Japan: Entire Island Near Region Coveted by Russia Mysteriously Disappears

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Taken on October 11, this picture shows a bird flying over coastal waters dotted with Japanese- and Russian-controlled islands at Cape Nosappu in Hokkaido, Japan. An uninhabited island off Japan’s northern coast has disappeared, with no one exactly sure about when that happened. KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

An uninhabited island off Japan's northern coast has disappeared, with no one exactly sure about how long it has been gone.

If the island is confirmed to have slipped beneath the waves, Japan could see its territorial waters shrink, which would have implications for its regional dispute with Russia over control of an island chain nearby, Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported.

The islet, called Esanbe Hanakita Kojima, sits around 1,650 feet off the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido in the Sea of Okhotsk. Just to the east, Russia owns a chain of islands it calls the Kurils Islands but which Tokyo calls the Northern Territories.

The islands were occupied by Soviet forces at the end of World War II, and remain in Moscow's possession despite Japanese protests to have their ownership restored to Tokyo. Alongside their strategic importance, some of the islands are home to valuable natural resources. The Russian-controlled island of Iturup—or Etorofu as Japan calls it—has deposits of gold, silver, natural gas, oil and rhenium, for example.

Esanbe was one of 158 islands that were named by the Japanese government in 2014 in an effort to bolster its territorial reach and underscore the extent of its exclusive economic zone. International law dictates that islands can only be named if they can be seen above the water line, including at high tide.

If the island is gone the country's waters will shrink, though only by around 1,600 feet. This would open up a new gap between the Japanese and Russian boundaries.

The small island certainly appears to be no more, though no one in the coastal village of Sarufutsu on Hokkaido's main island actually noticed. The disappearance only came to light after a visiting author—Hiroshi Shimizu—arrived in Sarufutsu to work on a book about Japan's "hidden" islands.

Shimizu informed the local fisheries cooperative that one of the islets he expected to see had vanished. The cooperative's boats then set out to check the report and found nothing. According to the Japanese coast guard, the island was last surveyed at 4.5 feet above the water in 1987.

Veteran fishermen told Asahi Shimbun that while they remember an island being there decades ago, they generally avoided the area because navigation software recorded the landmass as an undersea reef.

Japan's coast guard now intends to visit the island to determine whether it is still there and to make sure the area is safe for boats to pass through. The Guardian and Asahi Shimbun both cited experts who suggested Esanbe might have been slowly eroded by wind and drift ice that form nearby each winter, and gradually slipped below the waves without anyone noticing.