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Japan’s noisy neighbors keep-a knocking


Sanshoku, the word for “encroachment” in Japanese, is written with characters meaning “silkworm” and “to eat.” Imagine a mulberry leaf, being slowly consumed from the outer edges, nibble by nibble, by writhing white worms. Then overlay this leaf on a map of the Japanese archipelago, and look at the spots where the worms are chewing away: Takeshima off the coast of Shimane Prefecture, which South Korea claims as Dokdo; the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, which Taiwan and China claim as the Diaoyutai; and the islands referred to as the Northern Territories between Hokkaido and Sakhalin, which, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union — which occupied them in 1945 — have remained under control of Russia.

Japan’s method for dealing with the disputed territories has been to stand its ground on historical claims, although in Takeshima’s case it has proposed arbitration by the International Court of Justice.

These neighboring countries are equally convinced the islands belong to them, and are moving in men and materiel. If they appear to be doing this with impunity, it is because they are fully aware of Japan’s ingrained disinclination to resort to armed force. (The sinking of a speedboat of unknown nationality, believed to be on a spy mission from North Korea, by Japan’s Coast Guard near Amami Oshima in December 2001 was a rare exception.)

A 28-page special in the current issue of Sapio (Oct. 5), titled “Ryodo Kiki” (“Territorial Crisis”), goes into various territorial disputes, including how, over the past several years, South Korea has built up Takeshima/Dokdo’s rocky volcanic islets — which in 1849 were named the Liancourt Rocks by a French whaling ship that narrowly missed colliding with them.

Japan claims the issue of Takeshima et al had been settled with the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1952; but South Korea has been far more vociferous in its claims, and has unilaterally been building up the island’s infrastructure to accommodate the stationing of a small coastguard contingent and visits by sightseers.

In a separate Sapio article, military analyst Kazuhisa Ogawa urged Japan and the U.S. to conduct joint military maneuvers at the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, and suggested the GSDF set up a manned outpost on one of its larger islands.

At a time when Japan’s attention has been diverted to recovery from a series of natural and man-made catastrophes, for neighbors to aggravate territorial issues is viewed as acting in particularly bad faith. But whether or not the encroachments constitute a serious threat to Japan’s security, they represent a blow to national pride, and no politician can disregard accusations from the opposition that his party has been lax in defending national territory.

Such incidents understandably stir up Japan’s hawks, who have long been advocating military expansion, perhaps even acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Former ASDF General Toshio Tamogami, who was dismissed in 2008 for publishing a controversial essay denying Japan was an aggressor in World War II, now contributes a weekly column in Asahi Geino. In a recent installment (Sept. 22), he voiced his concerns over China’s launching of its first aircraft carrier.

“The only way for Japan to achieve naval parity with China is to construct a carrier that is superior to China’s,” the general writes, adding that unlike the “ski jump” deck utilized by the Chinese carrier, a Japanese carrier should adopt the same catapult launch type used by the U.S. Navy, giving it the ability to put a greater number of planes in the air. “The reason Britain emerged victorious in the (1982) Falkland Islands conflict with Argentina was because of its naval air power,” points out Tamogami. “Japan, which presently has no offensive weapons, should recognize that the best defense is a good offense.”

Meanwhile, between Aug. 25 and Sept. 10, flights by Russian military aircraft caused ASDF interceptors to scramble on no fewer than five occasions. And on Sept. 9, a fleet of 24 Russian warships — believed to be engaged in an antisubmarine exercise — sailed through the Soya Strait between Hokkaido and Sakhalin Island. The Sankei Shimbun (Sept. 18) cited a source in the ASDF as saying the Russian activities were being used as a “diplomatic trump card, to discourage Japan’s demands for return of the Northern Territories.”

Japan’s cyberspace is also being targeted. In an incident first discovered last month, unidentified hackers installed malware into 45 network servers of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Japan’s largest defense contractor. Tokyo Sports (Sept. 21) echoed speculation the incursion was an attempt to purloin data on Japan’s advanced submarine technology.

The island of Tsushima in Nagasaki Prefecture (population 41,000), has also popped up as a potential flash point. Each year high-speed ferries from Busan port carry tens of thousands of Koreans to Tsushima for sightseeing and shopping — although growth has tapered off recently due to the appreciation of the Japanese yen.

In 2005 the municipal assembly of Masan, South Korea, claimed that Tsushima, or Daema-do as Koreans call it, belongs to Korea. The main bone of contention at present is that Koreans have been purchasing real estate on the island. That’s not illegal, yet; but some Japanese have begun to voice alarm and demand legislation to ban sales of property to non-Japanese, ostensibly to prevent the island from falling into foreign hands.