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Shimane locals ambivalent on disputed islets

by Haruka Nishimoto

Kyodo

Shimane Prefecture residents and historical researchers have expressed mixed feelings ahead of Takeshima Day, designated by local ordinance in 2005 and set to be marked Saturday under considerable scrutiny because of its link to a territorial row with South Korea.

They are concerned their local activities for preserving the memory of the islets once under the prefecture’s jurisdiction may be politicized amid the deterioration of Japan-South Korea relations and portrayed as ideological, local residents say.

Yumiko Sugihara, 70, is one of those residents. She moved to the Kumi district of the town of Okinoshima after retiring as an elementary school teacher in Tokyo.

Okinoshima is an island town in the Sea of Japan located around 90 km north of Matsue, the prefecture’s capital. The Kumi district was the base for local fishermen crossing to Takeshima, rocky outcroppings now administered by South Korea, where they are called Dokdo. The islets are around 170 km northwest of Okinoshima.

Under Japan’s geographical classification, Takeshima is part of Okinoshima.

After Sugihara learned that her grandfather was involved in hunting sea lions around Takeshima, she interviewed the elderly in the region and compiled a picture book for children detailing the hunt and the district’s relations with Takeshima.

Sugihara had organized her first book-reading event at an elementary school in Tokyo in mid-February, just ahead of Takeshima Day, and got permission.

But she was told about three weeks before the event through an intermediary that the school had canceled the event. “I was told no, as I had imagined,” she said, adding that she did not ask exactly why her offer was turned down but sensed the school may have wanted to avoid anything political in a classroom for children.

In the end, Sugihara read the book to dozens of parents and her former colleagues in two different elementary schools in Tokyo, but could not read it to children.

“I genuinely wanted to read it to the children who do not know the history of Takeshima. I was made to be aware of images surrounding the Takeshima problem,” Sugihara said.

On Takeshima Day, the prefecture commemorates the Feb. 22, 1905, incorporation of the islets into Japanese territory. South Korea incorporated the islets into its territory when it drew the Syngman Rhee Line to define its territorial waters in 1952 and has stationed border guards there since 1954. The islets lie about midway between Japan and the South in the Sea of Japan.

Every year, Takeshima Day is observed in Shimane under tight security. In Matsue, it attracts nationalists and other political activists campaigning in loudspeaker trucks from various parts of the country.

Clashes have taken place between Japanese groups and civic organizations from South Korea, where Shimane’s ordinance was met with fierce protests.

“I find it troublesome that all activities related to Takeshima are being seen the same way,” Sugihara said. The prefecture enacted the ordinance partly out of frustration over the islands effectively being under the control of South Korea for more than a half-century and the isle issue itself being forgotten.

“At the time, less than 10 percent of the Japanese public knew about the Takeshima issue, and we thought it would be too late if we had just left it as it was,” said Yoshiro Jodai, 78, a former prefectural assembly member who was instrumental in enacting the ordinance. “We aimed to rouse public opinion in order to prod the government.”

Shimane Gov. Zembei Mizoguchi told reporters earlier this month, “We are staging the ceremony not to denounce South Korea but to urge the government to take action.”