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Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006

'Takeshima Day,' rhetoric just Shimane affair

Staff writer

MATSUE, Shimane Pref. -- Shimane Prefecture on Wednesday celebrated its first "Takeshima Day" by declaring that the tiny islets controlled by South Korea are part of Japan and calling on the government to pressure Seoul to hand them over.

News photo
Shimane Gov. Nobuyoshi Sumita speaks to reporters at the prefectural headquarters.

Central government officials were conspicuously absent from Wednesday's event, however, in order to avoid straining ties further with Seoul.

"Takeshima has been occupied by South Korea for more than 50 years. In the past, we tried to get the rest of Japan to pay attention to the problem, but had no luck. Last year's prefectural resolution to create 'Takeshima Day' has successfully raised the profile of the issue nationally," Shimane Gov. Nobuyoshi Sumita said in his opening remarks to a forum on the dispute's history.

Last March, the prefecture declared Feb. 22 "Takeshima Day." That date in 1905 was when Japan forced Korea to cede the islets to Shimane.

Security was tight Wednesday afternoon in downtown Matsue, but the streets were quiet. There were no prominent posters or banners heralding "Takeshima Day" and no rightwing sound trucks drove around demanding the islets' return.

A few protesters from South Korea showed up in front of the prefectural office in the morning, holding up signs declaring that Dokdo belongs to South Korea.

About 250 people, including representatives from local fishing unions as well as town assembly members from the Oki Islands, administered by Shimane Prefecture, attended the afternoon forum on the contentious issue.

Sumita called on the central government to pressure South Korea on Takeshima, which the South calls Dokdo, echoing calls from Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe earlier this week for both sides to take a cool-headed approach to resolve the issue.

Diet members representing the prefecture and Foreign Ministry officials had received official invitations to attend Wednesday's forum, but declined, citing the delicate nature of the problem.

"We have to study the historical facts without nationalistic sentiments on either side," Sumita said.

Tsuyoshi Kurai, head of the prefectural assembly, was more blunt, calling South Korea's control of the islets illegal and urging Japanese diplomats to increase the pressure on Seoul.

The islets are about 50 nautical miles east of South Korea's Ullung Island and about 90 nautical miles northwest of the Oki Islands. Tokyo and Seoul have argued over the islets for the past century.

However, it was the decision taken by the late South Korean President Syngman Rhee in the 1950s that led to the current dispute.

On Jan. 28, 1952, in the period shortly after the San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed and before it was ratified, Rhee declared South Korean sovereignty over an area of the Sea of Japan where the islets are located and took control of them.

The islets was discussed during the peace treaty negotiations, but their status was not established. Japan protested Rhee's move, but the issue has remained unresolved, with the occasional political flareup.

At Wednesday's forum, Masao Shimojo, professor at Takushoku University who has written extensively on the dispute for the prefecture, said one reason row has not been resolved is the Japanese public's lack of knowledge about the issue.

Shimojo's views on history have appeared on the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform's Web site. It was this group that published a textbook downplaying Japan's wartime atrocities, which sparked angry protests in South Korea and China when it was approved for use in public schools.

"But the reason why the Takeshima problem still festers is because there has been no real dialogue with South Korea," Shimojo said. "When Japan says something, South Korea responds with emotional, angry words. So to tell South Korea, as Japan does in negotiations, that historically, Takeshima is Japan's, or that international law is on Japan's side simply doesn't work."

In Shimojo's view, Takeshima was legally incorporated into Japan in 1905, when the Korean government signed a treaty giving them to Japan.

The deal was struck when Korea was under Japanese control. Seoul's position is that the government at the time signed the treaty against its will.

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