Once a source of fortune for Japanese fishermen hunting sea lions and abalone, a pair of remote rocks is stopping the U.S.’ two biggest allies in Asia from getting along.
The Sea of Japan rocks have been controlled by South Korea since 1954. None of the 1,200 fishermen on Okinoshima, the nearest inhabited Japanese island, have ever been there. While the territorial tensions can ebb and flow, a more nationalistic government in Tokyo and media reports highlighting the dispute have again brought Okinoshima into the public eye.
“It used to be that young people and the general public didn’t really care about Takeshima,” local resident Shoza Yawata, 86, told reporters in the village of Kumi on Okinoshima, 158 kilometers (98 miles) from the rocks known as Dokdo in Korean. “Recently, there has been a backlash against South Korea’s control,” he said. “As Japanese, our blood boils.”
The dispute over the islets and their fishing rights, plus South Korea’s lingering bitterness over the treatment of its women by Japan’s Imperial Army during World War II, prevents a warming in relations between two of Asia’s big economies. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants a more militarily-assertive Japan, has seen his calls for a summit with President Park Geun Hye shunned, leaving the U.S. a cheerleader on the sidelines urging better ties.
“Japan has zero chance of getting any Korean concession on the” rocks, said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Japan.
The U.S. wants Japan and South Korea to work together as it seeks to limit China’s influence in the region and to better coordinate on policy regarding North Korea, Dujarric said. “This Takeshima claim only helps China and North Korea and makes life harder for the U.S.,” he said.
The largely bare rocks rise steeply from the ocean almost equidistant from the mainland of each country. Just three people -- a fisherman, his wife and a poet -- live there, according to a South Korean government website, alongside a platoon of about 30 police officers. The sea lions whose skins once provided carpets for homes on Okinoshima have disappeared.
Japan and South Korea both say their documents show a history of use of the islets, which lie in waters South Korea calls the East Sea. On Okinoshima, with a population of 15,000, there is plenty of evidence of the dispute on show. A tall sign at the ferry terminal calls for the return of the rocks, and the local government office is dominated by a similar banner, two stories high. Boxes of “Takeshima cakes” are on display.
Japan officially incorporated the rocks in 1905, handing management to the local government. Five years later it annexed the Korean peninsula, which it occupied until its defeat in 1945. Months after Japan signed a 1951 peace treaty with 47 other countries, South Korea drew a sea border that effectively staked its claim to what were known in Europe as the Liancourt Rocks.
In 2005, the Shimane prefecture that takes in Okinoshima established an annual Takeshima Day on Feb. 22, sparking protests in South Korea and prompting Gyeongsangbuk-do province to sever ties. Since 2009, all elementary and middle school students in Shimane prefecture have lessons on the issue.
Tensions flared when then-South Korean President Lee Myung Bak visited the islets in 2012, becoming the first leader to do so and prompting Japan to recall its envoy.
Just under 55 percent of Japanese respondents to a Genron NPO survey last year said they had an unfavorable opinion of South Korea, up from 37.3 percent in 2013. The most common reason given was South Korea’s criticism of Japan over historical issues. The survey showed 70.9 percent of South Koreans had an unfavorable view of Japan, down from 76.6 percent in 2013. Genron interviewed about 1,000 people in each country in person from May-June last year.
While Abe mentioned the need to improve ties with South Korea in a policy speech to parliament Thursday, he spent twice as long on his government’s efforts at rapprochement with Russia.
Warmer government ties could give a boost to economic links. South Korea and Japan are already each others’ third-largest trading partner after China and the U.S., with two-way trade of $95.9 billion in 2013, down from $104.9 billion in 2012. About 2.8 million South Koreans visited Japan last year, a rise of 12 percent on the previous year.
Japanese direct investment into Korea fell to $2.7 billion in 2013 from $4.6 billion in 2012, the year Lee visited the rocks, according to official Japanese figures. A three-way free trade agreement between Japan, South Korea and China, initially expected to wrap up by the end of 2014, may take another year, the Nikkei reported last December.
“Japan and South Korea are our closest partners,” Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Feb. 9 in Seoul. “We will continue to encourage them to work through some of the difficult issues that they face.”
Still, Okinoshima mayor Kazuhisa Matsuda wants the national government to take a bolder stance on the dispute with South Korea. Takeshima Day should be a national event and the rocks get their own central government bureau, he told reporters at the local government offices last month. Japan must “make clear to the world that it has sovereignty over Takeshima,” he said. “We should resolve it by appealing to international opinion.”
The national government soft-pedals its claims to Takeshima compared with its other territorial disputes. While Abe attends an annual event calling for the return of what Japan calls the Northern Territories -- a group of islands off the north of Hokkaido that are administered by Russia -- junior officials are dispatched to the Takeshima event in Shimane.
Local fisheries cooperative head Toshinaga Hamada says he has modest goals, as fishermen on the island age and struggle to make a living.
“Of course it would be best if Takeshima were to be returned,” he told reporters. “But it doesn’t seem possible for that to happen in the near future. We would be very happy if we were able to fish alongside the South Korean fishermen.”
With no boundary agreed between the exclusive economic zones of the two countries in the Sea of Japan, there are also no rules for fishing in a “provisional zone” around the islands. Hamada said his members are barely able to operate in the zone, once known for rich catches of snow crabs, because of nets and baskets left by their South Korean counterparts.
“It’s absolutely absurd to say the Dokdo area belongs to Japan,” said Jung Sung Hwan, an official in the fisheries department of the Ulleung county office, on the closest South Korean island to the rocks. “Japanese fishermen are claiming the area just so they can get more fish,” he said by phone.
Last year, the South Korean Foreign Ministry held a series of lectures for students from middle school through university to reinforce the country’s claim to the rocks.
Jeong Yung Hwan, who represents the fishing community on Ulleung, said his members had nothing to do with the Japanese fishermen’s complaints.
Back on Okinoshima, Yawata, who remembers raising a sea lion cub at home as a child, keeps a plan of the rocks his uncle Isaburo drew after one of the month-long visits he made in the 1930s. After the war, Isaburo was never able to return to the rocks he called “treasure islands”.
“South Korea took over and occupied these islands in a one-sided way,” Yawata said. “That is not normal. I want South Korea to think of a way we can get along better.”