Wednesday's 67th anniversary of the end of World War II collided with election-year politics in the Asia Pacific, spurring South Korea's president, Japanese officials and Chinese activists to stage controversial gestures that have stirred up bitter wartime memories.
South Korea had already rekindled long-smoldering resentment of Japanese occupation and war-era abuses when its president, Lee Myung Bak, last week visited a cluster of rocky islets claimed by both his nation and Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda recalled his nation's ambassador to South Korea in protest of Lee's visit Friday to the outcroppings known in Japan as Takeshima and in South Korea as Dokdo and coveted for their surrounding fisheries and energy reserves.
On Wednesday, the anniversary of Japan's surrender that ended World War II and its colonial occupations, Japanese coast guards arrested 14 Hong Kong activists who landed at another set of disputed islands to stake a claim for Chinese sovereignty. The report by Japan's NHK World network on the incident said the fishing boat bore a banner proclaiming that "China cannot give up an inch of its territory."
That Japan-China island dispute, also over the natural resources more than the rugged land, has strained relations between the Asian economic giants for years. Tensions flared two years ago when a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese coast guard vessels off the islands known in Japan as Senkaku and in China as Diaoyu.
The Chinese government lodged "solemn representations" with Tokyo over the latest incident, the official New China News Agency reported. It said Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying on Wednesday reiterated China's claim over the islands, summoned the Japanese ambassador and demanded the immediate and unconditional release of the activists.
In another gesture that provoked anger among Japan's wartime victims in South Korea, two Japanese Cabinet ministers joined an annual pilgrimage to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo honoring Japan's war dead, including those now branded as war criminals.
Lee used the anniversary to appeal for Japanese compensation to surviving South Korean "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during the war, the Yonhap news agency reported from Seoul. Lee also called on Emperor Akihito to apologize for Japan's mistreatment of Koreans during its 40-year occupation of the peninsula that ended with the surrender in 1945, calling the abuses violations of "universal human rights and historic justice."
Political posturing is seen behind the controversial gestures, given that major leadership challenges lie ahead this year in all three countries. China's Communist Party is expected to carry out a once-in-a-decade shakeup of its hierarchy this fall, Noda faces his Democratic Party of Japan's leadership election next month and a presidential vote is set for December in South Korea.
--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: Worshipers offer prayers for Japanese war dead at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Wednesday, the anniversary of Japan's surrender that ended World War II and Japanese occupations in Korea and China. Credit: Kimimasa Mayamaa / EPA