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Sixty-seven Years After WWII, Northeast Asian Nationalisms Flare Again

by Sheila A. Smith
August 15, 2012

A Japan Coast Guard patrol ship sails around a Hong Kong fishing boat near the disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japan or Diaoyu in China A Japan Coast Guard patrol ship sails around a Hong Kong fishing boat near the disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japan or Diaoyu in China August 15, 2012 (Japan Coast Guard/Courtesy 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/Tokdo 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.

As I have written in Orbis this summer, 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/Tokdo Islands and the Chinese activism on the Senkakus may seem similar, but in fact they should be viewed differently. As my colleague 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.

Prime Minister Noda will now face considerable pressures within Japan on the management of Japan’s disputed territories. If South Korea and Japan cannot agree to disagree on Takeshima/Tokdo, then their differences ought to be argued in international court. Negotiations with Russia over the Northern Territories also seem to have failed. Russia’s political leaders have chosen to ignore decades of effort to create a cooperative solution, and have visited the islands. Moreover, they have increased military deployments and invited foreign dignitaries to legitimize their control over these disputed islands. Chinese and Japanese activism on the Senkakus is increasing, and could potentially derail one of the region’s most important bilateral relationships.

This new wave of territorial nationalism in East Asia will be difficult to manage. It is entirely conceivable that Japan’s political leaders will respond to President Lee’s visit with activism of their own. Governor Ishihara will undoubtedly use this as an opportunity to push his plan for purchasing the Senkaku Islands, and is likely to try to visit himself. Japan’s national leaders—from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Prime Minister Noda today—have sought to maintain a low-key approach to managing the Senkakus, but those who seek a more assertive nationalist response could make that difficult.

Prime Minister Noda could succumb to these pressures, or he can continue to demonstrate a calm and consistent approach to managing these islands. However, he will need to respond to the intrusion into Japanese waters of the Hong Kong vessel, and any further actions taken by either activists or government officials from China. Already this summer the Taiwanese Coast Guard escorted a fishing vessel that intentionally entered into Senkaku waters. Should Chinese activists join in the fray, this could easily escalate into a major confrontation with emotions on all sides of the East China Sea running high.

Leaders of all Northeast Asia nations must recognize the costs to the entire region of the nationalisms of the 20th century. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese peoples have all paid the tremendous cost of war. Yet they have rebuilt dynamic and prosperous societies, and while the wounds of last century’s wars are still raw, reactive nationalism is not the salve that will heal them. Blame and retribution will only create conflict, and if unchecked, could lead yet again to war.

Territorial disputes today can be adjudicated under international law, and scientific evidence and legal argument should be the armaments in that battle. Reflection on the costs of war should be part of every nation’s conversation on days of memorial. But the leaders of each nation must find the courage to remind their nations to look forward while working to create the path to reconciliation with those who were once enemies. There are too many opportunities to demonstrate the value of cooperation among the countries of Northeast Asia for anyone to persuade me that the hurts of the past cannot be overcome.

It is a difficult task, but for the political leaders of Japan, South Korea, and China, it is perhaps the most pressing one.

Post a Comment 13 Comments

  • Posted by Vhic jr.allaga

    china wanted to bully all the countries that they know they can..its a shame to a country that for how many years sleeping now that his awakend wanted to take all the lands that he wanted to posses.

  • Posted by Sardonic Veritas

    Your attempt at revisionist history is both misguided and dishonest. Unlike Germany after WWII, There has been no official reparations for the aggression and violence perpetrated by Japan to their Asian neighbors.

    These islets were acquired during the WWII invasions, why in the name of God do you think it is fair and just that Japan gets to keep them?

  • Posted by Jy Jung

    When South Korea President asked the Japanese King’s appology before visiting Korea. The Japanese said it’s not etiquette for such demand.

    I tell you, Japanese people, was it an etiquette when you abolish over 500 year old Korean (Chosen) Kindom by force and murdering
    Korean Queen ???

    You talk about Korean President’s visit Dok Do island. How about Japanese government claiming the island is theirs and teach their children with new history book. Their Defense Department Guide printed the Island is theirs.

    Every New Japanese leaders claims same thing when they are in power. Now you saying Korean president’s visit his own land?

    The current time is different than 19th century or early 20th century,
    when Japanese had military power and terrorized all Asian Countries. What did you get after you attacked the Pearl Harbor.
    Not only you victimised all Asian people, but also your own people being in misery.

    Let’s live in harmony, Japanese People, specialy Japanese politicians.


  • Posted by East peacemaker without the west

    “china wanted to bully all the countries that they know they can..”
    This statement by the shallow thinking commenter, Vhic Jr. Allaga is at best naive.

    It should rightfully read “The US wanted to bully all the countries that they know they can..”
    Theya re the real greedy ones, they already owned Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Peurto Rico, American Samoa, Midway islands and may smaller ones in the Pacific Ocean, and what else?

    And now whats to established a so-called pivot into Asia, thus creating all these unneccessary conflicts with Phillippines and Vietnam.

    If anything, the US is to blame, and also handing over Shenkaku and Okinawa to Japan without consultation after conquering these islands themselves.

    So, this Vhic guy, do your homework and open your eyes, and not read only western media, which is about the only language and sources you know.

  • Posted by Mahesh

    Sardonic Veritas –

    You missed the larger point.

    “Fair and just” is not the business of CFR and Shiela Smith.

    The business of CFR and Sheila Smith is to keep the Korean and Japanese vassals pliant, and use them efficiently like Milch cows to advance the global governance, centralization of global financial system and natural resources.

    So the essence of the policy is to gradually nudge both parties to merge and form a cohesive block to check China, not quarrel over a few islets.

  • Posted by Exodus1312

    It would seem this may just be perhaps a distraction on China’s part to draw attention away from a rise in internal conflict. China is becoming more of a global partner to many nations, as well as becoming more flexible and adaptable to the current rise in global thinking and technology. In maintaining its current laws, it seems China may also be using certain traditional elements in an integrated system to become more adaptable to global events. In this, China may be attempting to use more traditional elements to maintain its current system, which may be inadvertently manifesting imperialist elements, which it seeks acquisition of territories to increase an empire, not specifically for any other motive. In this, the use of islands or territories, or their means of acquisition on behalf of another country would have no bearing on whether or not China sought to acquire them. Though, I may be mistaken in this.

  • Posted by JHCHify

    Whilst most of the posters here have presented valid points and arguments, I am leaning towards placing the blame on the United States. Going back historically, the majority of tensions and conflicts in Asia today stem from the US asserting their dominance and ideology on other countries. Concentrating specifically on the Asian region, the cold war has resulted in the Vietnam war, the division of Corea, as well as the current issues of sovereignty disputes of a handful of Asian countries in the South East and East China seas. As a result of post war ambiguously drawn up borders usually led by the Americans, as well as serving their own interests, this has brought ongoing tensions to a handful of Asian countries whilst the United States are constantly in the backdrop playing the role of the world police and portraying China as the villain, all with the main aim of serving their own interests in the Asian region.

    It is a fact that China is an emerging superpower on the world stage, and this is an unavoidable fact. It is also fact that China will continue to have a strong hegemonic influence over the Asian region. Whilst the US’s role as the world superpower and world police is never protested as many nations around the world bow down to their demands, it is best that the US bud out of Asian matters as they have caused enough mess in the region and let the Asian countries run it’s course in resolving issues created by the Americans in the first place.

  • Posted by Nozart

    As a Japanese, I see these problems with sadness. Especially about ROK, I really want to say that please get calm and consider the profit of ROK-Japan relationship. Now, ROK’s attitudes cannot be overlooked by Japanese citizens because of your President’s statement on our Emperor. Please understand that Japanese Emperor is regulated as Japan’s symbol in our Constitution. Can you endure the criticism about traditional Korean culture? Please consider again. Criticism or any other negative feeling and attitude will not make anything positive fruit.

    And as one sensible Japanse citizen, I really want to say that I understand ROK’s insistence on Dokudo possession because of your recongnition that Dokudo occupation in 1905 by Japan was stepping stone toward Japan’s rule on Korean Peninsula.

    Looking from global framework, conflict between Japan and ROK seems strange because both two nations faces almost same interest about security. Why ROK and Japan has to compete caused such small islands? ROK’s economy has became so big and its skill of electricity now suepasses Japan’s one. Why ROK has to have inferiority complex such as apology request of WW II? Do you think that be tied to past thing really make positive or advancing result between this ROK-Japan relationship?


  • Posted by Korean Ajusshi


    As a Korean, I find your comment to be very absurd and offensive. You are upset about what the South Korean President said about your emperor, but what about the fact that it was you Japanese who MURDERED our last queen? Why should we care about your royalty when you don’t give a damn about ours? It was under your emperors that Korea was invaded more than once and suffered ruthless attacks and raids by Japan throughout history. And what does economy and inferiority complex have to do with territories? Our territories are ours. It’s that simple. Perhaps it’s because of your faltering economy and a threat to your superiority-complex by Koreans that you Japanese want to make a baseless claim on our territory and accuse us of occupying your territory. And if those are such small and insiginficant islands not worth souring our relationship, then why are you Japanese so eager and stubborn to take those islands from us? All in all, why are some of you Japanese so audaciously hypocritical, especially towards us Koreans? Is it because you still somehow view us as your inferior former subjects that you can push around?

  • Posted by Kim Lee

    “This year South Korean president Lee Myung-bak became the first president to visit the contested Takeshima/Tokdo 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.”

    Correction, Dr. Smith, Pres. Lee said that Koreans will not forgive Japan, AS LONG AS the Japanese government refuses to apologize formally for the sexual enslavement of Korean women by the Japanese imperial army that occupied Korea, along with compensations due to them by that government. Obviously, Koreans cannot forgive the Japanese attempt to take any territory, including Dokdo, away from Korea, again, ever!

  • Posted by Nozart

    Concern about “comfort women” problem, I hereby clearly indicates my opinion and ask some urgent questions to Korean people. If Dr.Smith think that this contribution is not appropriate to CFR Blogs, please delete this comment.

    First, we Japanese cleary shows our attitudes towards this problem by Kono Statement that Japanese goverment repents for Japanese army’s violence to Korean women. And also, we established Asian Women’s Fund to compensate for comfort women. Of course, some Japanese politicians acts (referring to reconsideration about Kono Statement which admit Japanese goverment responsibility toward comfort women problem) shouldn’t be overlooked. And concerning about these politicians’ foolish act, I feel sorry to Korean people. But, please understand that Japanese government has been showing apology attitude towards comfort women problem, and also been taking some actions through the Asian Women’s Fund or individual compensation by Japanese government.

    Standing on my understanding like above, I want to ask several questions. (1) Why do you think that Japanese government’s attitude is inappropriate about comfort women problem neverthless Japanese government shows apology by concrete form? (2) If you say that my understanding is wrong, please point out. I want to know about this problem’s view point from Koreans. (3) Actually, I also feel that Japanese goverments’ recent attitude towards this problem is irresponsible. Frankly, what do you want to do by Japanese government now about this problem?

    Forget the past and lose an eye; dwell on the past and lose both eyes.

    Actually and shamefully, some our famous politicians cannot see correctly about what Japanese government had done during WW II. These people are our nation’s shame. Our relationship always be stopped by past thing.


  • Posted by Pak

    Nice article. But, I found that you mis-understand what is Comfort Woman.

    >wartime enslavement of Korean women
    They are not slaves but prostitutes. Many started the business to support their family life that were in extreme poverty during the war. Some were sold by their parents, unfortunately. Some were abducted by Korean and Japanese brokers. About 50% of brokers are said Korean.

    Actually, US military, UN military, Korean military also had the same/similar Comfort Woman system during Korean War, Vietnam War, etc. in an effort to reduce rapes and massacre. Singling out Japan is NOT totally fair.

    A Korean government funded organization called VANK started a campaign called “Discount Japan” in 2005. Comfort Woman, Takeshima, Sea of Japan issues are their campaign package. Koreans are very eager to disgrace Japan and Japanese people. This is one of the reasons you’ve been hearing many bad news around the world recently because Koreans work hard to disgrace Japan.

    Read these materials before you use the word ‘enslavement’ or other words that humiliate Japan and Japanese people.
    – A US Military Report: Japanese Prisoner of War Interrogation Report No. 49.
    Quote: “A “comfort girl” is nothing more than a prostitute or “professional camp follower” attached to the Japanese Army for the benefit of the soldiers. “
    – THE TRUTH ABOUT THE “COMFORT WOMEN” by Moteki Hiromichi
    – The Truth about the Question of “Comfort Women” by Ogata Yoshiaki

  • Posted by tavelinglight

    I am always puzzled by people’s lack of the most basic facts, facts which can be verified within a few minutes of even superficial research. 1. Germany did NOT pay any reparations as a consequence of WW2, only WW1. The Marshall Plan was put into place to avoid the catastrophe that was largely created by WW1 war reparations. 2. The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute is unrelated to WW2. The operative dates are 1895, 1879 and 1609. Who has sovereignty may well be a debatable issue, but not on the basis of actions taken by Japan during WW2.

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