Records of these islands date back to as early as the 15th century when they were referred as Diaoyu in books such as Voyage with a Tail Wind (simplified Chinese: 顺风相送; traditional Chinese: 順風相送; pinyin: Shùnfēng Xiāngsòng) (1403)  and Record of the Imperial Envoy's Visit to Ryūkyū (simplified Chinese: 使琉球录; traditional Chinese: 使琉球錄; pinyin: Shĭ Liúqiú Lù) (1534). Adopted by the Chinese Imperial Map of the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese name for the island group (Diaoyu) and the Japanese name for the main island (Uotsuri) both mean "fishing".
Historically, the Chinese had used the uninhabited islands as navigational markers in making the voyage to the Ryukyu Kingdom upon commencement of diplomatic missions to the kingdom, "resetting the compass at a particular isle in order to reach the next one".
The name, "Pinnacle Isles" was first used by James Colnett, who charted them during his 1789-1791 voyage in the Argonaut.William Robert Broughton sailed past them in November 1797 during his voyage of discovery to the North Pacific in HMS Providence, and referred to Uotsuri Island as "Peaks Island". Reference was made to the islands in Edward Belcher's 1848 account of the voyages of HMS Sammarang. Captain Belcher observed that "the names assigned in this region have been too hastily admitted." Belcher reported anchoring off Pinnacle Island in March 1845.
In 1870s and 1880s, the English name Pinnacle Islands was used by the British navy for the rocks adjacent to the largest island Uotsuri-shima / Diaoyu Dao (then called 和平嶼 hô-pîng-sū, "Peace Island" in Hokkien); Kuba-shima / Huangwei Yu (then called Ti-a-usu); and Taishō-tō / Chiwei Yu.
By the 16th century, in “A Record of an Imperial Envoy’s Visit to the Ryukyu Kingdom”, Chinese names were given to all the islets in the Diaoyu group. The great Japanese military scholar, Shihei Hayashi, followed convention in giving the islands their Chinese names in his map of 1785, “A General Outline of Three Countries” (see map). He also coloured them in the same pink as China.
A Japanese navy record issued in 1886 first started to identify the islets using equivalents of the Chinese and English terms employed by the British. The name "Senkaku Retto" is not found in any Japanese historical document before 1900 (the term "Senkaku Gunto" began being used in the late 19th century), and first appeared in print in a geography journal published in 1900. It was derived from a translation of the English name Pinnacle Islands into a Sinicized Japanese term "Sento Shoto" (as opposed to "Senkaku Retto", i.e., the term used by the Japanese today), which has the same meaning.
One islet of the group – Uotsuri
The collective use of the name "Diaoyutai" to denote the entire group began with the advent of the controversy in the 1970s.
Control of the islands by Japan and the US
As the uninhabited islets were historically used as maritime navigational markers, they were never subjected to administrative control other than the recording of the geographical positions on maps, descriptions in official records of Chinese missions to the Ryukyu Kingdom, etc.
Japanese workers at a bonito fishery processing plant on Uotsuri-shima sometime around 1910
The Japanese central government annexed the islands in early 1895 after emerging victorious from the First Sino-Japanese War. Around 1900, Japanese entrepreneur Koga Tatsushirō (古賀 辰四郎?) constructed a bonito fish processing plant on the islands, employing over 200 workers. The business failed around 1940 and the islands have remained deserted ever since. In the 1970s, Koga Tatsushirō's son Zenji Koga and Zenji's wife Hanako sold four islets to the Kurihara family of Saitama Prefecture. Kunioki Kurihara owned Uotsuri, Kita-Kojima, and Minami-Kojima. Kunioki's sister owns Kuba.
The islands came under US government occupation in 1945 after the surrender of Japan ended World War II. In 1969, the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) identified potential oil and gas reserves in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands. In 1971, the Okinawa Reversion Treaty passed the U.S. Senate, returning the islands to Japanese control in 1972. Also in 1972, the Republic of China (Taiwan) government and People's Republic of China government officially began to declare ownership of the islands.
Since 1972, when the islands reverted to Japanese government control, the mayor of Ishigaki has been given civic authority over the territory. The Japanese central government, however, has prohibited Ishigaki from surveying or developing the islands. In 1979 an official delegation from the Japanese government composed of 50 academics, government officials from the Foreign and Transport ministries, officials from the now-defunct Okinawa Development Agency, and Hiroyuki Kurihara, visited the islands and camped on Uotsuri for about four weeks. The delegation surveyed the local ecosystem, finding moles and sheep, studied the local marine life, and examined whether the islands would support human habitation.
From 2002 to 2012, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications paid the Kurihara family ¥25 million a year to rent Uotsuri, Minami-Kojima and Kita-Kojima. Japan's Ministry of Defense rents Kuba island for an undisclosed amount. Kuba is used by the U.S. military as a practice aircraft bombing range. Japan's central government completely owns Taisho island.
On December 17, 2010, Ishigaki declared January 14 as "Pioneering Day" to commemorate Japan's 1895 annexation of the Senkaku Islands. China condemned Ishigaki's actions. In 2012, both the Tokyo Metropolitan and Japanese central governments announced plans to negotiate purchase of Uotsuri, Kita-Kojima, and Minami-Kojima from the Kurihara family.
On September 11, 2012, the Japanese government nationalized its control over Minami-kojima, Kita-kojima, and Uotsuri islands by purchasing them from the Kurihara family for ¥2.05 billion. China's Foreign Ministry objected saying Beijing would not "sit back and watch its territorial sovereignty violated."
A cluster of islets – Uotsuri-shima (left), Kita-Kojima and Minami-Kojima (right)
A geological map of Uotsuri-shima drawn by Japanese geologist Hisashi Kuroiwa in 1900.
The island group consists of five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks.
These minor features in the East China Sea are located approximately 120 nautical miles northeast of Taiwan, 200 nautical miles east of the Chinese mainland and 200 nautical miles southwest of the Japanese island of Okinawa.
In ascending order of distances, the island cluster is located:
140 km (76 nmi; 87 mi) east of Pengjia Islet, ROC
170 km (92 nmi; 110 mi) north of Ishigaki Island, Japan
186 km (100 nmi; 116 mi) northeast of Keelung, ROC
410 km (220 nmi; 250 mi) west of Okinawa Island, Japan
"...the Okinawa Trough proves that the continental shelves of China and Japan are not connected, that the Trough serves as the boundary between them, and that the Trough should not be ignored ...."
Japan's interpretation of the geography is that
"...the trough is just an incidental depression in a continuous continental margin between the two countries ... [and] the trough should be ignored ...."
Flora and fauna
Permission for collecting herbs on three of the islands was recorded in an Imperial Chinese edict of 1893.
Uotsuri-shima, the largest island, has a number of endemic species such as the Senkaku Mole (Mogera uchidai) and Okinawa-kuro-oo-ari ant. Due to the introduction of domestic goats to the island in 1978, the Senkaku mole is now an endangered species.
Albatross are observed in the islands. Amongst all islands, Minami Kojima is one of the few breeding places of the rare Short-tailed Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus).
Two of the disputed islets – Kita-Kojima (left) and Minami-Kojima (right)
The People's Republic and Taiwan claim that the islands have been a part of Chinese territory since at least 1534. They acknowledge that Japan took control of the islands in 1894–1895 during the first Sino-Japanese War, through the signature of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. They assert that the Potsdam Declaration (which Japan accepted as part of the San Francisco Peace Treaty) required that Japan relinquish control of all islands except for "the islands of Honshū, Hokkaidō, Kyūshū, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine", and they state that this means control of the islands should pass to China.
Japan does not accept that there is a dispute, asserting that the islands are an integral part of Japan. Japan has rejected claims that the islands were under China's control prior to 1895, and that these islands were contemplated by the Potsdam Declaration or affected by the San Francisco Peace Treaty.
^Lee, Seokwoo. Territorial Disputes among Japan, China and Taiwan concerning the Senkaku Islands (Boundary & Territory Briefing Vol.3 No.7). IBRU. p. 6. ISBN1897643500. " The question of the disputed Senkaku Islands remained relatively dormant throughout the 1950s and 1960s, probably because these small uninhabited islands held little interest for the three claimants. The Senkaku Islands issue was not raised until the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (hereinafter 'ECAFE') of the United Nations Economic and Social Council suggested the possible existence of large hydrocarbon deposit in the waters off the Senkaku Islands. ... This development prompted vehement statements and counter-statements among the claimants."
^Pan, Junwu (2009). Toward a New Framework for Peaceful Settlement of China's Territorial and Boundary Disputes. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 140. ISBN9004174281. "Obviously, primarily regional interests in oil and gas resources that may lie under the seas drive the two major disputes. The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands issue did not re-surface until 1969 when the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East of the United Nations Economic and Social Council reported that the continental shelf of the East China "might contain one of the most prolific oil and gas reservoirs of the world, possibly comparing favourably with the Persian Gulf." Then both China and Japan had high expectations that there might be large hydrocarbon deposits in the waters off the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The Law of the Sea at that time emphasized the theory of natural prolongation in determining continental shelf jurisdiction. Ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands would permit the owner to a large area of the continental shelf that may have rich sources of gas and oil. Such a dispute is obviously related to the awakening interest by the world's states in developing offshore energy resources to meet the demand of their economies."
^Takamine, Tsukasa (2012). Japan’s Development Aid to China, Volume 200: The Long-running Foreign Policy of Engagement. Routledge. p. 129. ISBN0415352037. "The islands had temporarily come under American control after the Second World War, but the sovereignty over the islands, was handed over to Japan in 1972 with the reversion of Okinawa．However, the PRC and Taiwan governments both made a territorial claim to the Senkaku Islands, soon after the United Nation Economic Commission issued in 1969 a report suggesting considerable reserve of submarine oil and gas resources around the islands."
^Drifte, Reinhard (2012). Japan's Security Relations with China Since 1989: From Balancing to Bandwagoning?. Routledge. p. 49. ISBN1134406673. "The dispute surfaced with the publication of a seismic survey report under the auspices of the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECSFE) in 1968, which mentioned the possibility of huge oil and gas reserves in the area; this was confirmed by a Japanese report in 1969. Greg Austin mentions that Beijing started its claim to the Senkaku Islands for the first time in 1970, after Japanese government protested to the government in Taiwan about its allocation of oil concessions in the East China Sea, including the area of the Senkaku Islands."
^Lee, Seokwoo. Territorial Disputes among Japan, China and Taiwan concerning the Senkaku Islands (Boundary & Territory Briefing Vol.3 No.7). IBRU. pp. 10–11. ISBN1897643500. "For a long time following the entry into force of the San Francisco Peace Treaty China/Taiwan raised no objection to the fact that the Senkaku Islands were included in the area placed under US administration in accordance with the provisions of Article of the treaty, and USCAP No. 27. In fact, neither China nor Taiwan had taken up the question of sovereignty over the islands until the latter half of 1970 when evidence relating to the existence of oil resources deposited in the East China Sea surfaced. All this clearly indicates that China/Taiwan had not regarded the Senkaku Islands as a part of Taiwan. Thus, for Japan, none of the alleged historical, geographical and geological arguments set forth by China/Taiwan are acceptable as valid under international law to substantiate China's territorial claim over the Senkaku Islands."
^Title: Liang zhong hai dao zhen jing / [Xiang Da jiao zhu].Imprint: Beijing : Zhonghua shu ju : Xin hua shu dian Beijing fa xing suo fa xing, 2000 reprint edition. Contents: Shun feng xiang song--Zhi nan zheng fa. (順風相送--指南正法). ISBN ISBN 7-101-02025-9. pp96 and pp253. The full text is available at wikisource.
^“Pinnacle Rock in Latitude 29°40’ and Longitude 132° E. of London... This Navigation is no ways dangereous were you sure of your Latitude and to make Pinnicle Isle”. James Colnett, The Journal ... aboard the Argonaut from April 26, 1789 to Nov. 3, 1791, ed. with introd. and notes by F. W. Howay, Toronto, Champlain Society Vol.26, 1940, p.47.
^William Robert Broughton, William Robert Broughton's Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific, 1795-1798, edited by Andrew David ; with an introduction by Barry Gough, Ashgate for the Hakluyt Society, Farnham, England; Burlington, VT, 2010, p.202.
^Belcher, Vol. I, at Google Books; excerpt at p. 317, "On the 16th, we endeavoured to obtain observations on Tia-usu; a landing was effected, but the absence of sun prevented our obtaining satisfactory observations, and bad weather coming on hastened our departure. This group, comprehending hô-pîng-san (和平山, "Peace Island", Uotsuri-shima), Pinnacle Rocks, and Tias-usu (Kuba-shima), form a triangle, of which the hypothenuse, or distance between Hoa-pin-san and Tia-usu, extends about fourteen miles, and that between Hoa-pinsan and the Southern Pinnacle, about two miles."
^Porcasi, Judith F. (1999). "Prehistoric Exploitation of Albatross on the Southern California Channel Islands,"Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology. Vol. 21 (1), pp. 109, citing Hasegawa, Hiroshi. (1979). "Status of the Short-tailed Albatross of Torishimia and in the Senkaku Retto in 1978/79. Pacific Seabird Group Bulletin 6:23–25; and Hasegawa, Hiroshi and Anthony R. Degange. (1982). "The Short-tailed Albatross, 'Diamedea albatrus, Its Status, Distribution and Natural History." American Birds, 36(5):806–814.
Belcher, Edward and Arthur Adams. (1848). Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Samarang, During the Years 1843–46: Employed Surveying the Islands of the Eastern Archipelago. London : Reeve, Benham, and Reeve. OCLC 192154
Jarrad, Frederick W. (1873). The China Sea Directory, Vol. IV. Comprising the Coasts of Korea, Russian Tartary, the Japan Islands, Gulfs of Tartary and Amúr, and the Sea of Okhotsk. London: Hydrographic Office, Admiralty. OCLC 557221949