MATSUE, SHIMANE PREF. – With Friday the day that Japan commemorates incorporating Takeshima, a group of rocky Sea of Japan islets now controlled by South Korea, the aging residents of nearby islands have not given up hope that the disputed outcroppings may one day be returned to Japan.
Called Dokdo by South Korea, the islets are nearly 160 km northwest of the Oki Island group in Shimane Prefecture. They were incorporated as part of Shimane on Feb. 22, 1905. South Korea, which emerged after Japan’s wartime defeat and end of colonial rules of the Korean Peninsula, declared them part of its territory in 1952.
The residents in their 80s and 90s are working hard to hand down to younger generations stories of the islets, including for some of them their memories of trips to the territory in their youth.
Katsumi Iwataki, 88, and Wahei Hara, 94, from the town of Okinoshima are among the few Japanese still alive who have gone to Takeshima, which is now virtually off-limits to Japanese nationals. They maintain it is “undeniable” that Takeshima is part of Okinoshima.
Iwataki, a former teacher at a fisheries high school in Okinoshima, and Hara recall being asked to travel to Takeshima in 1953 by the school principal along with other school staff members and fishermen.
The principal asked them to look into the situation around Takeshima, citing information that South Koreans were fishing there. Hara joined the trip as an interpreter because he is fluent in Korean.
Arriving there, the team found a number of Korean men who said they were harvesting seaweed and were from South Korea’s Ulleungdo Island, less than 100 km from Takeshima. Iwataki’s group gave them rice and cigarettes at their request.
Iwataki said he doesn’t think the central government responded to the situation that his group reported, although the trip was reported by the media.
“The illegal occupation by South Korea might not have lasted like this if the Japanese government had taken countermeasures at that time,” Hara said.
“It is a pity that Japanese cannot enter their own territory,” said Shoza Yawata, 84, a veteran craftsman of obsidian products,.
Yawata remembers when 11 men, including his father and brother, became the last Japanese to travel to Takeshima to harvest seaweed in May 1954, one month before South Korea started stationing security personnel there.
The Shimane Prefectural Government had asked the fishermen to operate in the Takeshima area to assert Japan’s right to fish there.
In the years since, Yawata has been collecting old materials concerning Takeshima, including documents and charts, and is giving as many media interviews as possible in the hope of informing people about the territorial issue with South Korea as well as the history shared between the Oki Islands and Takeshima.
“It is my duty to convey to our descendents what our ancestors did on Takeshima,” said Yawata.
According to the Shimane government and the Foreign Ministry, from the early 1600s until around 1941, Japanese went on fishing and hunting trips to Takeshima, which abounds with marine life such as sea lions, abalone and seaweed, using the Oki group as a base.
Diplomatic ties between Japan and South Korea have deteriorated since President Lee Myung Bak made a visit to the islets last August, the first such trip by a South Korean leader.
The Liberal Democratic Party, headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, promised in its campaign for the general election in December, in which the party swept back to power, that an LDP-led government would host a ceremony for what Shimane calls Takeshima Day.
However, the Abe administration gave up plans to host the ceremony this year.
The Shimane government has held an event on Feb. 22 every year since 2006 in Matsue. This year the event came only three days before South Korean President-elect Park Geun Hye is to take office.
Yoshiki Maeda, 61, who heads the Okinoshima Municipal Assembly’s committee on the Takeshima issue and whose uncle joined the hunt on Takeshima, said he was displeased with the failure of Abe’s government to hold the ceremony.
“The LDP has already broken its promises. So I can’t believe the LDP,” he said.
Another aging resident of the Oki Islands with stories relating to Takeshima is Yumiko Sugihara, a 69-year-old former elementary school teacher.
She has completed a picture book telling the story of infant sea lions that were hunted near Takeshima and temporarily kept on the Oki Islands before being sold to zoos and circus troupes.
Sugihara, who finished her career as a teacher in Tokyo, became interested in the sea lions captured near Takeshima after hearing stories from older people. “I feel I must keep this kind of nice story alive,” she said.
Sugihara said she hopes her book will help children learn that Japanese once had a strong connection with Takeshima through fishing and hunting.