A Chinese national flag tied to the wreckage of the Iro, an oil tanker for the Imperial Japanese Navy. Photo: Kyodo

Tensions over second world war aggravated after Chinese flag appears tied to Japanese shipwreck off Palau

Chinese flag tied to Japanese ship stirs up lingering bad blood over war

Unidentified divers have shown a lack of respect for the dead by attaching a large Chinese flag to the wreck of a Japanese warship that was sunk off the Pacific island of Palau in 1944, according to a Japanese historian.

Hiromichi Moteki - a retired teacher who is today secretary general of the right-wing Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact - said the "provocative and thoughtless actions" of Chinese such as those he presumed were behind the act "no longer surprise" him.

The flag was discovered on Saturday, tied to the railings of the Iro, an oil tanker for the Imperial Japanese Navy that was sunk in March 1944.

According to local dive operators in Palau, the vessel is one of the most popular in local waters because it is a mere 15-minute boat ride from the main harbour.

The Iro had been damaged by a torpedo from the submarine the USS Tunny as she sailed from the Philippines to Palau, but was able to make the anchorage at Urukthapel. The Iro and her sister ship, the Sata, were attacked again by US dive bombers and sunk at anchorage on March 31, 1944.

The Iro sits upright on the seabed in 40 metres of water, with a large gun still in position atop the ship's superstructure.

Divers descending on the wreck on March 21 found and photographed the flag.

"Of course I am angry, but I am not at all surprised," said Moteki, whose nationalist organisation argues that Japanese war crimes have been exaggerated.

"The Chinese feel they can do anything and this is not exceptional.

"They constantly perform provocative actions so this comes as no surprise, but I very much hope that the flag has now been removed."

Attempts to contact the Palau Visitors Authority (PVA) for comment yesterday were unsuccessful. However divers on the site are warned not to touch the wreck because it still holds unexploded munitions.

No information is known about the identity of the divers and the story was not widely covered by Chinese media - though some major state media, including , published a selection of photos.

Some Chinese internet users applauded the unidentified divers for their "patriotic act" and hailed the news for its "positive energy".

But other comments were harshly critical.

"Showing off their so-called 'national pride' by ruining beautiful scenery and damaging the image of China, I can only say that [they are] losers among our countrymen," a commenter wrote on Weibo, China's popular microblogging site.

"Japan is shameless when it comes to facing history, but China also has its own shame called 'Chinese tourists'," another Weibo user wrote.

The timing of what Moteki believes was a calculated insult is sensitive as a four-strong team from Japan's ministry of health and welfare has recently arrived in Palau to commence a new search for the remains of Japanese soldiers killed in the US invasion of Peleliu, one of the archipelago's islands.

Described as the US Marines' bitterest battle of the war, Operation Stalemate was designed to capture the island in just four days. In the end, it took more than two months for the US forces to subdue the 13,000-strong Japanese garrison. Of that total, a mere 202 Japanese surrendered. Teams have been dispatched to the island in the past and have recovered hundreds of sets of remains, many of which were excavated from caves where they were buried alive by US troops using bulldozers. According to Japan's health and welfare ministry, however, around 2,600 servicemen are still listed as missing.

It also comes shortly before the Emperor and Empress are scheduled to pay a state visit.

The Imperial couple will visit Palau over two days in mid-April as the region marks this year's 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war. The emperor and empress will pay their respects at memorials erected in honour of the troops from both sides who died on the islands.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Old wounds reopened over wreck