On Saturday, Oct. 2, over 2,670 demonstrators carrying Hinomaru Japanese flags marched in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park to protest the Kan government’s soft handling of a long-running territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands (known in Chinese as Diaoyutai), which was rekindled on Sept. 7 when the crew of a Chinese fishing trawler was detained after their vessel collided with two Japanese Coast Guard ships.

The demonstration, organized by a nationalist group, featured controversial ex-Air Self Defense Force General Toshio Tamogami as one of the speakers. (Tamogami became a public figure when he was forced to retire in 2008, after airing politically incorrect views in a magazine article.) Rallies were also held in 16 other locations in Japan.

Web news site J-Cast (Oct. 4) noted that while the demonstration was covered by such foreign media as CNN, AFP and the Wall Street Journal, as well as Chinese news agencies, mainstream Japanese news organizations gave scant coverage. When J-cast contacted the main commercial networks and NHK to ask why they had refrained from coverage, their standard reply was, “We don’t comment on what determines our coverage.”

China’s response to the detention of the ship’s crew might be described as 20 tits for a tat. In quick succession, intergovernmental and tourist exchanges were canceled, and four Japanese were arrested for illegally photographing a military facility in Hebei Province. China also made a veiled threat to cut off exports of rare metals needed for high-tech manufacturing.

The Yukan Fuji tabloid, published by the Fuji-Sankei group, has been among the most vociferous in its denunciations of the government’s handling of the affair. Its Oct. 1 front-page headline described the decision to release the detained captain of the Chinese ship as dogeza gaiko (appeasement diplomacy). “Dogeza” means to bow from a kneeling position, an act of extreme humility.

“This is why we are treated with contempt by China,” read the headline at the start of a 10-page section in Shukan Gendai (Oct. 9). Shukan Post (Oct. 8) carried a five-page opinion piece by Yoshiko Sakurai, a prolific writer well known for her nationalistic views. “If Japan gives in on the Senkakus,” the headline warns, “China will come to grab Okinawa next!”

Tokyo’s outspoken governor Shintaro Ishihara remarked to Shukan Bunshun (Oct. 7), “What China’s doing is no different from gangsters. If Japan does nothing, it will suffer the same fate as Tibet.” He also suggested that it may be time for Japan to begin “serious debate” on development of nuclear weapons.

In Asahi Geino (Oct. 7), the aforementioned ex-general Tamogami exhorts the Japan Coast Guard to “blast away” at any future incursions by Chinese fishing vessels, and then, turning to more mundane topics, a separate article in the issue considers how the deteriorating relations might affect the human-trafficking business, such as illicit marriage brokers and recruitment of women for the domestic sex industry.

Shukan Taishu (Oct. 18) also prompted several military-affairs analysts to think the unthinkable and suggest how a military conflict might unfold. Their conclusion was that the Japan Self Defense Force could hold its own, and possibly come out on top of a skirmish at sea.

It was only last February that Japan’s tourist industry, hit hard by appreciation of the yen, was rubbing its hands with anticipation over the flood of free-spending visitors from China. But in late September, a busload of Chinese visitors in Fukuoka had been targeted by rightwing demonstrators, and on Sept. 30, the Xinhua news agency reported that the Chinese government had issued a precautionary warning to travelers visiting Japan.

Bill Brooks, a former media analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo who now teaches at the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies in Washington, sees the incident as Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s first crisis-management exercise, which he survived.

“It is ironic,” Brooks told The Japan Times, “to see an administration that came into power last September on a campaign promise to move closer to China and away from the United States has ended up doing just the opposite.”

Brooks nevertheless gave Kan high marks for his handling of the affair.

“While the Kan administration has taken a drubbing from opposition parties and the press for backing down to Chinese pressure and releasing the captain, the decision to end the escalating standoff was a proper one. It showed the world that Japan, though the aggrieved party, was in the end the more reasonable one. China in contrast came across to the world as an international bully.

“As long as neither side even recognizes that there is a territorial dispute, thus ruling out future arbitration or some kind of joint resolution, such flareups are likely to occur from time to time, spontaneous or intentionally,” Brooks remarked. “And there is no guarantee that the next time around, the administration in Tokyo will be so accommodating.”

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