Tokyo lodges protest over flag theft


Tokyo has lodged a protest with China after a man ripped a Japanese flag from a car carrying Japan's ambassador in Beijing in the latest flare-up of a territorial row that provoked the worst anti-Japanese protests in years.

The Japanese embassy issued a statement saying the ambassador, Uichiro Niwa, was unhurt in the incident. It said two other vehicles forced his car to stop and a man got out, broke off the Japanese flag and made off with it.

But Japan's foreign ministry later said the flag had been snatched after the ambassador's car had become stuck in a traffic jam. A ministry spokesman said it would be too strong to describe the incident as an attack.

Both Japanese accounts said no one was injured and the car was otherwise undamaged. The embassy said it had "filed a strong protest with the Chinese foreign ministry".

It said that in response a senior ministry official called the incident "extremely regrettable" and pledged efforts to ensure the safety of Japanese citizens and businesses in China.

The incident occurred amid heightened tensions over disputed islands since mid-August, when the Japanese coast guard detained Chinese activists who sailed from Hong Kong and landed on the islands. Anti-Japanese demonstrations have taken place in Chinese cities over the past two weekends.

The uninhabited islands - known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China - have long been a source of friction between Tokyo and Beijing and competing territorial claims to the islets and surrounding fishing areas and potentially rich gas deposits.

Tokyo also remains locked in a dispute with South Korea over another contested island chain.

In a symbolic, but rare, gesture the Japanese parliament on Friday passed two resolutions asserting Japan's sovereignty over both island chains, calling Seoul's control over one of them a "illegal occupation" that should end soon. The resolutions prompted rebukes from Seoul and Beijing.

But in an effort to avert a further flare-up, the Japanese government today refused to let Tokyo metropolitan authorities land on the islands claimed by Japan and China.

Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara has proposed buying the islands from their private Japanese owners and has sought permission to send a team of officials to survey the land.

Despite close economic ties, bitter memories of Japanese militarism run deep in China and South Korea. The territorial disputes show how the region has failed to resolve differences nearly seven decades after the end of the second World War.