TOKYO Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's effort to nationalize a chain of disputed islands long a source of friction between Japan and China faced rough going after the isles' owners said on Friday they would keep negotiating their sale to Tokyo's governor.
The stance by the Kurihara family, which owns four of the five uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, complicates Noda's efforts to dampen friction between the two Asian giants over the islands, claimed by China, Taiwan and Japan and located near rich fishing grounds and potential gas and oil fields.
"The starting line of our negotiations was with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and at present we are proceeding with these discussions," said Hiroyuki Kurihara, whose brother and sister own the islands and lease them to Japan's government.
"It is not our family's idea to suddenly switch partners just because someone else has appeared on the scene," Kurihara, 65, told a news conference.
Noda said this month the government was considering buying the islands instead of letting Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara -- an outspoken China critic -- go ahead with a similar plan.
Diplomatic experts said Noda's move was intended to avoid a worsening of Sino-Japanese tensions but risked backfiring and indeed, Beijing has harshly criticized both plans, arguing the islands have been its territory since ancient times.
Ties between Beijing and Tokyo went into a deep chill in 2010 after a Japan arrested a Chinese trawler captain whose boat collided with Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the islands, and analysts say the feud has the potential to flare again.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is expected to apply soon for permission to land on the islands, a move that could put the central government in a tight spot.
Activists from Japan, China and Taiwan have landed on the islands in the past, sparking diplomatic disputes.
Japan's government has denied permission for such landings on the grounds that the owners objected and for the sake of their peaceful administration, but Kurihara said it would be "unavoidable" for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to send a survey team as part of the sale negotiations.
The Kurihara family bought the islands beginning in 1972 from another family who Japanese media say had managed them since the late 1890s. An older brother owns three of the islands and a sister owns a fourth. Those four are leased by the Japanese government, which owns the fifth island in the chain.
(Editing by Michael Perry)