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China Sea Update: Temperature Rising

Every year on August 15, the date of Japan’s surrender in World War II, Japanese officials visit the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo to honor the country’s war dead. The shrine honors a number of convicted war criminals, and the visits anger Asian countries that greatly suffered under Japanese rule. This year’s visit comes with tensions running especially high after the Japanese coast guard arrested 15 Chinese activists on the Senkaku Islands. These islands (which are also claimed by Taiwan) have symbolic value and are located near a potentially gas-rich area. The Associated Press has more:

“We want the world to know that this is — way back in history — the territory of China, and as Chinese people we can go there fishing, touring at our own right,” David Ko, a spokesman for the activists, said in a telephone interview from Hong Kong. “The Japanese have no right to stop us.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said Japan historically and by international law owns the islands and there is no room for its sovereignty to be questioned. He called the trespassing “extremely regrettable.”

Tokyo’s governor, the 79-year-old outspoken nationalist Shintaro Ishihara, has been trying to buy four of the five islands from the Japanese businessman who currently claims ownership. He has already successfully raised $17 million dollars, prompting the Japanese government to promise to buy the islands. Foreign Policy magazine, in a piece on Ishihara, says:

Ishihara warned in May that “Japan could become the sixth star on China’s national flag” if it appeases Beijing. In his public speeches, he refers to the People’s Republic as “Shina,” a derogatory term associated with Japan’s 1937-1945 occupation.

China might not let this Japanese assertiveness slide.

Aside from the volatile Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, Japan is also in a row with South Korea over the Korean-controlled Liancourt Rocks, known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in Korea. A group of South Korean activists (led by a Korean rock star) swam 140 miles toward the disputed island to bolster their country’s territorial claim. Meanwhile, South Korea’s President Lee has just become the first Korean president to visit the islands in recent memory.

At the same time, the Associated Press reports that president Lee demanded that Emperor Akihito apologize to Koreans for the war if he ever wants to visit South Korea, prompting Japan to recall its ambassador.

The islands in the China sea are shaping up to be the epicenter of a host of regional struggles that could reshape the region if they ever flare into open conflict. These disputes should be watched with a careful eye.

Here’s a reminder of how the region is shaping up (click to view detail):

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  • Luke Lea

    From my reading I gather the Chinese are extremely hot-tempered on the subject of Japan. Memories of the Japanese occupation — both real and imagined — might be exploited by unscrupulous politicians jockeying for power. Let’s hope it don’t happen.

  • Curtis

    it was called the rape of nanking. did you miss that?

  • John C.

    Something that a lot of non-Japanese don’t know is that one of the reasons for the annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine is to keep the spirits there content to STAY there, instead of going abroad to cause more trouble. On that level, the Japanese are afraid to NOT make the annual visits. Since hardly anyone outside of Japan is Shinto, they have no appreciation for this.

  • Punditarian


    I think your description overstates the case:

    ” The shrine honors a number of convicted war criminals . . .”

    Yasukuni is a shrine to all of Japan’s war dead, all of those who have fallen in the service of the Emperor. According to the Wikipedia, its registry currently includes the names of “over 2,466,000 enshrined men and women whose lives were dedicated to the service of Imperial Japan, particularly to those killed in wartime.”

    And according to Shinto belief, once enshrined, the kami or spirit cannot be evicted.

    After the enshrinement of the kami of 14 “Class A” war criminals, including Hideki Tojo, in 1978, the Showa Emperor stopped visiting the shrine.

    It was the publicized visits of Japanese politicians (Prime Minister Koizumi, in August 2001 and the following spring) that created controversies.

    President Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg Cemetery in Germany might be viewed in a similar light. I have heard that US State Department officials knew that former SS members were interred there, but did not tell the White House in time to change the President’s itinerary.

    And I daresay that there are men interred at Arlington, whose exploits might give some observers pause.

    The shrine visits, and the disputes over islands, are stand-ins, I think, for serious and irreconciliable geopolitical rivalries.

  • D

    John C. and Pundititarian make excellent point, and I would like to make another…

    “Every year on August 15, the date of Japan’s surrender in World War II”

    is FACT, but also not the point.
    In most areas of Japan 08/15 is Obon or the Bon Festival, which is a festival where most people return to their families to honor the spirits of the Ancestors… in other words visiting the graves of the dead. For that reason they would visit the graves of the many who have died in service to Japan.

    Perhaps to outsiders it is not politically correct to visit the graves of war dead, especially ones later convicted of war crimes. But at least we should struggle to understand what it means.

    The other Asian countries understand well the dates and timing… it doesn’t matter to them if there are good reasons or bad. South Korea is demanding that the Emperor apologize again, as if that will change the past… and China will probably never forgive. But the bad blood between those countries goes back 1000 years, it isn’t about what happened in WWII.

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