In 1982, the UK fought a war over the Falkland Islands. Until their seizure by Argentina, the islands were little known in Britain. But their loss touched a nationalist nerve and an erstwhile unthinkable war was launched to recapture them. In a similar vein could an ‘unthinkable’ conflict break out over a group of obscure islands in the East China Sea?
Last week we looked at how protests had erupted across China when the Japanese government ‘purchased’ islands it calls the Senkakus, and the Chinese think of as the Diaoyus.
In that issue we reported on what the Chinese media said on the subject. This week we take a look at how the Japanese have reacted to the escalating dispute.
A good place to start is with the country’s leading news agency Kyodo, which delivered the standard Japanese line on the issue. It claimed that the islands “have effectively been held by Japan since 1895 except for when the US seized them briefly after the war”. The agency also suggested that the islands only became a source of dispute once it was reported in the 1970s that the surrounding area could house mineral and gas reserves.
It was only at this point China began to lay claim to them, Kyodo claims.
Shukan Bunshun, a Japanese weekly tabloid, concurs: “History proves that in the past, China did not dispute that the Senkaku Islands were Japanese territory”. The tabloid says it has evidence. When a Chinese fisherman got lost in the vicinity of the islands in 1919, Japanese residents saved him. The following year the Chinese ambassador, it claims, acknowledged in a letter that the man was lost in the vicinity of “Senkaku Islands, Yaeyama County, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan”.
Ergo, the Shukan Bunshun reckons, the Chinese government considered the islands then part of Japan.
What about the broader Japanese population?
Most seem to support their government’s purchase of the islands, with Yomiuri Shimbun citing a poll it conducted which found that 65% of those surveyed backed the idea of nationalising them. And in another poll, this time conducted by the Asahi Shimbun, feeling on the Japanese side seems to be running high (albeit in a less demonstrative way than the wave of violent protests that last week swept China). The newspaper asked 3,000 people what they thought of relations with China: 90% responded that they thought ties were ‘no good’. The newspaper commented: “The results reflect a bitter stand off over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.”
The Nikkei newspaper also warned that last week’s scenes in China had worrying historical parallels, comparing television coverage of protestors vandalising a Panasonic plant in Qingdao with “the Boxers, who laid siege to a church there in 1900 in a show of opposition to foreign imperialism and Christianity.” And certainly, television coverage of the protests has had a potent effect on some members of the Japanese public. CNN notes that after watching Chinese attacks on Japanese property, Takaga Mika was asked by her five year-old son: “Are Chinese people bad people?”
“I told him that Chinese people are not bad, and that it would be great if we could all get along better,” his mother replied.
Local media has also blamed Beijing’s education system for the ugly scenes. Akira Fujino, a commentator with Yomiuri, complained that “China’s youth has been raised to resent Japan”. The writer says the anti-Japan movement is part of an education system that emerged in the 1990s in which “the Party brought patriotism to the fore to replace the ideology of socialism”. This education is “tinged with anti-Japanese sentiment because it uses the history of the war with Japan as its core theme”.
The young have been affected most, Fujino warns. Those taking part in the demonstrations last week were mostly born in the 1980s and 1990s, he writes, and have “received patriotic education” since childhood.
This anti-Japanese educational bias also rankled with others. Yamashita Kiyoshi, who is 65, remarked to CNN: “I can understand that the Chinese are angry at the past, when the Japanese invaded them and did twisted things to them, but that’s the past. Japan was also the victim of the atomic bomb dropped by the United States, but we don’t constantly reproach them for doing that. At that time, it was war.”
The Nikkei newspaper even suggested that some of the violence directed against Japanese businesses smacked of ingratitude. Panasonic – which saw one of its factories attacked – was first invited to come to China by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Japanese firms duly invested in the Chinese economy and helped with its modernisation. The Nikkei said that China’s current leaders should not “continue to ignore” these efforts, nor the importance of Japanese companies in promoting Chinese growth. China still needs foreign investment, it warned, and Japan has done more than its fair share. In the eight months to August, China’s total foreign direct investment shrunk 3%, but investment from Japan increased 16%. However, the newspaper warns that Beijing will find that fewer yen are likely to be invested in future: “The inflow from Japan will inevitably decrease in the wake of the acts of vandalism against Japanese factories and stores in China.”
Japanese media also suspects the protesters’ rage was not solely directed against Japan. The suggestion was that it reflected too shortcomings in China’s growth model, which has led to rising inequality and public anger at official corruption. And Kyodo suggested that the reason for clamping down on the demonstrations last week was less to do with diplomacy than fears about the direction the protests were taking. “The authorities moved to rein in the anti-Japan protests,” it commented, “as they saw signs that such movements had in fact turned into anti-Party, anti-government demonstrations. At a rally in Shenzhen, protesters carried a banner reading ‘Freedom, democracy, human rights and constitutional government’.”
As WiC has written before, ending this dispute – to the mutual satisfaction of both governments – looks extremely challenging. The Daily Yomiuri was not one for backing down. It was hostile to Beijing’s latest salvo: an application to the UN to extend the outer limits of China’s continental shelf in the East China Sea (thereby including the islands). “The United Nations does not have the authority to settle such issues,” it pronounced defiantly.
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