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Takeshima and the Northern Territories in Japan's nationalism: Alexander Bukh comments on the dispute between Japan and South Korea over the Liancourt Rocks.

Takeshima and the Northern Territories are symbols of Japan's nationalism. While Tokyo's official position on the two disputes over their sovereignty has been consistent since the mid-1950s, its domestic policy related to the disputes experienced an important change. From the mid-1960s, Tokyo began actively to utilise the Northern Territories dispute with the Soviet Union. By contrast, the dispute over Takeshima was put on the back burner of domestic politics as the government gave priority to co-operation with Seoul. This created a sense of victimhood in Shimane Prefecture, which by passing the 'Takeshima Day' ordinance in 2005 brought the territorial dispute to the fore of the domestic debates on Japan's relations with South Korea.


In 2005, Japan's Shimane Prefecture adopted the 'Takeshima Day' ordinance that designated 22 February, the day the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese) were incorporated into Japan in 1905, as a prefectural memorial day. The passage of the ordinance, the Korean reaction and the wide domestic coverage propelled Takeshima to the forefront of Japan's domestic debates on South Korea. It transformed the previously obscure and unknown to most Japanese dispute into one of the main symbols in Japan's nationalistic debates.

Commentators in South Korea but also in the English language media and academia elsewhere have interpreted this ordinance as another expression of the rising official and popular nationalism in Japan. The process that culminated in the passage of the ordinance is, however, much more complex than this. The ordinance was adopted against the wish of the government and key members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and, as I will explain below, was directed at Tokyo rather than at Seoul. Furthermore, Japan's other territorial dispute--the dispute with Russia over the South Kuriles/Northern Territories--has played an important role in bringing about the ordinance.

Shimane Prefecture's Takeshima-related activism did not start in 2005, but rather dates back to the early post-war years. Japan's defeat in the Pacific War and the loss of colonies, as well as the Allied occupation, brought about a sudden increase in population and shrinkage in fishing areas available to Japanese fishermen. Spurred by these developments, Shimane Prefecture embarked on a campaign urging the occupation authorities and the Japanese government to return the Liancourt Rocks, which during the occupation were used by US forces as a bombing range and were outside the so-called 'MacArthur Line', to Shimane Prefecture. The Japanese government also perceived the rocks as rightfully belonging to Japan and during preparations for the San Francisco Peace Conference lobbied the United States to include the rocks in Japan's territory. However, the final version of the peace treaty carried no references to the Liancourt Rocks. While South Korea has effectively administered the rocks since 1952, both the Japanese and the Korean governments have adopted interpretations of the treaty favourable to their respective positions. The territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks was one of the main stumbling blocks in Japan-South Korea normalisation

negotiations that started in 1951.

Prefectural lobbying

Meanwhile, Shimane Prefecture continued to send petitions to the central government arguing the need to establish Japan's rights to the rocks. As such in the 1950s, the positions of Matsue (Shimane's prefectural capital) and Tokyo on the territorial dispute were identical. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the 1965 Basic Treaty, which normalised relations between Japan and South Korea, created a divide in relations between Shimane and Tokyo. As Daniel Roh has shown in his 2008 Takeshima Mitsuyaku [The Takeshima Secret Pact], in the early 1960s both the Japanese and Korean governments came to perceive the issue of ownership over the rocks as relatively insignificant, but neither side could compromise for domestic political reasons. As such, they reached a tacit agreement to shelve the dispute. According to this agreement, both governments would continue to hold their respective interpretations regarding ownership of the rocks, but would maintain the status quo and avoid escalation of the dispute.

From that point onwards, the perceptions of the dispute in Tokyo and Matsue diverged. While officially adhering to the position that Takeshima is illegally occupied by South Korea, Tokyo's interests changed from attempts to retrieve the territory to a policy that aimed at keeping Takeshima away from the domestic public discourse. In contrast, in the late 1960s Tokyo embarked on an extensive domestic campaign related to the Northern Territories. The purpose of that campaign was to consolidate public opinion around the Northern Territories issue and through this to divert domestic nationalism away from the United States towards the Soviet Union.

The campaign involved extensive educational activities, establishment of numerous memorials on Hokkaido and the enactment of a national 'Northern Territories Day' in 1981. This extensive campaign has managed to transform the Northern Territories from an issue that was of interest mainly to former residents of the four islands into a national symbol. However, the extensive attention paid by the central government to the Northern Territories from the late 1960s created a visible contradiction in Japans policy related to territorial disputes. On one hand, Japan's official position on both disputes remained identical: both the Liancourt Rocks (Takeshima) and the South Kuriles (Northern Territories) were argued to be illegally occupied by South Korea and the Soviet Union respectively. Nevertheless, in terms of domestic policy, the central government has invested heavily in the Northern Territories campaign but, with rare exceptions, has kept silent on Takeshima and has not allocated any resources to it.

Fishing agreement

The bilateral fishing agreement that accompanied the 1965 normalisation treaty enabled Japanese fishermen to fish in waters near the rocks and, despite the fact that from the late 1970s the Korean authorities prevented them from entering the 12-mile zone near the rocks, the agreement solved most of Shimane's fishing-related grievances. Even so, the duplicity in Tokyo's position has created a sense of victimhood and injustice among Shimane's prefectural elites and become the main stimulant in Takeshima-related activism. At the same time, Tokyo's Northern Territories campaign informed and shaped the prefecture's own campaign and the nature of its demands on the government.

The 2005 'Takeshima Day' ordinance was an integral part of Shimane Prefecture's Takeshima-related campaign. Certain actions of the Korean government, such as the issuance of the second Dokdo memorial stamp in 2004, served as the immediate trigger for Shimane Prefecture's 2004 Takeshima-related memorandum that became the basis for the ordinance. These actions, however, were interpreted through the lens of victimhood and injustice caused by Tokyo. Thus the memorandum demanded that Tokyo apply certain domestic polices related to the Northern Territories, such as the national day and a governmental body in charge of development and co-ordination-related policies, to the Takeshima issue as well. The prefectural ordinance was a response to Tokyo's refusal to accommodate Shimane's demands and was adopted despite requests from the Liberal Democratic Party and the government not to do so.

Today, both the Northern Territories and Takeshima are important symbols in Japan's nationalism directed at its neighbours. But the processes that led to emergence of these national symbols are quite different. In a somewhat ironic fashion, Tokyo's successful attempt to raise the visibility of the Northern Territories in the domestic discourse facilitated the emergence of Takeshima as another national symbol--against the desire of the central government.

Dr Alexander Bukh is a senior lecturer in the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington. A detailed and more academic version of this piece can be found at: www.
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Author:Bukh, Alexander
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:May 1, 2015
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