The former, called the Senkaku Islands in Japan, and the Diaoyu islands in China, are claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan; the latter, called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in Korea, are claimed by South Korea and Japan.
These tiny outcroppings have little material value, and yet the dispute over their ownership has led to a major international dustup. Ambassadors have been recalled. Massive anti-Japanese demonstrations have been held all over China, causing damage to Japanese people and properties. Threats fly back and forth between Tokyo and Seoul. There has even been talk of military action.
The historical facts actually appear quite simple. Japan grabbed the islands as part of its empire-building project after the Sino-Japanese war in 1895 and the annexation of Korea in 1905. Prior sovereignty is unclear; there were fishermen from Japan in Takeshima/Dokdo, and some awareness of the Senkaku/Diaoyu in imperial China. But no formal claims were made by any state.
Things became more complicated after World War II. Japan was supposed to return its colonial possessions, but the United States took over the Senkaku Islands along with Okinawa before returning both to Japan in 1972. The Koreans, still enraged at Japan for almost a half-century of colonization, took the Dokdo islands without worrying about the move's legality.
Given the brutality of the Japanese occupations of Korea and China, one is naturally inclined to sympathize with Japan's former victims. The fiery emotions inspired by this dispute -- some Koreans even mutilated themselves in protest against Japan -- suggest that the wounds of the Japanese war in Asia are still fresh. Indeed, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has used the occasion to demand a formal apology for the war from the Japanese emperor, and financial compensation for Korean women who were forced to serve Japanese soldiers in military brothels during the war.
Unfortunately, the Japanese government, despite much circumstantial and even documentary evidence supplied by Japanese historians, now chooses to deny the wartime regime's responsibility for this ghastly project. Not surprisingly, that stance has further inflamed Korean emotions.
And yet it would be too simple to ascribe the current dispute entirely to the open wounds of the last world war. Nationalist feelings, deliberately stirred up in China, Korea and Japan, are linked to recent history, to be sure, but the politics behind them is different in each country. Since the press in all three countries is almost autistic in its refusal to reflect anything but the “national” point of view, these politics are never properly explained.
The Communist government in China can no longer derive any legitimacy from Marxist, let alone Maoist, ideology. China is an authoritarian capitalist country, open for business with other capitalist countries (including deep economic relations with Japan). Since the 1990s, therefore, nationalism has replaced Communism as the justification for the one-party state, which requires stirring up anti-Western -- above all, anti-Japanese -- sentiment. This is never difficult in China, given the painful past, and it usefully deflects public attention from the failings and frustrations of living in a dictatorship.
In South Korea, one of the most painful legacies of the Japanese colonial period stems from the Korean elite's widespread collaboration at the time. Their offspring still play an important part in conservative politics in the country, which is why Korean leftists periodically call for purges and retribution. President Lee is a conservative, and relatively pro-Japanese. As a result, the Japanese view his recent demands for apologies, money and recognition of Korean sovereignty over the islands in the Sea of Japan as a kind of betrayal. But, precisely because Lee is regarded as a pro-Japanese conservative, he needs to burnish his nationalist credentials. He cannot afford to be tainted with collaboration. His political opponents are not the Japanese, but the Korean left.
The use of the war to stoke anti-Japanese feelings in China and Korea is annoying to the Japanese, and triggers defensive reactions. But Japanese nationalism is also fed by anxieties and frustrations -- specifically, fear of rising Chinese power and Japan's total dependency on the US for its national security.
Japanese conservatives view their country's post-war pacifist constitution, written by Americans in 1946, as a humiliating assault on Japanese sovereignty. Now that China is testing its growing power by claiming territories, not just in the East China Sea, but also in the South China Sea, Japanese nationalists insist that Japan must act as a big power, and be seen as a serious player, fully prepared to defend its sovereignty, even over a few insignificant rocks.
China, Korea and Japan, whose economic interests are closely entwined, have every reason to avoid a serious conflict. And yet all three are doing their best to bring one about. For entirely domestic reasons, each country is manipulating the history of a devastating war, triggering passions that can only cause more damage.
Politicians, commentators, activists and journalists in each country are talking endlessly about the past. But they are manipulating memories for political ends. The last thing that interests any of them is the truth.
*Ian Buruma is professor of democracy and human rights at Bard College and the author of “Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.” © Project Syndicate 2012