Who was Nakai Yozaburo?

Korean-language version by Sam Ahn

Nakai Yozaburo is an essential figure in understanding Japan´s claim of "effective management" and its "formal incorporation" of Dokdo in the period of 1903 to 1905.   It was Nakai Yozaburo who is cited as the one responsible for requesting the incorporation of the islets into the Japanese Empire in September 1904.  Nakai is also key in that he is representative of a group of Japanese civilians whose involvement with Korea´s islands in the East Sea/Sea of Japan is instructive in assessing the nature of the Japanese expansion into Korea´s eastern territorial waters (and beyond) at the beginning of the 20th Century.   With an understanding of Korea´s weakness relative to an increasingly aggressive Japanese government and its war with Russia in this sea area, we can see how this supposedly lone Japanese entrepeneur sequestered the Dokdo islets for Imperial Japan.

A History of Japanese Involvement on Ullungdo

The Meiji Restoration facilitated Japanese expansion outwards.     One manifestation of this expansion was Japanese trespassing on the Korean island of Ullungdo in the late 1800s, which by 1900 resulted in upwards of a thousand Japanese engaged in logging and fishing at the island.    The Korean government made no less than five formal requests for the removal of Japanese nationals from Ullungdo, as this trespassing was not only illegal, it resulted in frequent clashes between Korean residents and the Japanese.   Some of these Japanese even began to settle there illegally.  In the early 1880s, the government of Japan repeatedly apologized to the Korean government for this trespassing and made arrangements to halt it, but after Japan´s victory in the Sino-Japanese War (1895), fewer people in Japan felt the need to respect Korean sovereignty.   Japan´s humbling of first the Chinese in 1895, and then the Russians by 1905, removed any remaining "big power" barriers to Japanese expansion in Korea.   This situation coincided with (and promoted) increased Japanese economic acquisitions in Korea and the Japanese government´s promotion of an extraterritorial deep-sea fishery policy that extended Japanese fishing areas into Korean coastal waters; with no consideration at all that Korea was a foreign country or that Korean fishermen relied on their own coastal waters for their livelihood.   Despite fishing regulations and treaties signed between the two nations, by the late 1890s, both the Japanese government and its civilians alike simply saw Korea as a frontier to be fearlessly exploited.

Enter Nakai Yozaburo

Nakai Yozaburo
Nakai Yozaburo.
Japanese travels to Ullungdo eventually led to their use of the Dokdo islets, as Dokdo can be easily seen from slightly higher elevations on Ullungdo, and it was well known by the Koreans on Ullungdo.   It is known that in the late 1890s and early 20th century, Japanese fishermen of the San´in region of Japan would stop off at Dokdo to fish while on their way either to or from Ullungdo.   One of those fishermen, named Nakai Yozaburo, came from the village of Saigocho on Okinoshima; but Japanese sources have also described him as a "resident" of Ullungdo.   Therefore, Nakai´s involvement with Dokdo was part and parcel of the illegal Japanese trespassing on Ullungdo that had been going on during this period.   

According to his own account, Nakai´s interest in Dokdo arose from the abundance of sea lions there, and he started hunting these animals at Dokdo in 1903.  Seeing a potential monetary windfall from rises in oil and leather prices in the build-up to the war with Russia, and to eliminate the competitors that had drastically reduced the numbers of sealions at Dokdo that year, Nakai sought to monopolize the use of the Dokdo islets and its surrounding waters in 1904.  For this end, Nakai would need to file a request for the exclusive use of Dokdo from a governmental authority.

In a personal history written in 1910 for the Shimane Prefectural government, Nakai Yozaburo himself states that he "thought that the island was Korean territory attached to Ullungo", and intended to submit his request for the lease of Dokdo to the government in Seoul.  As he was basically a squatter on Ullungdo and had been working in that area for at least a number of years, Nakai was in the best position to know the local situation and the (then) commonly accepted understanding (among both Japanese and Koreans) as to which nation owned Dokdo.  At least two other Japanese sources from the time attest to Nakai´s initial understanding that Dokdo was a Korean island.(1)  So it´s obviously the case that the wording of Nakai´s statement was NOT an "editor´s error", as the Japanese Foreign Ministry stated in a research paper written in November 1954.

For the purpose of submitting his lease request to the Korean government, Nakai travelled to Tokyo in the early fall of 1904, whereupon an Agriculture Ministry official from Nakai´s home on Oki Island suggested that he meet with the Fishery Bureau Director Maki Bokushin at the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce to discuss his intentions.  Director Maki had a long career as the highest fishery administrator and was a leading figure in promoting Japan´s deep-sea fishing industry and its expansion into Korean coastal waters.  Maki agreed that Nakai should ask to lease the Dokdo islets, but thought that it might be more opportune, for everyone involved, to submit the request to the Japanese government.  The Fishery Director proceeded to ask assistance from an Imperial Navy Hydrographic Department bureaucrat, Admiral Kimotsuki Kenko.  Although he was in charge of Japanese waterway administration in peacetime, Admiral Kimotsuki was at the time involved in military operations in the coastal waters of Korea for the Hydrographic Department.  What happened next, quickly changed Nakai Yozaburo´s simple lease of Dokdo into the total incorporation of the islets into the Japanese Empire; for the Japanese military saw an opportunity to grab a strategic territory.

Dodko´s Strategic Value in 1904
In that same year, 1904, Japan went to war with Russia, and the sea areas off Korea´s east and south coasts became battlegrounds starting in June.  Months before Nakai went to Tokyo, the Japanese military saw the strategic value of the Korean islands Ullungdo, Chejudo, Kommundo (Port Hamilton) and Dokdo, as they were useful in keeping an eye on Russia´s fleet.  In total disregard for Korea´s sovereignty, Japan began building military watchtowers on Ullungdo in July 1904, with a watchtower erected on Dokdo the following year, in July 1905.  These watchtowers were established on the above islands and linked via underwater telegraph cables to the Japanese Navy base at Chukpyon Bay in Korea and from there to Imperial Navy headquarters at Sasebo.  Therefore, the need for military facilities to track Russia´s Vladivostok fleet was the prime motivator for the Japanese government´s interest in Nakai´s request to lease the islets in 1904, and the motivation for its incorporation in February 1905.  The fact that Korea was more likely than ever to be unable to do anything about it further emboldened the Japanese government.

Imperial Japan´s Formal "Incorporation" of Dokdo

According to Yozaburo Nakai´s account, Kimotsuki met with him and led him to believe that the island he wanted to lease was "absolutely ownerless".  How and by what process Admiral Kimotsuki came to the conclusion that Dokdo was ownerless is unknown, but he obviously did not pay much attention to the several occasions within the previous 30 years (in 1875, 1876, and 1877) that the Meiji government and military (including Kimotsuki´s own department of the Imperial Navy) had demonstrated their recognition of Korea´s title to Dokdo.(2)  Kimotsuki further emphasized to Nakai that, as the island was ownerless under the concept of terra nullius (ownerless land), and that as Nakai was involved in the "management" of this island, the next logical step was to ask the government for its incorporation into Japan.

With the guidance and backing of Maki and Kimotsuki, Nakai submitted a "Request for Territorial Incorporation of Liancourt Island and Its Lease" on September 29, 1904 to the Japanese Home Ministry, to the Agriculture and Commerce Ministry, and to the Foreign Ministry.  Dokdo was cited as a terra nullius in the application.  However, it is important to note that the request for the incorporation was opposed by better informed officials in the Japanese Home Ministry.  The Home Ministry had in its records the definitive statement on Japan´s position regarding Ullungdo and its appended island, Dokdo, a decision handed down in 1877 along with the Council of State (Dajokan) that Japan "had nothing to do with" these islands, and that they belonged to Korea.  It seems by 1904-05, the Japanese government had very conveniently changed its mind.  Nakai himself stated that the Home Ministry´s opposition in 1904 was based on the opinion that "the gains would be extremely small while the situation would become grave if the acquisition of a barren islet suspected of being Korean territory...would amplify the suspicions of various foreign countries that Japan had an ambition to annex Korea.   Thus, [the] petition was rejected."  Of course, this was not the end of the line for Nakai, for he was helped by yet another power-broker in the Japanese government.

Yamaza Enjiro was the Political Affairs Bureau Director at the Japanese Foreign Ministry, and had experience in Korea working at the Japanese legation in Seoul, and had acquired numerous concessions for Japan during his tenure there.  He was also involved with the right-wing nationalist Genyosha organization, and had worked with the Foreign Ministry´s Komura Jutaro in promoting Japan´s expansion into the rest of Asia.  It was Yamaza Enjiro who Nakai was told to go to next.  Citing military necessity, it was Yamaza who broke the deadlock and forced the incorporation of Dokdo through the Home Ministry´s opposition and from there to its acceptance by the Foreign Ministry.  On January 28, 1905, the Japanese government granted the application for the incorporation at a cabinet meeting, and from there it was accepted by Shimane Prefecture in Proclaimation Number 40 on February 22, 1905, naming the island "Takeshima" (this is where we got "Takeshima Day" on the same date in 2005, on the hundredth anniversary of Dokdo´s incorporation into Japan).

...And Nakai Yozaburo did actually get something out of all of this: On June 5, 1905, the Japanese government validated his lease, and he and a few friends ran the "Takeshima Fishing Company", with exclusive rights to exploit Dokdo and its surrounding waters.

It is interesting to note that for an important event such as the incorporation of a new territory, the Japanese government did not announce it at the central government level nor did they make notice of it in the official gazette in 1905.  More interesting still, the Japanese did not provide timely notification to the Korean government of their new "acquisition" in the sea space the two countries shared.  Considering the circumstances, it would seem only pertinent that a notification of such a change should take place between two nations whose territorial waters border each other.  Currently, the
Japanese Foreign Ministry website states that it was not necessary for them to notify Korea.  It is also a thief´s logic, and is a questionable assumption under international law, as there are different views on whether external notification is one of the requisite conditions for "prior occupation". The majority of jurists consider notification to be required.   At the time, the Japanese informed Korean authorities of the incorporation rather peripherally in March 1906; just late enough to ensure that Korea would not have control of its own foreign affairs in order to mount a state-to-state objection to the Japanese move on the international stage (this being due to the Protectorate Treaty of November 1905, at which time Japan formally took control of Korea´s foreign affairs).

So who was Nakai Yozaburo?

So was Nakai a "hearty entrepeneur and pioneer of Japan´s territorial expansion"?

Let´s start with what we know:  Even before the incorporation, Nakai was an illegal immigrant, squatting on Korean soil for his own benefit, like a number of other Japanese.   He had not been invited by the Korean government, nor was he staying on a visa(!)   Also, Nakai, like the other Japanese operating in the Korean sea space around Ullungdo and Dokdo, did not pay export duties for their harvests of natural products; duties that were stipulated under the Japan-Korea Fishing Regulations of 1889 (a treaty heavily favoring Japan´s interests).  That made him a poacher, if not a tax-evader at the same time.  More importantly though, Nakai was simply a tool of the Japanese government, as his "effective management" was just the pretext that the Imperial government needed to formally incorporate Dokdo for military purposes.

Therefore, the Japanese Foreign Ministry, to this day, bases its formal incorporation of Dokdo on the actions of an outlaw who was being used by special interests within the bureaucracy of Imperial Japan; officials who intentionally ignored knowledge of Japan´s previous rulings that recognized Korea´s title to Dokdo.

It is incredible that a nation such as Japan, with its stature in the world community, would continue to maintain a territorial claim that is so utterly flawed and shabby; a territorial claim that is the epitome of how imperialism conducts "management" beyond its borders.


(1) The two other sources are:
Takeshima oyobi utsuryoto(1906) by Okuhara Hukuichi, and
Shimanekenshi(1922) published by the Shimane Prefecture Education Board.

(2) The Meiji government recognized Korea's title to Dokdo through the Foreign Ministry and the Dajokan in 1875, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Dajokan in 1877, the Ministry of the Army in 1875, and several times thereafter through the Ministry of the Navy in 1876 (published in maps) and finally, the Ministry of the Home Affairs in 1905 when it opposed the plan to incorporate Dokdo.  Admiral Kimotsuki´s ignorance of the existence of such a number of official decisions is far too coincidental to take seriously his assertion that he believed that Dokdo was ownerless.