Written by Alexander Bukh.

In 2005, Japan’s Shimane Prefecture adopted the ‘Takeshima Day’ ordinance that designated the 22nd of February, the day 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 fore of Japan’s domestic debates on South Korea. It transformed the previously obscure dispute, unknown to most Japanese, into one of the main symbols in Japan’s nationalistic debate.

Commentators in South Korea but also in the English language media and academia 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, however, is 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 dates back to the early postwar years. Japan’s defeat in the Asia-Pacific War and the loss of colonies, as well as the occupation brought about a sudden increase in population and shrinkage in fishing areas available for Japanese fishermen. Spurred by these developments, Shimane Prefecture embarked on a campaign urging the Occupation Authorities and the Japanese Government to return Liancourt Rocks, which during the Occupation were used by the US forces as a bombing range and were outside of 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 Treaty lobbied the US to include the rocks in Japan’s territory. However, the final version of the Peace Treaty carried no references to 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 favorable to their respective positions.

The territorial dispute over Liancourt Rocks was one of the main stumbling blocks in Japan-South Korea normalization negotiations that started in 1951. 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.

However, the conclusion of the 1965 Basic Treaty which normalized relations between Japan and South Korea created a divide in Shimane’s and Tokyo’s relations. As Daniel Roh (2008) has showed in his Takeshima Mitsuyaku (The Takeshima Secret Pact), in early 1960s both the Japanese and the 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 the 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. Contrastingly, in late 1960s, Tokyo embarked on an extensive domestic campaign related to the Northern Territories. The purpose of the campaign was to consolidate the public opinion around the ‘Northern Territories’ issue and through this to divert domestic nationalism away from the US towards the Soviet Union. The campaign involved extensive educational activities, establishment of numerous memorials on Hokkaido and the enactment of the national ‘Northern Territories Day’ in 1981. This extensive campaign has managed to transform ‘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 ‘Northern Territories’ from late 1960s, created a visible contradiction in Japan’s policy related to territorial disputes. Japan’s official position on both of the disputes remained identical: both Liancourt Rocks (Takeshima) and South Kuriles (Northern Territories) were argued to be illegally occupied by South Korea and the Soviet Union respectively. In terms of domestic policy, however, the central government has invested heavily in the Northern Territories campaign but, with rare exceptions, has kept silent on Takeshima and did not allocate any resources to it.

The bilateral fishing agreement that accompanied the 1965 normalization treaty enabled Japanese fishermen to fish in waters near the rocks and, while from late 1970s the Korean authorities prevented them from entering the 12 miles zone near the rocks, the agreement solved most of Shimane’s fishing related grievances. The duplicity in Tokyo’s position however has created a sense of victimhood and injustice among Shimane’s prefectural elites and became the main stimulant in Takeshima related activism. At the same time, Tokyo’s ‘Northern Territories’ campaign informed and shaped prefecture’s own campaign and the nature of their demands from 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 Takeshima related memorandum in 2004 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 from Tokyo to adopt certain domestic polices related to the ‘Northern Territories’ such as the national day and a governmental body in charge of developing and coordinating related policies, to the Takeshima issue as well. The prefectural ordinance was a response to Tokyo’s denial to accommodate Shimane’s demands and was adopted despite requests from the LDP and the government not to do so.

Today, both ‘Northern Territories’ and ‘Takeshima’ are important symbols in Japan’s nationalism directed at its neighbors. However, 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 ‘Northern Territories’ in the domestic discourse, facilitated the emergence of ‘Takeshima’ as another national symbol against the desire of the central government.

Alexander Bukh is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the Victoria University of Wellington. Image Credit: CC by turnerw82/Flickr.