ISHIGAKI, Japan - Agence France-Presse
A flotilla of boats carrying Japanese nationalists and lawmakers set sail Saturday for islands at the heart of a vitriolic diplomatic row with China, despite warnings from Beijing.
Around 150 people, including eight parliamentarians, left far southwest Ishigaki bound for the archipelago in the East China
Sea, a day after Japan deported pro-China activists who had sailed there from Hong Kong.
The voyage came as Beijing told Tokyo it had to immediately cease actions "harming" its territorial sovereignty.
"I want to show the international community that these islands are ours. It is Japan's future at stake," Kenichi Kojima, a local politician from Kanagawa, near Tokyo, told AFP before he boarded.
Parliamentarian Keiko Yamatani said most countries recognised Japan's sovereignty over the island chain, but added: "I think this kind of expedition will help raise awareness around the world." The 20 vessels left the southwestern Japanese island of Ishigaki at 8:30 pm (1130 GMT), an AFP journalist
on board one of the boats reported.
The fleet was expected to arrive at the archipelago, known as Senkaku in Japan and as Diaoyu in China, around sunrise (2130 GMT Saturday).
The Japanese government has refused permission for the group to land on the islands. Organisers said ahead of their departure that they would be holding a ceremony aboard boats moored "within touching distance" of the shore.
Beijing on Saturday rebuked Japan over the island visit.
"China has made solemn representations to Japan, demanding that it immediately cease actions harming China's territorial sovereignty," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
The dispute over the islands is one of the major stumbling blocks -- along with issues related to Japan's military occupation of parts of China
during World War II -- to smooth relations between Asia's two giant economies.
Tensions spiked as Japan deported 14 pro-China activists who sailed to the islands from Hong Kong. Some managed to land on an island, becoming the first non-Japanese to set foot on any part of the archipelago since 2004.
"China reiterates that any unilateral action taken by Japan regarding" the islands "are illegal and invalid", Saturday's foreign ministry statement said, adding that any such actions will not undermine its claim over the territory.
It follows another statement late Friday which called on Japan to pursue "dialogue and negotiation" to resolve the dispute.
Separately, a Japanese ruling party heavyweight said Saturday that his country should beef up its coast guard to defend the islands.
"Coast guard officials are doing their best, and so the government and the ruling parties will discuss how to strengthen our backup to them," Seiji Maehara, the policy chief of the Democratic Party of Japan, told reporters.
The renewed dispute came as tensions also rose between Japan and South Korea after President Lee Myung-Bak visited islets controlled by Seoul but claimed by Tokyo.
Emotions were running high around the August 15 anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender with Beijing and Seoul angry about a visit to a Tokyo war shine on Wednesday by two Japanese cabinet members.
China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported Saturday that hundreds of people protested in the western city of Xian over Japan's detainment of the pro-China activists.
Demonstrators carried Chinese flags and banners, including one that read, "Salute the Chinese warriors who defend the Diaoyu Islands," Xinhua reported. It also said a small protest took place in front of the Japanese embassy in Beijing.
China's Global Times newspaper welcomed the release of the pro-China activists, but suggested that the dispute with Japan was far from over.
"As long as the Diaoyu Islands are still under Japanese control, there is no complete victory," it said in an editorial.