South Korean Ship Conducts Patrol near Dokdo (Source: The Boston Globe)

South Korean Ship Conducts Patrol near Dokdo (Source: The Boston Globe)

February 22 is now an annual date for Korean and Japanese nationalist agendas.

This past Wednesday, The Mainichi Daily News reported that eleven Japanese lawmakers attended the annual (since 2005) “Takeshima Day” ceremony in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, Japan, in an attempt to promote Japanese rights to the islands claimed by both the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan, under the names Dokdo and Takeshima, respectively.

While the number of lawmakers attending the event was down from previous years, and still an immensely small fringe section of the Japanese political world, it was enough to provoke responses from South Korean nationalists and the Republic of Korea’s government.

KBS World News reported that the Korean Education Ministry and the Northeast Asian History Foundation has “designated 65 schools for enhanced education of the Dokdo islets as part of efforts to defend and enhance the nation’s sovereignty of its territory” as a timely reaction to the Japanese event.

This will no doubt lead to more trips to Dokdo for Korean students, already islands with a heavy influx of Korean visitors. Students will likely be further trained in the importance of the ROK’s easternmost outpost, and its ‘capture’ by the Japanese in 1905 that Koreans see as the first step in a chain of events that brought all of Korea under Japanese rule.

The Korean government fosters this viewpoint of Japan and considers the Japanese people and government as equally determined.

Unfortunately, things aren’t so easily divided.

In the spring of 2010 I shared an airport bus ride, and then a flight to Seoul with a retired officer of the Japanese Self Defense Force Navy. The man was traveling to Daegu, South Korea to visit Korean friends as part of his language exchange hobby. I was interested in his past as a post-WWII Japanese military man, but he was more interested in practicing his Korean and English on stewardesses and the young American man who kept asking him silly questions.

I’d resigned myself to continually talking about which Japanese foods I could or couldn’t eat, when one lone moment made our time spent together worthwhile. In an attempt to steer the conversation away from mundane questions, I pointed at the screen showing our in-flight path across the sea from Okayama, Japn to Seoul, Korea, showing a tiny little island that Korean Airlines had labeled “Dokdo.”

Dokdo/Takeshima's Location, along with two other Japanese disputes with China and Russia (Source: The Economist)

Dokdo/Takeshima's Location, along with two other Japanese disputes with China and Russia (Source: The Economist)

I had expected a career navy man to be indoctrinated in the kind of nationalism that the rest of Japan generally lacked, the kind of training that convinces military men die for small, useless pieces of land like Dokdo/Takeshima. Instead, the Japanese name eluded him. After about ten seconds, I mouthed the word “ta-ke” and it hit him, “Takeshima!” He’d managed to forget what I had assumed would get his blood boiling.

…But it just wasn’t important to him.

There are probably few people in South Korea that forget the name “Dokdo,” certainly not retired naval officers whose jobs had theoretically involved killing for that land.

The Japanese are generally apathetic about the issue (beyond 2Chan),and this military man was no exception. “Takeshima Day” is celebrated by a handful of nationalistic politicians, a poor fishing prefecture looking for anything to rally around, and a hope for expanded fishing grounds by the Japanese government.

This counters drastically with the Korean viewpoint. Dokdo is present everywhere in Korea, from amphibious warships, model of the islands in Seoul subway stations, the multiple taxi drivers I’ve sent into frenzies over the very mention of the Japanese name, to relaxing on Jeju and watching Counter Strike played on Korean television with intermittent flashes “Dokdo is Korean Territory” displayed over the gameplay (in English, strangely).

Thousands of Koreans make fanatical pilgrimages to the islands on a daily basis, watching a pre-arrival anime detailing the Korean fight to keep the island away from the “Japanese menace,” taking pictures, setting brief foot on their “eastern outpost,” (if the sea allows them to land), and heading home content in their minor “victory over Japan.”

The United States is gearing up to counter China’s emerging threat in the Pacific. The Dokdo/Takeshima looms large as a thorn in any cohesive alliance between Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

South Korea's Largest Naval Vessels are of the "Dokdo" Class

South Korea's Largest Naval Vessels are of the "Dokdo" Class

South Koreans are ready to die for the islands, while the Japanese populace seemingly wonders why South Koreans care about the islands at all. The Japanese government maintains their stance of control in an attempt to show a backbone and keep to the well-worn paths carved out by the old boys club of the Liberal Democratic Party, maintaining their disconnect with the Japanese peoples’ viewpoints at large.

(This backbone doesn’t give the J-gov enough gumption to hold “Takeshima Day” anywhere near Dokdo/Takeshima, mind you)

Japan and South Korea need to get over this issue if they hope to forge any lasting relationship. South Korea is already firmly established on the island chain. Any removal of Koreans or loss of the land to the Japanese would cause an extreme dent in the ROK’s national psyche. Japan could handle a similar ‘loss’ with far less public retribution. If any diplomacy can be reached, Japan might consider giving South Korean government control of the landmasses, in exchange for the South Korean government allowing shared use of the exclusive economic zone as a sign of goodwill for Japan’s action in “returning” the island to the ROK.

This will never actually happen.

Koreans will keep ripping the heads off of pheasants outside Japanese embassies and Japanese people will keep wondering why Korean people hate them (owing to some omissions from their history books, their ignorance of these issues fuels this as well). The Japanese government will do nothing beyond a few politicians that wish it was still the 1930s, and the Korean government will continue to consider those politicians to be the Japanese norm, especially when the Japanese government does little to reign them in.

Welcome back to the Pacific, America! Still probably beats dealing with Afghanistan…

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Craig was born & raised in the United States, having recently returned there after over five years in Asia. He is currently pursuing further education in the realms of East Asian Studies and Politics. Craig is an avid fan of the political, economic, and military machinations occurring throughout the Asian continent and how those turning gears affect the rest of the world. He's currently covering both North and South Korea for Asia Security Watch, enjoying shedding light on to this far-too-often ignored slice of Asia.
Craig Scanlan has 82 post(s) on Asia Security Watch