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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Today, the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said that Japan owns the islands at the center of a dispute his nation is having with China. Noda, who was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, said the islands in the East China Sea belong to Japan historically and under international law. And he said while Japan hopes to resolve the dispute peacefully, there will be no territorial compromise. The issue has become the worst foreign policy crisis for the two Asian superpowers in decades, stoked by nationalist feelings on both sides.

But as Lucy Craft reports from Tokyo, many Japanese blame the conflict on Tokyo's right-wing governor.

LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: Japanese politicians are prone to vague pronouncements and a lot of bowing. Not so the four-term governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara. The flamboyant ultraconservative seems to exist for the outrageous statement, the sensational headline.

GOVERNOR SHINTARO ISHIHARA: (Foreign language spoken)

CRAFT: Here he is, just after the March 2011 tsunami and earthquake, calling the catastrophe divine punishment for the egoism of the Japanese people. He later walked back those remarks. But over his long political life, Ishihara has made a career out of lobbing insults at everyone from foreign residents in Japan, to the artistic merits of Mickey Mouse. Reporters who dare to call his bluff can expect vicious retaliation, by name, the next time he steps in front of the TV cameras.

But for all the limelight he enjoys, Ishihara, who turns 80 this month, has never gained the one thing he seems to prize above all - the title prime minister. So in the sunset of his public career, Ishihara indulged another grand gesture. Last spring he announced the city of Tokyo would buy a group of uninhabited islands China and Japan have long feuded over, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Former Japanese diplomat, Tomohiko Taniguchi defends the move.

TOMOHIKO TANIGUCHI: Because it was privately owned, it was a private property, so anyone could have been able to purchase that island. So, Mr. Ishihara, sick and tired of the cowardness, in his own term, of the Japanese central government, he wanted to take the initiative.

CRAFT: Japan's ultraconservatives take at face value bellicose statements by Chinese hawks, who have called not just for taking the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands but even the Japanese island of Okinawa.

TANIGUCHI: If you lose Senkakus, you have to be prepared that the East China Sea will be dominated by the naval presence of China.

CRAFT: But observers like Takao Toshikawa, editor of the Insideline politics newsletter, say that in the current free-for-all of Japanese politics, Ishihara saw his opening.

TAKAO TOSHIKAWA: (Through Translator) Even if it's just for six months or a year, he still has that desire to be prime minister. In other words, Ishihara is using the Senkaku islands issue to achieve his own ambitions.

CRAFT: Japan has quietly controlled the Senkakus since World War II, leasing them from a private Japanese owner. But when Ishihara threatened to take over the property and put buildings on it, the central government tried to head him off by hastily nationalizing the islands. Analysts suggest that in the tightly controlled run-up to China's leadership transition, Tokyo was hoping the streets of China would not erupt in anger. An assumption, of course, proved tragically wrong.

Tussling over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands, which are situated near potentially rich mineral reserves, was kept more or less off the boil for decades, in line with a famous quote from Deng Xiaoping urging the two sides to shelve the issue in order to build their economic partnership. Two-way trade now tops $340 billion and analyst Martin Schulz of Fujitsu Research Institute, says the spat is keeping Japanese CEOs awake at night.

MARTIN SCHULZ: Now we're at a situation that is almost out of control not on a military level or an entirely economic level, but on a political level in terms of solving it smoothly, and this is what nobody actually wants.

CRAFT: While no one predicts a military conflict, the Senkaku-Diaoyu impasse may drag on until well after China's new leadership is in place. Japan could take a harder line when, as is expected, the current Democrat government is replaced by conservatives, in a snap election that could happen early next year. For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

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