Japanese territorial issues could jeopardise Asian trade links
TOKYO LETTER:Unofficial ‘disputes’ with China and South Korea over Japanese-held islands threaten to disrupt important economic partnerships
JAPAN’S SWELTERING high summer coincides with a string of agonising second World War anniversaries, climaxing with sombre ceremonies marking the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the country’s surrender in August 1945. Instead of being safely tucked away in history’s cupboard, however, the legacy of the nation’s past keeps leaking out to poison the present.
Two potentially corrosive disputes with China and South Korea have returned this week, threatening to disrupt one of the world’s most important tripartite economic partnerships. Japanese police have arrested 14 activists from Hong Kong who landed illegally on Wednesday on a goat-infested outcrop of Japanese-held islands called the Senkakus, 2,000km from Tokyo.
China’s foreign ministry has called for the activists’ “immediate and unconditional release”. Furious Chinese activists are threatening protests and boycotts of Japanese goods.
Meanwhile, Lee Myung-Bak stunned Tokyo earlier last week when he became the first South Korean president to visit the Dokdo islands, ending decades of quiet diplomacy over a long-festering problem. Lee then returned to the Korean mainland and lectured Tokyo on the lessons of history, adding that Japan’s emperor should avoid a long-mooted visit to Seoul unless he first apologises for the past.
Japan’s government and conservative media has reacted with predictable outrage. The country’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri, said this week that Lee had “crossed a line” with his visit to a Dokdos, known as Takeshima in Japan. Nationalist politicians, meanwhile, have urged Tokyo to send self defence force troops to protect the Senkakus, a move that would almost certainly trigger a response in kind from China.
Beijing says the Senkakus, known as the Diaoyus in China, were essentially spoils of the 1895 Sino-Japanese War, after which they were annexed by Japan. For years, they have been owned by a private Japanese family who vowed to keep them out of foreign hands.
Tokyo’s governor Shintaro Ishihara ended that arrangement. In April, the famously outspoken nationalist, who has long warned that Japan could become a “colony” of China, announced a plan to buy the Senkakus on behalf of the city. A private fund raised roughly $20 million in donations, with pledges of more.
The tailwind behind Ishihara’s campaign forced Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda down off the fence from where most Japanese leaders have sat since 1971, when China and Taiwan began to make diplomatic noises about the Diaoyus. Noda now says the central government will buy most of the islands, effectively nationalising them.