleet of ships, bringing along politicians and the international media. The ability to gain the cooperation of politicians and media organizations was arguably thanks to the fact that their activists had built a reputation as law-abiding and peaceful, quite different from an uyoku group like Nihon Seinensha.

The landing was carried out in front of news cameras and reporters. Together with their own cameras and the ability to distribute video of their voyage to thousands of people via the internet, Channel Sakura’s activists achieved a level of visibility that went far beyond the recognition that Nihon Seinensha achieved from the 1970s to the 2000s.

It was a limited window' of opportunity, however. On subsequent fishing expeditions they did not attempt further landings. This was likely because the Japanese government began to take a stricter stance toward their fishing boats, fearing the impact of another landing.

China reacts

The formal shift in ownership Uotsuri, Kita-Kojima, and Minami-Kojima Islands from private businessman Kurihara Hiroyuki to the Japanese government occurred on September 11, 2012. Subsequent press reports revealed that Kurihara had been trying to sell the islands to the Japanese government since 2006 but had been offered land swaps instead of monetary payments. This was not satisfactory for Kurihara, who needed a large sum of cash to pay considerable debts. Kurihara then touched on the strategy of selling to Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro, who was willing to offer such cash. The subsequent bidding war between Ishihara and the national government allowed Kurihara to sell the islands for a very high price.150 Involving an outspoken politician and his nationalist allies, however, made what could have been a quiet transfer of ownership into a major international news story.

Ishihara’s fundraising campaign and the Japanese government’s public attempt to outbid him were treated by China as major provocations. Channel Sakura and Gan bare Nippon added fuel to the fire. This could be seen in an “incident review” timeline posted on August 14 by the Global Times, a Chinese state media outlet, started on April 16, the day that Ishihara announced his plans to buy the islands. Events from the previous few years, such as the boat collision incident, were not included. The timeline contrasted measured warnings from the Chinese state with further provocations from Japan. The final provocation that prompted the landing mission by pro-China activists was the announcement that “Some 50 Japanese lawmakers plan to set foot on the Daioyu Islands on August 19 to hold a vigil for the victims of a refugee shipwreck during wartime on the islands.”151 This description, although inaccurate about the number of politicians involved and the prior certainty that they would land on the islands, was clearly referring to the event carried out by Ganbare Nippon.

Two waves of mass anti-Japanese protest erupted across China in 2012 - first in August, in response to the boat activism and indications that the Japanese government would nationalize the islands, and later in September, after the nationalization formally took place. Thousands of people marched in cities across mainland China, with some demonstrations turning into violent riots that destroyed Japanese cars and businesses.152 The Japanese Foreign Ministry roughly estimated the riots, and the loss of business for Japanese firms may have amounted to more than 100 million USD in economic damage.153

It is frequently suggested in Japanese and Western news reports that the Chinese government encourages or allows anti-Japanese demonstrations when it wants to put diplomatic pressure on Japan or distract its people from domestic problems. However, there is considerable disagreement in scholarship on the Chinese state’s role in the 2012 anti-Japanese demonstrations. It has also been argued that popular nationalism has placed considerable pressure on Chinese leaders to take a harder line against Japan. While there is little doubt that the Chinese state education system and state media helped spread anti-Japanese nationalism, China’s elites now face the danger of having their nationalistic masses turn their anger to the government if it does not respond to Japanese “provocations. ”154

Although Chinese activists did not successfully land on the Senkaku Islands after 2012 until present, Chinese activities in nearby waters increased dramatically. The summer of 2012 marked a major change in China’s stance toward entering seas claimed by Japan. Incursions by Chinese patrol boats and fishing craft that used to happen once every few months later became an almost weekly occurrence.155 Japan Coast Guard and China Coast Guard patrol boats regularly engaged in tense stand-offs, demanding that their counterparts withdraw from the area. To date, these have not resulted in any loss of life, but the potential for such an event remains.

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