Forty Taiwanese fishing vessels which had earlier sailed into Japanese waters around a group of disputed islands have since left, the Japanese coast guard reported on Tuesday according to TV channel NHK.
The vessels set off early on Tuesday morning for the disputed Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese), escorted by eight patrol boats, in an apparent show of defiance against Japan’s controversial nationalization of three of the five disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Japan’s coast guard was alerted of the fishermen’s plans to gather all available vessels within about 22 miles (37 km) of the islands and encircle them, and responded by firing water cannons at the Taiwanese ships.
The islands have been at the center of a dispute recently that has triggered violent anti-Japan protests across China and caused Japanese companies to suspend operations in China.
Both Taiwan – to which the pre-1949 Chinese government moved – and mainland China reject Japan’s claims to the islands, which were controlled by the United States after World War II and given to Japan in 1972.
Beijing and Tokyo cannot agree on a maritime border in the economic zones around the islands. Japan claims it has occupied the islands since 1895, while Beijing says Japanese charts dating back to 1783 show the islands as Chinese territory.
Japan also claims that China and Taiwan only began to take an interest in the islands in the 1970s, when evidence was discovered of major subsurface resource deposits in their territorial waters.
The chief of Japan’s Cabinet of Ministers, Osamu Fujimura, said that despite the territorial dispute, Japan aims to resolve the conflict while maintaining friendly relations with Beijing.