Strains in Japan’s relations with neighbours were on full display Wednesday as it sought to commemorate the end of World War II: China said it would protest the detention of 14 Hong Kong activists who embarrassed Tokyo with a high-profile landing on a disputed island, and both Seoul and Beijing issued fresh criticism of its wartime past.
The activists, in a fishing boat, managed to navigate their way to a group of disputed Japan-controlled islands in the East China Sea despite being tracked by up to 10 ships from Japan’s coast guard.
“We have achieved our goal successfully in claiming the sovereign right [of China] to the world,” said Chan Yu-nam, vice chair of the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands. “The action also exceeds our expectations and we accomplished our objective faster than expected.”
The seven activists who actually landed on the island – the first protesters to succeed at doing so since 2004 – planted Chinese and Taiwanese flags. The islands are controlled by Japan, which calls them the Senkaku, and claimed by China and Taiwan, which know them as the Diaoyu and the Tiaoyutai, respectively.
The 14 had set out Sunday from Hong Kong, and celebrated the landing as the culmination of a journey complicated by tropical-storm warnings, the loss of food supplies overboard in choppy seas, and disappointment as hoped-for reinforcement boats from Taiwan and mainland China failed to materialise.
A Japanese coast guard official said all 14 were detained, with nine in coast goard custody and the other five taken to Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost island prefecture.
“The landing, which took place despite our repeated warnings, is deplorable,” said Osamu Fujimura, Japanese chief government spokesman. China said it was contacting the Japanese Foreign Ministry to lodge “representations” over the detentions, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
China also protested Wednesday the annual visit by Japanese lawmakers to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where they offered prayers to mark the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945. Among more than two million war dead enshrined at the site are war criminals.
For the first time since 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan took power, this year’s visitors included cabinet members – Public Safety minister Jin Matsubara, and Land and Infrastructure minister Yuichiro Hata.
Prime minister Yoshihiko Noda had said that he wouldn’t visit the shrine and that neither would any cabinet minister – in an official capacity. The two ministers said they visited as “private individuals.”
Beijing’s rebuke was mild, repeating its view that Japan must face up to its history. “We hope the Japanese side will keep its promise and maintain the overall situation of the China-Japan relations with concrete actions,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in reaction to the Yasukuni visits, according to Xinhua.
In South Korea, President Lee Myung-bak used his annual Liberation Day speech to talk about Japan’s actions when it held Korea as a colony, urging Tokyo to resolve anger that lingers over the sexual enslavement of Korean women by the Japanese military during World War II.
“It was a breach of women’s rights committed during wartime as well as a violation of universal human rights and historic justice,” Lee said, according to a translated version of the speech. “We urge the Japanese government to take responsible measures in this regard.”
Tokyo had reacted angrily to Lee’s remark Tuesday that the Japanese emperor ought to apologise for his country’s wartime actions before making any trip to Seoul. Japanese officials said no such trip was planned, in any event.
And this came just a few days after Lee heated up another territorial dispute by landing on what the US and other countries call the Liancourt Rocks, islets controlled by South Korea (which calls them Dokdo) but also claimed by Japan (which calls them Takeshima).
In response, Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea on Friday, canceled a planned meeting of the two countries’ finance ministers, and said it might ask the International Court of Justice to intervene – an idea rejected twice before by Seoul.
And Wednesday, two Japanese satellite-TV broadcasters said they will postpone airing two South Korean dramas scheduled to start next week because both feature the actor Song Il Guk, who joined a 220-kilometer (136-mile) relay swim to the disputed islands.
Song, South Korean pop singer Kim Jang Hoon and about 40 other swimmers participated in the relay, which ended Wednesday morning, about 49 hours after the start, with two university students making landfall.
In the dispute over the Senkaku islands, Chinese patrol vessels entered waters near the islands last month, setting off a confrontation with the Japanese coast guard. While such incursions haven’t been uncommon in recent months, this one came shortly after an announcement by Japanese prime minister Noda that the government was considering purchasing the Japan-controlled islands, now privately owned.
The uninhabited islands have been a source of tension for many years.
Pro-Chinese groups have made repeated attempts to land there but in most cases have been blocked by Japanese patrol vessels.
In 1996, a Hong Kong activist drowned after diving into waters near the island and in 2010, the arrest of a Chinese trawlerman after his boat collided with two Japanese coast guard vessels sparked a drawn-out diplomatic incident.