East Asia’s Nationalist Fantasy Islands

TOKYO – They don’t look like much, those few uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea between Okinawa and Taiwan, and a couple of tiny islets in the Sea of Japan, inhabited by a few token fishermen and some South Korean Coast Guard officials. The former, called the Senkaku Islands in Japan, and the Diaoyu Islands in China, are claimed by China, Japan, and Taiwan; the latter, called Takeshima in Japan, and Dokdo in Korea, are claimed by South Korea and Japan.

These tiny outcroppings have little material value, and yet the dispute over their ownership has led to a major international dustup. Ambassadors have been recalled. Massive anti-Japanese demonstrations have been held all over China, causing damage to Japanese people and properties. Threats fly back and forth between Tokyo and Seoul. There has even been talk of military action.

The historical facts actually appear quite simple. Japan grabbed the islands as part of its empire-building project after the Sino-Japanese war in 1895 and the annexation of Korea in 1905. Prior sovereignty is unclear; there were fishermen from Japan in Takeshima/Dokdo, and some awareness of the Senkaku/Diaoyu in imperial China. But no formal claims were made by any state.

Things became more complicated after World War II. Japan was supposed to return its colonial possessions, but the United States took over the Senkaku Islands along with Okinawa, before returning both to Japan in 1972. The Koreans, still enraged at Japan for almost a half-century of colonization, took the Dokdo islands without worrying about the move’s legality.