Did you know that Japan comprises of 6,852 islands? This number may be jaw-dropping but Japan is not the country with the largest number of islands in its territory (Sweden is with over 2 lakh islands). But now, Japan is saying that it has found nearly 7,000 new previously unknown islands in its territorial waters.
Apparently, Japan has not conducted a survey of its islands since 1987 and that's why the figures are vastly different. Now, with the new discovery, Japan is likely to have over 14,000 islands in its territory. A geographical survey is underway and a report is expected to be released in the next few weeks.
An accurate understanding of the number of islands is an important administrative matter that is related to the national interest.
- Kyodo News quoted a Japanese legislator saying
But what does this mean? Is the map of Japan changing?
The discovery of a whopping 7,000 islands is unlikely to change anything about Japan's size or territorial waters.
This is because the new islands discovered were previously ignored as they were within lakes or rivers.
These land masses are now recognised as islands under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Also, Japan is a country with high volcanic activity, so it has led to the creation and unknown destruction of several islands in the last 35 years.
Regarding Japan's territorial waters, since the islands are pretty much found within the already established waters, it is unlikely to change the status quo.
How can a country lay claim on islands?
When it comes to the above-mentioned nearly 7,000 islands, there's no dispute over Japan's claims since they are already within the country's territorial waters.
Each country gets 200 nautical miles of territorial waters from its coastline or 'islands' by the definition of the Law of the Sea. The rest is international waters.
The uninhabited islands:
There are several uninhabited islands in Japan's territory, but they all come under Japan's jurisdiction. However, people can buy these islands.
Recently, a report of a Chinese businesswoman buying a remote uninhabited island near Okinawa raised quite an alarm.
Tina Zhang (张), a 34-year-old 🇨🇳 woman from Qingdao, Shandong province, posted videos on Douyin of her hanging out on Yanaha Island (屋那霸岛) — the biggest uninhabited island in Okinawa — which she claimed she bought in 2020.
What about islands not in Japan's immediate territorial waters?
There is a curious case of one particular island and Japan from a few years ago (not related to the recent 7,000 islands), that's an interesting read on claiming islands and geopolitics.
This is the story of the Okinotori islands.
Okinotorishima or the Okinotori island/s is an atoll (a ring-shaped island or coral reef or islets in the middle of a water body) often compared to the size of a bedroom or two king-size beds.
It is located midway between Guam, an US territorial island and Taiwan.
The land's existence has been known for long, but it was in 1931 that Japan claimed the reefs as its territory. There was never been any objection to this claim by any other country.
In 2008, Japan approached the UN asking for it to recognise Okinotori as an island and grant it an extension of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles.
This claim would have given Japan territorial waters larger than its main land mass.
Okinotori's importance peaked during this time, as extended territorial waters would block China's maritime activities in the area.
And expectedly China, including South Korea, contested Japan's application to extend the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) based on Okinotori arguing that it doesn't classify as an 'island' but is just a rock.
Japan is still fighting the case and has poured millions of dollars into keeping Okinotori intact.
Unlike China which is seeking sovereignty in much of the South China Sea by making artificial islands (which doesn't qualify under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), Japan is staking claim by 'preserving' the 'island'.
Do you want to claim an island?
There are several unclaimed pieces of land, both in faraway international waters and right next to sovereign nations.
Their unclaimed status is most likely because they are of no use to anyone. And if you were to go claim it as your own, nobody would contest it.
But for you to qualify as a country, and start issuing currency, a passport, and a seat at the UN, you would need to spend a lot of time, energy, and resources in building an economy with people and have it recognised by another country.
Unfortunately, you can't just put a flag on a piece of land and become a country in practice. But for all purposes of playing, you can.