An expert's point of view on a current event.

China and Japan’s Wikipedia War

How a showdown over a group of remote islands in the East China Sea is heating up online.


As China and Japan jockey for influence in the Pacific, an unlikely diplomatic fault line has emerged: an archipelago of uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea. Known as the Senkakus in Japan, which controls them, the islands are also claimed by China and Taiwan — and both are struggling to reassert sovereignty. Tremors have increased in recent months with confrontations between the Japanese and Taiwanese coast guards and rabble-rousing from Chinese media outlets. Statesman have shuffled back and forth between Beijing, Tokyo, and Washington to cool the crisis, but neither Xi Jinping, the new head of the Chinese Communist Party, nor Shinzo Abe, Japan’s new prime minister, show any sign of backing down. On the contrary, China raised the stakes on Jan. 30, when one of its military frigates aimed weapons-targeting radar at a Japanese warship, prompting Japan to lodge a formal complaint with the Chinese government.

But if the physical posturing has been vigorously covered in the news media, the digital posturing has not. In recent years, partisans have taken the fight to Wikipedia, where articles about the islands have been subject to weekly "edit wars" between contributors. The content on these pages might seem to be of only marginal importance compared to more significant coverage in other outlets. But the "Senkaku Islands" and "Senkaku Islands dispute" Wikipedia articles are the two most prominent English-language sources of information about the islands on the Internet, with the top search result ranking on Google and thousands of page views every month. The Japanese and Chinese language editions of Wikipedia have their own article pages for the islands as well — each offering different chronologies of ownership. These sites, however, receive far less traffic and the content debates are far more diplomatic.

For many Web users, Wikipedia remains a reliable first stop for facts, and the site’s crowd-sourced quality control has always been more effective than critics give it credit for. But entries about contentious subjects — from Kosovo’s independence to Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy — are difficult to monitor around the clock, and remain susceptible to vandalism, questionable sources, and editorial disagreement. Charges of censorship and bias are rampant on the Senkaku Islands entries’ talk pages, where the process of article creation is negotiated. Many of the combatants are veteran editors with established user handles and years of experience who would never admit to any sort of partisanship. Nonetheless, strongly entrenched opinions are evident, with each side claiming adherence to Wikipedia’s editing guidelines — much like respective Japanese and Chinese officials continue to ground their claims in international law.

Like the real world debate, the Wikipedia dispute is a fairly recent development. The original Senkaku Islands article, created in 2003, was relatively short at just over 300 words. This version actually listed the traditional Chinese name, "Diaoyutai," first in the opening paragraph. By January 2010, the article had swelled to well over 4,000 words, and included 43 different footnotes. Although the article emphasized that ownership of the islands was disputed, "Senkaku" was now used on first reference, and many of the geographic citations were Japanese maps. That year, the article was subject to more than 800 separate edits. And when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese fishing boats near the islands in September, the article’s talk page exploded with activity.

As the article attracted more attention, three issues emerged as key points of contention between editors. First and foremost: the name. China refers to the chain as the Diaoyu Islands, Taiwan as the Diaoyutai Islands. Wikipedia searches for those entries have always redirected readers to the main "Senkaku Islands" page. But in 2009, an editor renamed the page "Diaoyutai Islands" and moved that name ahead of the Japanese translation in the opening paragraph. Although that change was quickly reversed by another editor, it launched a talk page dispute that raged through 2010. Some editors supported changing the article’s name to "Pinnacle Islands" — the English-language name for the island chain used in the 19th century — to mitigate concerns about article bias. This attempt at a compromise was quickly shot down, even as the talk page rhetoric heated up. "These pro-Japanese editors just a bunch of bully boys and hooligans!" an editor named STSC vented.

The second point of contention is ownership. As the Senkaku Islands article developed, competing Japanese and Chinese/Taiwanese historical claims to the territory were outlined in long, excessively detailed sections that soon took up the bulk of the article. One editor wisely created a new "Senkaku Islands dispute" page in October 2010 to accommodate new additions and outline the dispute’s chronology. But deciding what evidence was admissible even as a "claim" remained contentious. For example, a classified PRC government map identifying the islands as Japanese territory was added as a graphic after it was referenced in a 2010 Washington Times column. But some editors questioned the map’s authenticity, and others wondered whether the Times could really be considered a "reliable" source of information on the subject. A 2012 New York Times column by Taiwanese academic Han-yi Shaw received similar scrutiny. Han-yi revealed Japanese government documents from the Meiji era that seemed to acknowledge Chinese ownership of the islands, but this evidence was dismissed by one editor because the piece featured an introduction by Nicholas Kristof, a "pro-China journalist" with a "Chinese wife."

Third and finally, editorial neutrality has been a regular area of dispute. As the previous examples make clear, charges of bias are the most common sticking point during article development. Editing from a neutral point of view (NPOV in Wiki-speak) is a fundamental principle of Wikipedia, and any new content that appears less-than-objective is likely to be removed by another editor. But recent charges of subjectivity have had less to do with wording or sourcing, and more to do with a nationality. Editors using Japanese or Chinese words in their user handles have been frequent targets for this line of attack. A "Suggested Rules of Engagement" tag has been placed on the top of both articles’ talk pages to encourage civility, and parts of the main article were "locked" throughout 2012 to prevent editors from attempting to change the name.

Regular editing dust-ups might suggest that the Senkaku Islands article and its "dispute" offshoot are dubious resources of little value. In fact, both articles nicely summarize the controversy and provide a long list of citations and references that can advance further research. While news accounts of the islands focus on recent diplomatic incidents and their international implications, these Wikipedia articles provide historical context and a more detailed explanation of the arguments underlying each side’s claims to the territory. The vitriol exchanged by editors might be ugly, but it’s also evidence of a transparent and ongoing screening process. Wikipedia has a strict policy against "original research" — all claims and assertions must be supported by reliable, published sources, not personal interpretation — but editors are encouraged to vet sources and use their language skills to translate foreign documents.

Furthermore, while the Senkaku pages are particularly "active" right now, Wikipedia articles related to other territorial disputes have experienced similar disputes and edit wars. A recently proposed change to a single sentence on the Falkland Islands article produced multiple rounds of recriminations between two editors, each asserting the NPOV high ground. A suggestion to split the Cyprus article into a "Republic of Cyprus" page and "Cyprus (island)" page dissolved into a month-long debate that was 5,000 words longer than the existing article. And the Northern Ireland page — as you might suspect — is currently subject to active arbitration by administrators.

As the standoff over the Senkaku Islands escalates, Wikipedia will continue to be a kinetic diplomatic front. The pages’ high profile and the subject’s newsworthiness forces embattled editors to revisit and relitigate the same name and legal status battles again and again against new challengers. Whether voluntary cooperation and third-party mediation is enough to contain the crisis — editing or otherwise — remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that a large Web audience increasingly perceives Wikipedia as the encyclopedia of record where history is documented and judged.

<p> Pete Hunt is a graduate student at the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. </p>