Diaoyu Islands

Patriotism is in the air in Japan, but most citizens ignore the nationalistic fervour

Jeff Kingston says the recent opening in Tokyo of a museum dedicated to disputed territories marks the beginning of a month of nationalistic celebrations in Japan. The average Japanese citizen, however, appears uninterested in these displays

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 January, 2018, 12:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 January, 2018, 7:41pm

In February, many Christian countries celebrate “carnival”, and the Chinese the Lunar New Year. But, in Japan, this is patriotism month. The festivities got off to an early start, on January 25, when the government opened a museum in Tokyo on territorial disputes, making the case for Japanese sovereignty over Takeshima, the rocky islets South Korea administers as Dokdo, and the Senkaku islets Tokyo administers that are claimed as the Diaoyus by China and the Diaoyutai by Taiwan. The museum opening came just as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced he would not retreat into a diplomatic pout over renewed bilateral tensions with South Korea on the “comfort women” issue and would attend the Winter Olympics opening ceremony after all.

Timeline: the Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands dispute

South Korea has a few museums making its counterclaim while China also has a Diaoyu museum. Both nations, and Taiwan, reacted harshly to Japan’s museum. The display also cast a shadow over Foreign Minister Taro Kono’s visit to Beijing, aimed at thawing ties in this 40th anniversary year of the normalisation of relations. The deep permafrost in bilateral relations not only taps into unresolved historical grievances and strategic rivalry, but competing claims over “inherent” territory leave little room for compromise. Chinese vessels, including a submarine last week, regularly enter the territorial waters and are met by Japanese coastguard patrols and scrambled jets.

Interestingly, the Northern Territories claimed by Japan, but controlled by Russia, are not included in the museum display. Perhaps this is because Japan remains implausibly hopeful that a deal can be worked out with Moscow. Abe has met President Vladimir Putin more than any other world leader in a sustained campaign to cut a deal on the return of at least some of the four disputed islands off the coast of Hokkaido. Putin has instead installed missile batteries on the islands.

On February 9, Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will hold a summit near the Olympic venue where they no doubt will exchange views about inherent territory and the comfort women issue that Abe thought he had buried for good in 2015. The one-sided deal never had legitimacy with the public, prompting Moon to call for a review. In December, the review panel declared the deal fundamentally flawed, but Moon said he would abide by the agreement while asking Abe to do more. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson agrees, but Abe is livid that Moon has undermined the accord so publicly. Thus, there may be fireworks even before the opening ceremony.

February is book ended by two days celebrating the disputed territories that Japan claims but doesn’t control. February 7 is Northern Territories Day, when Japan commemorates the Soviet seizure of the Kuril Islands in 1945. The commemoration falls on the anniversary of an 1855 treaty with Russia that acknowledges Japan’s sovereignty over the four islands. In 2013, as Abe addressed an audience on the day, Russian jets intruded on the airspace over Hokkaido. Outside Hokkaido, however, there seems little interest in these annual rites.

Can Russia and Japan resolve the Kurils territorial dispute?

Takeshima Day on February 22 is when Japan asserts its claim to the South Korean-controlled Dokdo. The day was established by prefecture of Shimane officials envious of the central government fanfare in Hokkaido, hoping to nudge Tokyo to be more assertive on the issue. The government sends low-ranking officials to the city of Matsui, where black buses blare military songs from the 1930s and 1940s and anti-Korean invective. This display of patriotic fervour plays to an almost empty gallery. There is no Senkaku Day yet to boost Japan’s claims to those islets, perhaps because Japan denies there is any dispute.

Finally, lets not forget Foundation Day on February 11, the Japanese celebration of its founding in 660BC and the accession of the first emperor Jimmu. It was abolished in 1945 as a relic of Japanese militarism, but revived in 1966 as a day for commemorating mythic origins, displaying the national flag and muted patriotic devotions, meaning no fireworks as is common in other nations celebrating their genesis. The Japanese general disinterest in these nationalist celebrations, despite concerted conservative efforts, is perhaps the best cause for celebration.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan