When the flotilla of 21 fishing boats arrived at an island chain at the center of a growing territorial dispute with China, the captains warned the dozens of activists and politicians aboard not to attempt a landing.
Ten of the activists jumped into the shark-infested waters anyway, swimming ashore on Sunday last week and planting the rising sun flag that evokes painful memories of Imperial Japan’s 20th-century march across Asia.
“We feel that they dragged us into an international incident,” said Masanori Tamashiro, one of the boat captains.
That feeling is widely shared in Japan, where a small band of nationalists has pushed the country to assert itself more boldly to counter China’s and South Korea’s economic rise and the former’s quickly evolving territorial ambitions. The conflict with China has raised the specter that the US, Japan’s longtime defender, could be pulled into the fight.
The nationalists have gained traction for their cause in recent months by taking advantage of the Japenese government’s political weakness, forcing the governing party to take a tougher stand on the islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyutais (釣魚台) in China and Taiwan, which also claims them.
Yet the activists are also tapping into a widespread anxiety over China, which intensified two years ago during the last major flare-up over the Diaoyutais. China retaliated then for Japan’s arrest of a fishing captain by starving Japan of the rare earths needed for its already struggling electronics industry. That anxiety became more pronounced in recent months as China expanded its claims in the nearby South China Sea, challenging Vietnam, the Philippines and others over more than 40 islands in a vast area, and backing its statements with aggressive moves that included sending larger patrol boats to disputed waters.
There is still little appetite in pacifist Japan for a full-blown confrontation with China. However, analysts say consensus is growing on the need to stand up to China as power in the region appears to slip further from economically fading Japan and the US.
“We are all gearing up for an international tug of war in this region,” said Narushige Michishita, an expert on security issues at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “Whenever the distribution of power changes in a dramatic way, people start to redraw lines.”
That is what is happening in the South China Sea, which has received more international attention than Japan’s territorial battles. However, experts say the increasingly shrill war of words over disputed islands between Japan and its East Asian neighbors, including China and South Korea, is potentially more explosive. Unlike in the South China Sea, where the frictions center on competition for natural resources, the East Asian island disputes are more about history, rooted in lingering — and easily ignited — anger over Japan’s brutal dominance decades ago.
Those raw emotions were loosed over the weekend, as hundreds and possibly thousands of Chinese — in protests that were at least tolerated by the government — poured into the streets in several cities to denounce Japan’s claims over the Senkakus.
“The stakes are much higher in East Asia because you have bigger countries in close proximity, and the conflicts are more direct and emotional,” said Kent Calder, director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University.