It’s out in the open now: Japan is not well liked in its neighborhood, and it doesn’t take much to dissolve the surface civilities.
In Washington in April, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara sprung his Senkaku surprise. Metro Tokyo, he announced, would purchase three of the five disputed mujintō (無人島, uninhabited islands) from their private owner, thus securing them against any possible moves by China to stake its territorial claim.
Did he foresee the chain reaction he was initiating?
The next move was the opposition Liberal Democratic Party’s — a policy statement advocating Senkaku Shotō no kokuyūka (尖閣諸島の国有化, nationalization of the Senkaku Islands — or Diaoyu, as the Chinese call them; Taiwan, which also claims them, calls them Tiaoyutai.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda weighed in on July 7. Kokuyūka (国有化, nationalization) under government auspices, he felt, would be less provocative to China than an initiative by Ishihara, whose hawkish and anti-Chinese views are well known. To forestall Ishihara, he said, the national government would buy the islands.
China’s reaction, at official, Internet and street levels, was swift and sharp.
On July 11, Chūgoku no gyogyō kanshisen san-seki (中国の漁業監視船三隻, three Chinese fishing patrol boats) briefly entered Japanese waters off the Senkakus.
On Aug. 15 a party of Hong Kong katsudōka (活動家, activists) landed on the islands. Japanese authorities taiho shita (逮捕した, arrested) them and promptly kyōsei sōkan shita (強制送還した, deported) them.
China could have interpreted the deportation, a mild alternative to judicial proceedings, as a conciliatory gesture. It chose not to. Nor was it mollified when the Japanese government rebuffed a jōriku kyoka shinsei (上陸許可申請, application for permission to land [on the islands]) tendered by Ishihara’s metropolitan administration.
At the same time, South Korea was recalling old grudges, which are legion and have to do with Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1905 to 1945. Sorest and most symbolic of sore spots is the ianfu mondai (慰安婦問題, the “comfort women” issue) — “comfort women” being a euphemism for wartime sex slaves whose claims hardline Japanese nationalists continue to dismiss, notwithstanding a 1993 acknowledgment and apology by the Japanese government.
An island dispute figures here too, and on Aug. 10, apparently irritated by Japan’s failure to silence its nationalists, South Korean president Lee Myung Bak Takeshima wo hōmon shita (竹島を訪問した, paid a visit to Takeshima Island). For better or for worse he made history — he is the first sitting South Korean president to set foot on the South Korea-controlled island that is also claimed by Japan.
Four days later, intentionally or not, he ratcheted up tensions another notch, demanding (apparently) a shazai (謝罪, apology) from the Japanese tennō (天皇, emperor) on behalf of the 慰安婦. Lee later claimed, “Watashi no hatsugen ga nejimagerarete nihon ni tsutawatte iru (私の発言がねじ曲げられて日本に伝わっている, my words were transmitted to the Japanese in distorted form”). He meant, he said, to decry the akujunkan (悪循環, vicious circle) that bedevils nikkan kankei (日韓関係, Japan-South Korea relations) and to plead, “Kono akujunkan wo tenno no Kankoku homon de tachikirenai ka (この悪循環を天皇の韓国訪問で断ち切れないか, Can’t the Emperor visit South Korea and put an end to this vicious circle?”).
The Japanese government, meanwhile, on Sept. 11 signed a ¥2.05 billion contract with the owner of three of the five Senkakus, in effect kokuyūka (国有化, nationalizing) them. Suddenly (can it have come as a complete surprise in official circles?) all hell broke loose.
Chinese premier Wen Jiaobiao lost no time making rage the official response: “Shuken to ryodo mondai de seifu to jinmin wa zettai ni hanpo mo yuzuranai (主権と領土問題で政府と人民は絶対に半歩も譲らない, Regarding sovereignty and territorial issues, the [Chinese] government and people will not yield half a step”).
Within days, tens of thousands of Chinese were demonstrating in some 60 cities across the country. Embassies, consulates, Japanese-owned businesses and Japanese individuals were targeted, sometimes violently. Eggs were among the less offensive weapons — the Asahi Shimbun reported people passing out raw eggs to demonstrators: “Ikari no tamago, gojiyū ni dozō (怒りの卵、ご自由にどうぞ’Anger eggs,’ help yourselves”). Japanese stores and offices were yakiuchi sareta (焼き討ちされた, torched). There were reports of mass ryakudatsu (略奪 looting) and wanton destruction. Demonstrators called for a fubai (不買, boycott) of Japanese products. In Shanghai a man drove his Honda to a Honda dealership and jibun no kuruma ni hi wo tsuketa (自分の車に火をつけた, set his car on fire). Police in helmets and wielding tate (盾, shields) demotai to shōtotsu shita (デモ隊と衝突した, clashed with demonstrators), but some eyewitnesses spoke of waratte nagamete iru keikan (笑って眺めている警官, police officers looking on laughing).
Almost forgotten in all the excitement: This year marks the 40th anniversary of nicchū kokkō seijōka (日中国交正常化, diplomatic normalization of Sino-Japanese relations).