Why Japan, South Korea, and China Are So Riled Up Over a Few Tiny Islands

The old nationalist tensions are rising over some disputed Asian islands.

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Japanese nationalists protest the South Korean president's visit to a disputed island. (Reuters)

August 15 marks the anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia. Japan's defeat was complete, and its losses unprecedented. Today, Japanese television coverage traced the final days of devastation, with those who lived through the war (now in their 80s) narrating accounts of the firebombing that ruined most of Tokyo and the atomic bombing that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For Japanese it continues to be a day of national mourning for those lost, and an annual opportunity to remind the nation and its neighbors of Japan's postwar commitment to peace.

For Japan's neighbors, however, it seems that August 15 is increasingly an opportunity to demonstrate their own national narratives of the war. This year South Korean president Lee Myung-bak became the first president to visit the contested Takeshima/Dokdo Islands, and his speech celebrating Korea's liberation from Japanese occupation reminded Japan that Koreans will not forgive their neighbor for its wartime enslavement of Korean women.

Hong Kong activists took the opportunity to send ships to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, small islets whose sovereignty is contested by Taiwan, the PRC, and Japan. Despite warnings from the Japan Coast Guard (JCG), seven activists dove overboard to swim to the islands--with five making it to land and two turning back to the ship. The JCG, the Japanese police, and agents from the Japanese immigration service met the activists who were subsequently detained. The Hong Kong ship and its remaining nine-member crew have since also been detained. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda tersely stated that they will be treated in accordance with Japanese law.

Nationalist fervor over the Senkakus was also on display in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Beijing through demonstrations claiming sovereignty over the Senkakus/Diaoyu Islands. Activism is not new to either Taiwan or Hong Kong. But demonstrations advocating Chinese sovereignty over the Senkakus intensified when a Chinese fishing trawler rammed two JCG vessels in the waters off the Senkaku Islands in September 2010. The trawler, Minjinyu 5179, was subsequently detained. Although the ship and its crew were soon released to China, the captain was not. Japan's prosecutors charged him with obstructing the JCG's performance of its duties.

Japan has long had to cope with activism such as this. Taiwanese and Hong Kong based activists have focused on the territorial dispute over the Senkakus since the 1970s, and in 2002, a group of Chinese activists also landed on the islands. The Japanese government has treated these incidents as violations of domestic law, but has more often than not promptly returned activists to their home countries. Detentions have been the norm, but the consequences have ranged from warnings to fines. In September 2010, the dangerous behavior of the Chinese trawler captain upped the ante, however, and his detention opened the possibility that he would be prosecuted.

This incident transformed thinking within Japan about the defense of its offshore islands. It also stimulated for the first time a serious popular response that will make decision making on the Senkaku Islands much more difficult for any Japanese leader. Prime Minister Noda today faces considerable domestic pressure to defend Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, including pressure from the very conspicuous advocate for Senkaku nationalism, Tokyo's governor Shintaro Ishihara.

President Lee's visit to the Takeshima/Dokdo Islands and the Chinese activism on the Senkakus may seem similar, but in fact they should be viewed differently. As Scott Snyder so persuasively argued, if serious conflict among nations is to be avoided, then political leaders must assume the role of statesmen when it comes to the pressures of nationalism. They have a choice: they can satisfy the nationalist impulse (usually for political gain) or they can mediate its impact on their nation's foreign relations.

Presented by

Sheila A. Smith is the senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She writes regularly at Asia Unbound.

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