Whose islands are they?

If a politician yells in the middle of the ocean, does anyone hear? Barak Kushner on how a Japanese

According to Japanese news reports over the last week Minister of Education Tokai Kisaburô and several other high-ranking officials decided that the Japanese government needed to reject South Korea’s claims over Takeshima (Tokdo in Korean) - a set of small islands in the Sea of Japan.

This “educational directive” would instruct students that the sovereignty of Takeshima was not an issue and that it remained an inviolable part of Japan. In response, Seoul recalled its ambassador to Japan and recent commentary suggests he may not return. What is Japan doing by suddenly probing this geographical wound and why is this such a controversy?

Despite the inclination to cite a famous East Asian proverb concerning the need to work toward consensus, this latest scuffle seems to mirror a line from Woody Allen: “No man is an island, and yet some are peninsulas.” It’s as if the land were somehow connected over the sea to encompass the island as a peninsula.

The problem is that while Korean and Japan may wish to live in political and historical isolation the tiny islands in between are wedded to a long and fractured history that feeds feuds about ownership.

And there is more to this than a simple standoff about algae covered real estate. Islands in the middle of the sea are actually tricky legal issues. According to various interpretations of the UN Law Of The Sea, islands and atolls can sometimes significantly expand national claims to seabed minerals or mining rights or mark out more clearly defined limits of national territory near international waters.

Moreover, such outcrops stand as lone fishing stations in the seas of East Asia that have been running dry thanks to overfishing. Consequently, islands are both symbols and a physical manifestation of the State and have serious military, economic, and social implications.

And yet as important as these issues are neither South Korea or Japan (nor Russia for that matter as Japan’s new educational directive includes the the Kuril Islands) currently employ such arguments.

Instead, we are delivered a complex orchestration of appeals to gut emotional nationalism. “We need this land … because it’s ours,” they declare. Both Japan and Korea will unroll ancient maps, trot out anecdotes, and seek questionable scholarly testimony to encourage public opinion that these isolated dots in the sea were always part of their nations.

The entire history of Japanese colonialism and unilateral declaration of ownership of Korean lands, prior to 1945, along with imperial Japan’s early 20th century land grabbing phase that occupied several Russian islands, complicates the situation even further.

Any Japanese claim to land often meets with a Korean, Chinese, or Russian backlash stemming from the lingering distaste of what many experienced through past Japanese aggression.

The political and social pressure that drives these actions can be described in three simple words - weak country mentality. All three countries of Korea, Japan and Russia are struggling with their international positions.

Domestic appeals to naked nationalism hold strong latent appeal. These actions are mere proxies for real political debates about substantive issues and yet all sides appear incapable of probative internal or foreign dialogue, resulting in childish sophistry. However, the potential for the situation to suddenly escalate to something more volatile, remains a feared possibility.

The irony of the situation is that these government directives are aimed at students who rarely read the textbooks anyway. Textbooks are a step toward passing the test for advancement but the real focus of most educational progress in Japanese and Korean society is cram schools. Since cram schools are not official they don’t use authorized textbooks. The move is a hollow example of a shrill political gamble to rally national pride in a time when many more significant issues fail to receive proper attention.

Barak Kushner is lecturer in Japanese history at the University of Cambridge, and the author of works on Japanese propaganda and nationalism in East Asia. Currently he is in China as an Abe Fellow conducting research concerning how the Chinese government adjudicated Japanese war crimes