Japan talked tough on Friday in an emotional row with South Korea, with lawmakers calling on Seoul to end its “illegal occupation” of a disputed island chain, but Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda also called for calm and a diplomatic solution to the feud.
Tension between the North Asian countries flared this month after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak became the first South Korean leader to set foot on the islands claimed by both countries that are known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan.
Lee’s visit and his call for Japanese Emperor Akihito to go beyond expressing “deepest regrets” for Japan’s 1910 to 1945 colonial rule triggered a diplomatic tit-for-tat feud.
The dispute between Japan and South Korea has coincided with a standoff between Japan, China and Taiwan over another island chain, the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as Senkaku in Japan.
Noda, accused by the Japanese opposition of being too soft on territorial disputes, walked a fine line, fending off criticism while trying to keep the disputes from spinning out of control.
“In order to protect our national interests, I will say what we must say and do what should be done,” Noda told a news conference. “On the other hand, it would do no good to any country if we uselessly fan hardline opinions at home and escalate the situation.”
However, Noda also sharpened his rhetoric and referred to South Korea’s control of the islands as “illegal occupation,” echoing the language of lawmakers who earlier passed a resolution condemning Lee’s visit to the islands and demanding their return to Japan.
That spurred a swift rebuke from South Korea.
“We strongly protest the prime minister’s unjust territorial claim to Dokdo which is historically, geographically and by international law our [South Korea’s] sovereign land ... and urge he immediately withdraw it,” South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young said in a statement.
Noda said he had no specific economic steps in mind to take in the dispute with South Korea, but Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi earlier suggested that Tokyo might not extend a currency swap arrangement with South Korea after it expires in October.
The Japanese Yomiuri newspaper reported that Japan was leaning toward aborting its plan to buy South Korean government bonds, saying the government believed it would not be understood by the public.
Bitter memories of Japanese militarism run deep in China and South Korea. The territorial disputes show how the region has failed to resolve differences nearly seven decades after the end of World War II.
Narushige Michishita, a security expert from Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said the intensity of the flare-ups reflected domestic political pressures, but also changing dynamics in the region.
“With a rising China and a more self-confident South Korea, the region is entering an era of turbulence,” he said.
Both Japan and South Korea face elections and China is preparing for a leadership change later this year. The last thing politicians want is to appear weak in dealing with neighbors over territory.