No matter how alarming the day’s news is, you can always count on Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to put a happy face on it. In the daily press conferences where he sidles up to journalists to field a few softballs he always has a way of making everything sound inconsequential.

“No, I don’t think you can say that at all,” he remarked with mild surprise when a reporter asked if he would describe Japan’s current diplomatic situation as being “happo fusagari (trapped on all sides).”

“Japan-Korea, Japan-China and Japan-Russia relations are all progressing smoothly.”

Of course, nothing at the moment is going smoothly between Japan and its neighbors — Chinese citizens throw eggs at the Japanese Embassy, South Koreans threaten to sever economic ties and Russian President Vladimir Putin grudgingly agrees to a summit where he will probably refuse to budge on the northern islands issue. And everybody, journalists and citizens alike, know it’s not going smoothly, but they accept the prime minister’s bland reassurances because they expect nothing else.

Japan’s position is to ask these countries to “respond sincerely” to its overtures for “meaningful dialogue,” which is another way of saying that if we just sit tight and don’t get excited it will all work itself out. But for the past few decades nothing has worked itself out. Regardless of the hyperbolic intransigence that characterizes China’s and South Korea’s anger regarding Japan’s refusal to fully acknowledge past crimes, Japan itself almost never “responds sincerely” to these countries’ complaints. The only country it responds to at all is the United States. You want “show troops” in Iraq? You got ’em.

Years of putting off any real reckoning with their former enemies and colonies has inured the Japanese citizenry to Asian bitterness, thus resulting in an intractable apathy that the government counts on. The media gleefully reports the violent reaction in South Korea to Shimane Prefecture’s ordinance claiming that those rocks in the Japan Sea it calls Takeshima and which South Korea calls Tok-do belong to Shimane.

The reporting plays up Korean hysteria without providing much in the way of context. The Japanese reaction is more subdued and therefore presented as more civilized, but that’s because most Japanese don’t care while most Koreans do. Every single Korean, it seems, knows all about Tok-do and its history because they learned about it in school. They have an emotional stake in those rocks, while Japanese people can’t even locate them on the map.

The government doesn’t care much either, but it makes polite noises to the effect that Korea is mistaken and the islands are Japanese territory. It does so partly because it doesn’t want to upset nationalists, but mostly it does so out of habit. The media meanwhile sniffs around for appeasers. “Asahi Shimbun says why not just hand Takeshima over to Korea!” accuses a headline in Shukan Shincho.

The Asahi article in question was written by Yoshinobu Wakamiya, a reporter who studied in South Korea. In the 17th century a Japanese fisherman from the area now known as Shimane and Tottori prefectures got lost and landed on Ururun Island, which is near Tok-do. When he returned to Honshu, he asked the shogunate, which forbade Japanese from leaving the archipelago, for permission to return to the area to fish. Permission was granted. This story seems to be the source of Japan’s historical claim.

Wakamiya picks up the story in 1905, when the Meiji government unilaterally incorporated Takeshima (then called Matsushima) into Shimane Prefecture and later that year revoked Korea’s diplomatic rights. Five years later it annexed the Korean Peninsula, so Koreans view the 1905 declaration as the first step toward colonization. After the war, Japan avoided discussing the fate of Tok-do, and Korea took advantage of this reticence by occupying it. But no formal negotiations have ever been carried out.

There is no real advantage to Japan in its claim, except maybe some fish. Koreans obviously feel an attachment to Tok-do that very few Japanese feel toward Takeshima. It would be in Japan’s interest if, as a gesture, it gave up all claims to the island. In turn, the South Koreans might support them on territorial disputes with China and Russia that are more vital to Japan’s interests, as well help them with the North Korean abduction issue. Wakamiya points out that Japan will never fight a war over Takeshima, “and we’ll never get them otherwise.” So why not do the smart thing?

Because the smart thing takes imagination and courage, neither of which the prime minister shows evidence of possessing in abundance. If he did, he would have already called China’s bluff. Obviously, China has no real problem with students and other malcontents bashing Japanese companies, because without a target for their anger they’d probably be bashing their own government.

Japan’s reaction is to demand an apology and insist that the Chinese authorities crack down on these hooligans. It’s not an unreasonable demand given the circumstances, but all it does is fortify the stalemate. However, if Koizumi announced that he will no longer visit Yasukuni Shrine in his capacity as prime minister he would put the Chinese government on the spot. They would have to respond in kind.

As with holding on to Takeshima, continuing state visits to Yasukuni do nothing to advance Japan’s national interests. The majority of Japanese people care little about Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni and even less about Takeshima. The prime minister should listen to the people’s apathy.