TOKYO - Japan was readying to deport 14 people it arrested after pro-China activists landed on a disputed island, reports said Thursday, in what was being seen as an attempt to defuse a growing row.
The day after historical wounds were torn open on the anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender with calls from Seoul and Beijing for atonement, Tokyo scrambled to find a solution to another potentially explosive situation.
Five men, who became the first non-Japanese to set foot on the East China Sea island for eight years, and a further nine arrested aboard the boat that had carried them from Hong Kong, would be sent home as early as Friday, Kyodo news and other media reported.
The 14 had all been arrested for violating Japanese immigration law. Kyodo, citing unnamed government sources said they would be handed over to immigration officials "possibly Friday".
"They all deny the allegation of illegal entry, saying the islands are part of Chinese territory," a local police spokesman told AFP earlier.
Jiji Press said cabinet ministers would meet Friday morning to discuss the illegal landing.
Dozens of people protested at the Japanese consulate in Hong Kong on Thursday, demanding Japan release the activists and give up its claim to the island chain.
Members of the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions waved Chinese flags and chanted slogans such as "Down with Japanese militarism" and "Get out of our Diaoyu Islands", the Chinese name for what Japan calls Senkaku.
Protest group leader Aron Kwok told AFP the arrests had been unlawful and the 14 should be freed immediately.
A handful of protesters shouted anti-Japanese slogans outside the embassy in Beijing before being led away by police, an AFP reporter witnessed.