Monday, November 24, 2014

Heeding History in East Asia

SEOUL – Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese diplomats recently took to the podium of the United Nations General Assembly to reassert their countries’ positions on the territorial issues surrounding several small islands in the seas of East Asia. But the composed manner in which they delivered their remarks belied their countries’ long-simmering tensions over the islands, which have come to a near boil in the last few months.

At the center of one heated dispute, between China and Japan, are the Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands. In September, Japan’s government announced its purchase of three of the islands from their private Japanese owner, inciting protests across China. Soon after, hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels approached the islands to assert China’s sovereignty. These vessels have lately been joined by an increasing number of Chinese surveillance forces, which periodically enter the waters surrounding the islands, sometimes leading to direct confrontation with Japanese patrol ships.

With the situation threatening to escalate further, both sides need to contain the conflict quickly and restore the status quo. Indeed, the situation is all the more volatile in view of the political transition now underway in China.

Meanwhile, the Republic of Korea and Japan are engaged in a territorial standoff over the islets of Dokdo (called Takeshima in Japanese). In early August, Lee Myung-bak became the first South Korean president to visit the islets; Japan’s government responded by proposing to take the sovereignty issue to the International Court of Justice.

But the ICJ cannot exercise jurisdiction in the dispute without both countries’ consent, and South Korea has rejected Japan’s proposal, maintaining that Lee was within his authority to visit the islets, given that Dokdo is unquestionably South Korean territory. Indeed, South Korea’s government denies that there is any dispute over the islands.

Historical context is crucial to assessing the Dokdo issue. Like the rest of Korea, Dokdo was annexed by Japan in the early twentieth century, and restored to Korean control after World War II, when Korea regained its independence. Thus, while outsiders might view the desolate islands as insignificant, for Koreans, Japan’s position on Dokdo is tantamount to a challenge to their country’s independence and a denial of its right to exercise sovereignty over its own territory.

As a result, Dokdo has been a thorn in relations between the two countries for decades. In 2005, the creation of a so-called “Takeshima Day” by a local government in Japan triggered a public uproar in South Korea. But Japan has not shied away from the issue, with prominent political figures joining Takeshima Day celebrations each year.

Furthermore, Japan’s habit of distorting facts in its history books – for example, denying that its former colonial subjects were forced into sexual slavery – has fueled distrust and anger in South Korea and elsewhere in East Asia, including China.

Dokdo is situated midway between the Korean peninsula and Japan’s main island, roughly 115 nautical miles from each. But the islets are much closer to the nearest Korean island, Ulleungdo, than to Japan’s Okishima.

A survey of historical documents shows a distinct shift in Japan’s position on Dokdo. For example, in the late seventeenth century, when conflict between Korea and Japan erupted over the passage of Japanese fishermen to Ulleungdo, Tottori-han (one of Japan’s feudal clans) told Japan’s central government that Ulleungdo and Dokdo did not fall within Japanese territory.

Likewise, a report in 1870 by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “A Confidential Inquiry into the Particulars of Korea’s Foreign Relations,” shows that the ministry recognized Dokdo as Korean territory. Indeed, the report includes the subject title “How Takeshima and Matsushima Came to Belong to Joseon” (later renamed Korea).

Moreover, the Dajokan, Japan’s highest decision-making body in 1868-1885, denied any claims of sovereignty over Dokdo through its Order of 1877. Yet, in 1905, Japan took measures to incorporate Dokdo in order to use it as a strategic military site for its war with Russia.

The final text of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which ended WWII in the Pacific, makes no mention of Dokdo. But earlier versions identified the islets as Korean territory. The reference in the final version, drafted by the United States, was removed in light of US interests in building strategic partnerships with both South Korea and Japan.

However, the 1943 Cairo Declaration, which stipulated the Allied Powers’ basic position on Japan’s territorial boundaries after WWII, stated that Japan would be expelled from all territories that it had annexed through violence. In this context, the unconditional return of Dokdo to Korea – and Korea’s continued sovereignty over Dokdo – is indisputable.

In an increasingly interconnected world, significant challenges can be addressed only through regional and global partnerships. But, in order to build a meaningful framework for cooperation, enduring distrust among East Asian countries must be dispelled. Regional leaders must not get caught up in finger-pointing or avoid taking responsibility for past transgressions. An honest evaluation of history is crucial to establishing lasting peace and prosperity in East Asia.

Read more from our "Asia's Perturbed Peninsula" Focal Point.

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    1. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama


      If you care to know another example of revisionist/apologist, how about ?

    2. CommentedSean Mac

      @Yoshimichi Moriyama,

      You are exactly a good example of revisionist/apologist of Japanese war crime record.

      No one single comfort woman will agree with your distorted fact (or outright lie)--All of them, on record, clearly stated it was Japanese government and military forced them to serve Japanese military men sexually. Not only them, there are plentiful eye witnesses who have also been on record on this matter.

      You should feel shame of your government's war crime and advocate its formal apology instead you are here arbitriarily distort the facts.

      Fortunately, the evidences are plentiful and already on record. It is not up to you to mislead people.

    3. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      There were Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese prostitutes (comfort women). I do not deny that. But neither the Japanese govenment nor the Japanese military nor their agencies nor their agents kidnaped Korean women to force them to work as prostitutes.

      Isabella Bird (1831~1904) travelled and wrote 'Unbeaten Tracks in Japan' and 'Korea and Her Neighbours.' You may find them a little bit interesting.

      Thank you for your replies.

    4. CommentedSean Mac

      @Yoshimichi Moriyama

      The comfort women issue is another legacy of Japan's war crime during the World War II.

      Decades have passed, many surviving comfort women in Taiwan, Korea and other Asian countries are still harboring resentment of Japanese government. The reason is clear.

      Germany government has long apologized to Jewish people who suffered immensely during the war and compensated them accordingly.

      Japanese government has not shown any moral courage to correct the wrong it conducted during the war. Furthermore, in Japanese public school text books, this segment of history has always been whitewashed, distorted or omitted.

      This comfort women issue and other war-related crime such as Nanking massacre should have been a non-issue by now if Japanese government had done the right thing by publicly and formally apologizing and acknowledging its mistakes. Then we should all move further and let bygone be bygone.

    5. CommentedSean Mac

      @Yoshimichi Moriyama
      Based on your name, you are a Japanese. So it is understandable that you tried to rationalize your argument to support your government with your selected evidences.

      But, I don't want to initiate a debate here. Your evidences can easily be discounted such as that you imply the stated islands are much close to Japan. Actually they are located in equal distance among Japan, China and even more closer to Taiwan. In Chinese maps, dated back in ancient history, these islands have always been part of Chinese territory.

    6. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      @Sean Mac, ex-U.S. President Grant went to China in June, 1879. He was asked by Mr. Li Hongzhang to medeiate between China and Japan about the Ryukyu (Okinawa) Islands. He came to Japan in July. He said to the Japanese government that Taiwan would easily fall in the hands of Japan and that Taiwan and that the Okinawa Islands would strategically encircle China and suggested that Japan should give over to China the Miyako and the Yaeyama Islands. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands constitued part of the Yaeyama.

      After some painful deliberation, painful because the islanders were ethnically Japanese, the Japanese government proposed to the Chinese government in 1980 that these two islands be turned over to China and that China give the most favored nation treatment to Japan in exchange.

      There were some willing within the Chinese government to agree but they were overridden by the opposition. The reason was that these two islands groups were too distant from China to effectually control. Another reason among some other was that they did not want to give Japan the most favored nation privilege.

      If you are interested in a little more details, read Michi Moriyama's three comments, dated October 14 and 15, 2010, to Kristof/Look Out For The Diaoyu Islands.

      As for "the oil reserves were discovered. Since then, the Japanese government has used every opportunity to claim its ownership of the islands," I shall appreciate if you read my comments to China Afford To Confront The World? Part One.

    7. CommentedSean Mac

      Historically, Diaoyu Islands have always been part of China's territory.

      Those tiny islands had never been important until few decades ago when the oil reserves were discovered. Since then, the Japanese government has used every opportunity to claim its ownership of the islands.

    8. CommentedJoel Thibault

      That explains clearly the situation on Dokdo islands issue with accurate historical facts.
      Now it would be interesting to have the same analysis on the Senkaku islands but with a less nationalist point of view than Yuriko Koike's article on the subject.

    9. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      As for comfort women and an origin of Korean Japanophobia, I posted four commnets to Project-Syndicate org./Ian Buruma/East Asia's National Fantasy Islands.

      South Korea and Japan signed, on June 22, 1965, what is called the basic treaty to formally engage in diplomatic relations. This marriage was a reluctant one as I said in one of my four posts. It has always been strained and would have ended in divorce years ago without the U.S. perpetual intercession.

      When the treaty was signed, the two countries also agreed to disagree about the Takeshima/Dokdo Islands; each agreed that the other thought the islands belonged to it. They also agreed that each would refrain from any further fortification of the islands.

      They also signed a fishing agreement; fishermen could catch fish exclusively in the area extending from the islands which each country should deem to be its own fishing territory but on the condition that fishermen of the two countries could catch fish in the overlapping area.

      One of the two countries seem to have failed to live up to these promises. Shimane, Japan

        CommentedSean Mac

        Comfort women issue was part of the legacy of Japanese war-crime during the World War II.

        In Korea, Taiwan and many other Asian countries, those surviving comfort women still harbor their resentment of Japanese government. The reason is clear.

        Germany government has apologized to Jewish people who suffered immensely during the war and compensated them accordingly.

        Japanese government has never shown any moral courage to correct the wrong it conducted during the war by formally apologizing to those who suffered directly from its aggression. Furthermore, in Japanese public school text books, this segment of the history has been whitewashed, distorted or totally omitted.

        If Japanese government had the moral courage, this comfort women issue and other war-related resentment should have become a non-issue by now. So we can all move forward and let bygone be bygone.