a, Opinion

What the disputed islands represent

Last month, South Korea began its largest national ban on Japanese goods in history. The ban comes in response to the Japanese government’s Feb. 22 celebration of Takeshima Day, commemorating Japan’s acquisition of the disputed islands in the Sea of Japan through the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco. All in all, around 600 million Korean business enterprises boycotted Japanese goods to challenge Japanese claim over the islands.

As a Hong Kong native, island politics is not an unfamiliar topic to me. The Baodiao movement is a social movement in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, which asserts Chinese sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands (“Fishing Islands”), despite Japan’s control over the territory. These islands were owned by other Asian countries prior to Japanese acquisition during WWII.

The Diaoyu and Takeshima disputes are not trivial matters of who gets which fishing island. Sovereignty over the islands involves the possession of oil reserves in the Pacific Ocean, but on the civil level, sentiments towards the islands represent a form of nationalism fueled by residual resentment of past foreign aggression—especially that of the WWII.

Caroline Rose’s article in Japanese Forum, “Patriotism not Taboo,” describes how contemporary Asian nationalism has emerged as “state and cultural nationalism” rather than “ethnic nationalism.” Since the 1930s, governments have evoked patriotic rhetoric as a means to garner the people’s support for its economic and foreign policies. We understand nationalism as a collective consciousness united by a language, culture and geographical boundaries; yet it also points to the understanding of the homogeneous ‘other’—a collective enemy. This can potentially give rise to racism.

Controversies such as island disputes, the alteration of Japanese history textbooks on WWII, and visits of Japanese heads of state to the Yasukuni Shrine perpetuate the perception of the ‘antagonistic other.’ The internet has given rise to anti-Japanese “trolling” on Chinese and Korean forums, which often evoke WWII atrocities. The first time I felt patriotic as an ethnic Chinese was during high school history class, when we learnt about the appalling human experiments conducted in Unit 731, a biological warfare research unit formed by the Japanese military in Northeast China during the early phases of WWII.  In retrospect, I see my anger and surge of empathy for my countrymen as a form of nationalistic sentiment.

Is such patriotic anger socially progressive? There are instances where ‘civil’ nationalism is beneficial. The Chinese May 4th movement in 1919 was not unlike the Korean ban on Takeshima Day: a nationwide boycott of Japanese imports took place in response to the Japanese acquisition of the Shandong province. The movement sparked a renaissance, which facilitated the emergence of contemporary Chinese culture in politics and literature.

This article may raise more questions than answers on the huge topic of nationalism, but I emphasize that we should recognize the potential dangers of what seem like perfectly benign sentiments towards one’s home country. I do support the Korean ban on Takeshima Day, but one must learn to separate politics from personal grudges against another culture or race.  Martin Luther King once said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  We may be a long way from achieving ‘love,’ but learning not to hate is a positive first step.

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