Strengthening Japan's hold over the Senkakus caught the public's imagination at a time when many Japanese are worried that their country is unprepared to deal with the rapid rise of their giant neighbor. Since Ishihara announced his purchase plan, more than $17 million in donations have poured in via a special website established by the Tokyo government's "Senkaku Islands Project Team." Members of the Kurihara family, the family that owns the islets -- who admit they haven't set foot on the islands for 15 years -- have come out in favor of Ishihara's bid.
"For nearly 50 years this politician [Ishihara] has been contacting me directly, urging, 'Would you please sell the islands to the government, for the purpose of defending the territory of Japan?'" 65-year-old Hiroyuki Kurihara, the unofficial spokesman for the family, told Foreign Policy in a telephone interview.
Three of the five Senkaku islets are in the name of Hiroyuki Kurihara's older brother Kunioki, who holds the deeds and has no heirs. The family, which made its fortune renting out land in its hometown of Omiya, now part of the dense suburbs of northern Tokyo, finally decided in April that Tokyo's government was the safest pair of hands to transfer the islands into. The price is still under negotiation, but the Kuriharas are said to be seeking at least $250 million. "Ishihara is a person of logic and rationality. He is the person who knows which choice is the best. He is sharp, rather than clever," Hiroyuki Kurihara said.
The island purchase effort seemed to catch Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's government by surprise, and it left him few options other than to promise in July that the central government would buy the islands from Tokyo, if only to make sure the prime minister's office -- not the Tokyo governorate -- would be in control if the dispute with Beijing were to escalate. Meanwhile, China's state-controlled media have predictably turned up the anti-Japanese rhetoric, with the official Xinhua news wire issuing an editorial after Noda's announcement warning that the effort to nationalize the islands was "playing with fire."
Another humbling confrontation with China might be exactly what Ishihara is seeking. Although he ran for office as a political independent, his eldest son, Nobuteru Ishihara, is secretary-general of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, the center-right party that polls suggest could win power if the unpopular Noda were forced to call a snap election. (The Tokyo governor's office said the elder Ishihara was too busy to accept an interview request.)
The sensitivity of the moment likely explains why Ishihara has decided to force the Senkaku issue now. "China's ever-growing clout is generally felt with greater apprehension year by year, and it is easier for a political entrepreneur to exploit [that anxiety] for his or her own purposes," said Yuki Asaba, associate professor of international relations at Yamaguchi Prefectural University in southern Japan.
China won't back away from another game of chicken over who owns the islets. Nationalists have suggested Beijing should reply to the Senkaku purchase plan by extending its claim to the entire Ryukyu archipelago, including even the main island of Okinawa, which happens to host a major U.S. air base.
Ishihara's challenge to the status quo comes at a particularly sensitive time in Beijing. The Communist Party is set to shuffle its leadership deck this fall, with seven of the current nine members of the supreme Politburo Standing Committee likely to retire. No one harboring any hope of being selected to the next Standing Committee can sound anything less than strident on an issue of territory.