• Kyodo, staff report

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An annual ceremony was held in Japan on Monday to push the country's claim to a group of islets in the Sea of Japan controlled by South Korea, but on a scaled-down basis due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The ceremony in Matsue has been held every Feb. 22 since 2006 after the Shimane Prefectural Government designated the day as Takeshima Day in 2005, a century after a Cabinet decision was issued placing them under the prefecture's jurisdiction.

The islets, called Dokdo in South Korea, cover a total land area of 0.2 square kilometer and lies northwest of Shimane Prefecture's coast. They consist of volcanic rock with little vegetation or drinking water, but they are located in rich fishing grounds.

South Korea has stationed security personnel on the islets, located roughly 200 kilometers from either country, since 1954 and has taken effective control of them.

Shimane Gov. Tatsuya Maruyama bashed South Korea's "continued moves to make the occupation of Takeshima an accomplished fact" as "highly regrettable" during the ceremony, which was also attended by Yoshiaki Wada, a Cabinet Office parliamentary vice minister.

At a news conference in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato stressed the islets are "an inherent part of the territory of Japan in light of historical facts and based on international law."

Referring to the attendance of Japanese officials at the ceremony, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said in a statement it is a "useless" provocation over the islets and should be stopped immediately.

"Dokdo is historically, geographically, and under international standards, clearly our territory, meaning that the Japanese government must stop making unfair claims right away and face history with a humble stance," the ministry said.

This year's ceremony was limited to some 220 participants, about half the number of previous years, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The central government has dispatched a Cabinet Office parliamentary vice minister to the Shimane ceremony for nine years in a row to signal its position on the Takeshima issue.

Police set up barricades to head off right-wing activists who set up nearby to give speeches arguing for Japanese ownership of the islets.

The annual event came as tensions simmer between the two Asian neighbors over compensation issues related to Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Bilateral ties sank following rulings by South Korea's top court in 2018 to compensate groups of South Koreans for forced labor during Japan's rule.

Last month, a South Korean court ordered the Japanese government to pay damages to a group of former "comfort women" over their treatment in Japanese military brothels.

The term “comfort women” is a euphemism for the women who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II. They were forced or coerced into sexual servitude under various circumstances, including abduction, deception and poverty.

Japan argues that all claims related to Japan's colonial rule including the issue of comfort women were settled under a 1965 bilateral agreement. While the governments of the two countries acknowledge that their separate 2015 agreement to "finally and irreversibly" solve the comfort women issue stands, Seoul says it has neither the right nor the authority to prevent the victims themselves from raising concerns.

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