In Brief

Japan launches search for ‘missing’ island

Esanbehanakitakojima forms part of Japan’s maritime border - or, at least, it used to

Japan’s coast guard has been dispatched to investigate after a small island “vanished” off the coast of Hokkaido.

Esanbehanakitakojima, one of the country’s hundreds of uninhabited islets, previously sat just off the northern coast of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s major islands. A 1987 coastguard survey recorded the island as rising 1.4 metres above sea level.

Just 500 metres from the fishing village of Sarufutsu, the rocky outcrop could be seen from the coast on a clear day. However, it has now totally disappeared from view.

The “missing” island became headline news thanks to author Hiroshi Shimizu, who had travelled to the coastline in search of inspiration for a book about hidden islands, CNN reports.

Locals told Shimizu that the island had vanished, although “other fishermen said that Esanbehanakitakojima shows up as an islet on navigation systems”.

The coast guard is now planning an operation to search the area for traces of the missing island.

Curiosity is not the sole motivating factor behind the search mission. The island forms part of Japan’s maritime border, one of 158 islands chosen to demarcate the country’s territorial claims over the Sea of Okhotsk, which separates Japan from Russia.

“Under international laws, islands can be designated as such only if they can be seen above the sea surface even in high tides,” says local daily Asahi Shimbun.

This means that if Esanbehanakitakojima has sunk below the surface, “Japan will lose 500 metres of territorial waters”, says CNN. A tiny portion, maybe, but significant in a region where contested seas can lead to heated diplomatic disputes.

As for the island’s fate, maritime officials suspect it may have disappeared below the surface “as a result of natural erosion by waves and drift ice in the frigid and stormy waters of the Sea of Okhotsk”, Quartz reports.

As a hotbed of seismic activity and extreme weather, Japan “has found itself not only losing, but sometimes gaining territory”, says Japan Today.

In 2015, a 300-metre stretch of seabed in Hokkaido rose above the water to become part of the coastline.

“Initially, the phenomenon raised fears of mysterious seismic activity, but geologists said it was probably the result of a landslide that pushed the underwater surface up,” the news site reports.

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