When is an island not an island?

Today’s Google Earth find is extra-weird. This is the Japanese outlying island of Okinotorishima (沖ノ鳥, which means Distant Bird Island). Use the map controls below to navigate. Zoom out to see how far away it is from everything. Zoom in to see the island.

Wait, where’s the island?

The white ellipse is not the island – those are waves crashing over the surrounding coral reefs, which are just barely submerged. The green patches are not the island – those are formerly parts of the island that have now sunk beneath the waves.

A view from an airplane of the island of Okinotorishima, which is underwater except for some concrete pillarsTotally an ISLAND! Right, guys? Guys?

The rectangular building is not the island – it’s a Japanese scientific research station and military radar installation, held up by a giant concrete pillar drilled into the shallow water below. The nearby circular features are support structures.

Nevertheless, the Japanese government insists that this is totally an island, and it’s totally part of the glorious nation of Japan.

Of course, there used to be an island here. Okinotorishima was one of the few places in the world where the world-spanning underwater mountain range system known as the mid-ocean ridges stuck up above the water. In the 1980s, the dry-land area of the island measured only nine square meters. But between the natural subsistence of the Pacific Plate and the artificial sea level rise caused by global warming, Okinotorishima has now slipped beneath the waves.

You might wonder why Japan is so interested in maintaining its claim on an almost-island hundreds of miles away from anything. The answer lies not with the island itself, but with the waters surrounding it.

International Maritime Law defines an “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) offshore everywhere, a 200-kilometer (120 mile) zone in which only the onshore country can operate. This law makes perfect sense in most of the world – the U.S. wouldn’t want an Icelandic whaling vessel to shoot harpoons across Miami Beach, or a Chinese warship to sail right up to the mouth of the Hudson River just to say “STILL IN INTERNATIONAL WATERS! NOT TOUCHING YOU! HAHAHAHA!” Islands count too.

So if the Japanese can convince the world that Okinotorishima is totally an island, they can maintain exclusive access to a 200-km circle around the island. That’s 125,000 square kilometers (50,000 square miles) of prime South Pacific fishing territory, with the potential for undiscovered oil deposits underneath. The map below shows that circle, which is also in a strategically important area between the Philippines and Taiwan.

A 200-km circle drawn around OkinotorishimaThe yellow circle shows Japan’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around Okinotorishima. Click for a larger image.

But this claim is valid only as long as they can justify that there is an island, even at high tide. Every few years, the Japanese Navy must deploy to Okinotorishima to extend the concrete pillars and make sure the research station stays above water.

Yes, this is ridiculous.

And yes, your country would do exactly the same thing.

(Photo: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Kanto Regional Development Bureau Keihin River Office)

Leave a Reply