Koreans believe the name of the sea between Japan and Korea should be called the East Sea rather than the Japan Sea, the name that appears on most maps. In the early 1990s both the U.N.'s conference on Geographical Names and the U.S. Board of Geographic names rejected suggestions by Koreans to the change the name of the body of water between Korea and Japan from the Sea of Japan to the East Sea.

In August 2007, the ninth conference for the standardization of geographical names ruled that the Sea of Japan will remain the Sea of Japan. South Korea and North Korea wanted the name to be changed to the “East Sea” or the “Sea of Korea,” names which they say have been used for more than 2,000 years. The chairman of the conference said, “I encourage the three countries involved to find a solution acceptable to all of them, taking into account any relevant solutions, or else agree to differ.”

North Korea and South Korea joined together to contest the name and argued that the “East Sea” and “Sea of Japan” names to be used concurrently until a common designation could be worked out. Japan argues that the “Sea of Japan” name has long been established and widely recognized as the name of the sea since the late 18th century. In August 2011, the United States said it would continue calling the waters between Japan and Korea “the Sea of Japan” despite efforts by South Korea to recognize it was “the East Sea.”

Japan and South Korea have been locked in a dispute over fishing in the fish-rich waters off the Kuril islands, north of Hokkaido, which are occupied by Russia and claimed by both Japan and Russia. Japanese claim the islands and the seas around them. The Russians currently occupy the islands and have given the Koreans permission to fish in the seas off of them. Japan told South Korea that if they continued fishing off the Kurile Islands they would be denied the right to fish in Japanese waters.

Japan and South Korea and the Takeshima-Dokdo Islands

Both Japan and South Korea claim two small, unpopulated islands — little more than cliffs than rise out of the sea — that lie in the Sea of Japan slightly closer to South Korea than Japan. The islands are known to the Japanese as the Takeshima islands and to the South Koreans as the Dokdo (Tokdo) islands. The waters around Takeshima island are rich in fish and are believed to have methane hydrate deposits.

South Korea has built a dock on the largest Tokdo islet. Almost everyday Korean tourists endure a seven ship hour journey, often overcome with seasickness, to reach the islands. The waves around the island are so strong and unpredictable that only about half the visitors on the ship can set on the island. Those that do spend about 20 minutes son the wharf, snap a few pictures and get back on he ship. In first seven months of 2008, more than 80,000 people visited the islands. South Korea have proposed building a hotel on the islets. As it stands now there is no tourist infrastructure o the islands: no restaurant, souvenir shop or even a public toilet.

South Koreans are quite passionate about the islands belonging to them. One South Korea man associated with a conservative historical society told the New York Times, “When Japan claims the Dokdo as its own territory, we Koreans feel as outraged as of someone pointed at our wife and claimed that she is his own. In South Korea, the islands have been pictured in television soft drink commercials and inspired a popular video game called “Defend Dokdo,” .

Tensions Over the Takeshima-Dokdo Islands

In March 2005, tensions over the Takeshima (Dokdo) Islands rose when a local assembly in Shimane Prefecture in Japan adopted an ordinance that reaffirm Japan’s claim on the islands to honor the 100th anniversary of Japan’s claim on them. A month before the Japanese ambassador said in Seoul that the islands legally and historically belong to Japan. The South Koreans responded with angry protests. One man set himself on fire in front of the Japanese embassy and sustained severe burns but didn’t die. A mother and son cut of their fingers. There were calls for a boycott on Japanese goods.

In April 2006, tensions rose again over plans by Seoul to register Korean names for underwater features around Takeshima island and plans by Tokyo to do a maritime survey of the seas around the island. South Korea dispatched 20 gunboats to area and threatened confrontation. Protestors in Seoul tried to storm the Japanese embassy. The stand-off was ended when Seoul promised to delay plans to register the names and Tokyo withdrew its plans to do the survey and both countries promised to hold talks on the demarcation line.

In July 2008, the Takeshima Islands were mentioned in a teaching manual for middle school students, setting off a fresh round of acrimony over the islands. South Korea recalled its ambassador for three weeks. Large anti-Japanese demonstrations were staged. One group decapitated pheasants, the national bird of Japan, in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Seoul subway officials ordered the of Japanese condom advertisements. Even North Korea entered the fray to condemn Japan.

One South Korean group took a full-page advertisement in an Australian newspaper demanding that Japan acknowledge South Korea’s territorial rights to the islands. A crew member on the South Korea coast guard boat that patrols the islands told the New York Times, “If the Japanese try to take this island from us, we will fight to the end. If we run out of firepower we will ram our ship against the intruders. Our national pride is at stake.”

In July 2010, a South Korean protester hurled a rock at Japan’s ambassador to South Korea in Seoul. The 50-year-old man who threw the stone said he did it because he was angry about Japan’s claim over a pair of disputed islands.

In August 2011, South Korea refused to let three Japanese lawmakers, who are members of the major opposition Liberal Democratic Party, were denied entry after arriving at Seoul's Gimpo International Airport. They planned to visit Ulleungdo, an island that serves as the administrative and military base for islands known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea. The lawmakers returned to Japan later. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 3, 2011]

The lawmakers had explained that the purpose of their trip was to visit the Dokdo Museum in Ulleungdo, which displays material about Takeshima-Dokdo and obtain background knowledge about Seoul's territorial claims to Takeshima. South Korea cited the immigration control law as the legal basis for turning the lawmakers away, saying entry can be refused to "people who could harm the country's interests or public safety." Seoul also reportedly claimed their visit would not serve the interests of friendly Japan-South Korea relations.

Historical Basis of the Takeshima-Dokdo Island Dispute

Both countries are firm in their claims on the islands. The Japanese assert they took sovereignty over the islands in the mid-17th century. The islands were incorporated into the jurisdiction of Shimane Prefecture in Japan in 1905, five years before Japan began colonial rule over Korea. Japan claims that their victory over the Russians that year reaffirms their rights to the islands.

For the Koreans Japan’s claim on the islands was an annexation and prelude to colonial rule. After Japan’s defeat in World War II the islands were effectively handed over to South Korea by default as the Allies made no effort t clear up the sovereignty issue. The South Koreans have maintained a police garrison on the islands since the 1950s. They have repeatedly rebuffed Japan’s urgings to have the matter settled in the International Court of Justice.

In October 2012, Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Japan says it reconfirmed its sovereignty over the islets in 1905 when it incorporated them into one of its prefectures. But South Korea sees that move as part of Japan’s forced annexation of the Korean Peninsula, which was completed in 1910. While leading the negotiations to redefine Japan’s territory after World War II, Washington did not clarify who owned the islets. After the so-called San Francisco Treaty, which set the terms of Japan’s surrender, went into force in 1952, South Korea declared the islets as its own, and since 1954 it has kept a police contingent there. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 4, 2012]

Some historians and security analysts say Washington is partly responsible for the troubles. The redistribution of the Japanese Empire after its defeat was “part and parcel of today’s problem,” said Alexis Dudden, a history professor at the University of Connecticut. The cold war tamped down the disputes. But now, Ms. Dudden said, the region’s territorial fights have become “perfect for competing narratives about the war, which is precisely why increasingly younger generations with no wartime or colonial experience themselves are able to use them for the purposes of stories they wish to tell.”

Over the years, South Korea has responded to Japan’s recurring claim by adding a wharf, a helipad, a generator, solar-energy panels and a tank that transforms the sea into drinking water. The government also gave street names to the steep stairways zigzagging the cliffs, and so far over 2,100 South Koreans have registered as Dokdo residents though they do not live here.

South Korea Presence on the Takeshima-Dokdo Island

In October 2012, Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “As they do on any fine-weather day, ferries on Thursday disgorged hundreds of South Korean tourists at these desolate islets. Some charged onto a wharf, waving the national flag and shouting “Daehanminguk manse!” — “Long live the Republic of Korea!” Others unfurled a “Dokdo is our territory” banner and snapped group photographs. The visitors were part of the flood of tourists who have visited this year — 153,000 and counting — amid a flare-up of long-simmering tensions over the islets, which are administered by South Korea but also claimed by Japan. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 4, 2012]

There is little for tourists to do here except express their sentiments. The islets are treeless volcanic outcroppings where the wind sometimes blows so strongly that the few residents fortify their windows with duct tape and spend their time dodging bird droppings during the spring migration of gulls. The outcroppings would, in fact, probably be an afterthought if not for the territorial dispute, which centers as much on Japan and South Korea’s fraught history as it does on claims of the rich fisheries nearby.

The territorial debate over the islets, known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan, is one of several simmering in Asia that some analysts fear could lead to hostilities, many of them tied to China’s rise and its increasingly assertive claims to territory in the South China Sea. But experts say the increasingly shrill disputes between Japan and its East Asian neighbors, including China and South Korea, are potentially more explosive because the animosity is rooted in good part in anger over Japan’s brutal dominance of both countries decades ago rather than solely in a fight for natural resources.

On Dokdo/Takeshima, such anger is palpable. Kim Seong-do, one of only two South Koreans who live here but do not work for the government — the other is his wife — is perhaps more animated than most on the subject, but strong feelings over the islets are widespread. “If the Japanese come to take this place by force,” said Mr. Kim, 73, “I say “Give me a rifle.” “

The nationalistic sniping between two of Washington’s crucial allies over these specks of land serves as a reminder of the trouble that the United States faces as it tries to “pivot” back to Asia. The standoff contributed to South Korea’s decision to back out of an agreement, supported by the United States, to share military intelligence with Japan. Also aggravating Japan-South Korea relations is the fact that South Korean firms have taken part in development projects on Etorofu and Shikotan islands in the Kuril Islands, which are claimed by both Japan and Russia,

South Korea Steps Up Pressure on the Takeshima-Dokdo Island Dispute

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “The Taepyeongyang No. 7, a 4,000-ton police patrol boat, prowled the waters around the islets, keeping watch for a Japanese Coast Guard ship that circles once every four days or so, sailing in international waters. “It’s not supposed to come within 12 miles of Dokdo,” said the Taepyeongyang’s captain, Superintendent Chung Myong-ho. “If it does, we will warn it and then ram it, or worse. But so far nothing like that has happened.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 4, 2012]

In September 2012, the South Korean government opened a small Dokdo museum in Seoul that displays documents and ancient maps that the government says uphold its claims to the islets. The South Korean government continued its public relations campaign, agreeing to fly reporters for Western publications to the islets and allowing rare access to the armed police officers who guard against intrusions by Japan. The government PowerPoint presentation included a well-known song in South Korea that says in part, “Hi, Dokdo, did you sleep well last night?”

During the London Olympics, a South Korean soccer player held up a paper sign reading "Dokdo is our land" while celebrating his team's win over Japan in the third-place playoff. The Takeshima islands are called Dokdo in South Korea. Although he was disciplined by the International Olympic Committee he was widely praised in different sectors in South Korea.

Despite the many hardships of living here, it has become a sacred duty among many young South Koreans to defend the islets from what Senior Inspector Lee Kwang-sup, commander of the police contingent, calls a “mean, vulgar and unrepentant nation” across the sea. Twenty to thirty times more police recruits than the government-set quota volunteer to serve here. Kwon Se-hyon, 19, is one of those who secured the posting. Mr. Kwon is a college student who grew up loving Japanese comic strips and animated cartoons and believing that Koreans have a lot to learn from Japan. Still, in April, he joined 150 police recruits competing for seven open slots on Dokdo, where 45 officers are stationed. “I didn’t want to miss this very special opportunity for a Korean man,” he said.

South Korean President Visits the Takeshima-Dokdo Islands and Scolds the Japanese Emperor

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “South Korea’s leaders have generally tried to keep quiet about the islets, assuming that any discussion would play into Japan’s hands. But in recent years, the government has been more aggressive in staking its claim. In August, President Lee Myung-bak became the first South Korean president to visit. That trip — and his subsequent suggestion that the Japanese emperor did not need to travel to South Korea unless he apologized unequivocally for Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula — set off an unusually strong reaction in Japan, where a weak government has been pushed by a small but vocal group of nationalists to take a stronger stand on territorial disputes. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 4, 2012]

It is generally believed that Lee, who has seen his influence wane as his term as president draws to a close, was attempting to show his "achievement" as the first South Korean head of state to visit the Takeshima islands. Jiji Press reported: “Lee's trip to disputed Sea of Japan islands called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea was unprecedented. Lee denied that his visit to the disputed islands was based on a sudden decision. He said he made the trip after considerable thought about possible adverse effects. The Yomiuri Shimbun said that negative repercussions South Korean President Lee Myung Bak caused by his tour of the Takeshima islands was unprecedented. He took the trouble of landing on the Sea of Japan islands that are under South Korea's effective rule, not only provoking Japan but also drawing the world's attention to the fact that there exists a territorial dispute between Tokyo and Seoul.

Reuters reported: “South Korea's Lee Myung-bak told a group of teachers that Emperor Akihito should apologise sincerely if he wanted to visit South Korea, saying a repeat of his 1990 expression of "deepest regrets" would not suffice. If the Emperor hopes to visit South Korea, he should truly apologize to Koreans who died in the independence movement during the Japanese rule of the peninsula before and during World War II, Lee said at a meeting with officials engaged in education.

Japan, noting that it had never broached the idea of a visit by the emperor to South Korea, lodged a protest with Seoul over the remarks. Akihito has spent much of the past two decades trying to heal the wounds of a war waged in his father's name. Lee, whose visit to the island claimed by South Korea and Japan frayed ties between the two US allies, called Japan an "important partner that we should work with to open the future". But in remarks commemorating Korea's liberation from Japan's colonial rule between 1910 and 1945, he also said the countries' tangled history was "hampering the common march toward a better tomorrow."[Source: Reuters, August 15, 2012]

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda attempt to protest Lee’s actions was rudely rebuffed. Henshu Techo wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “South Korean President Lee Myung Bak returned a personal letter from Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. Lee reportedly said it was unpardonable that the letter sent by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda used "Takeshima" as the name of the islands South Korea has been illegally occupying. This is an unfounded accusation that is very childish. Noda expressed his disappointment after learning South Korea would return his letter, and I also wondered, "What happed to Lee?" [Source: Henshu Techo, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 24, 2012]

South Korea Refuses Japan’s Offer to take the Takeshima-Dokdo to the International Court of Justice

In August 2011, Takayuki Nakagawa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “South Korea officially refused Japan's proposal to jointly ask the International Court of Justice to settle a row over the Takeshima islands, South Korean officials said. The South Korean Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry summoned an official of the Japanese Embassy and delivered a document to officially refuse the proposal. [Source: Takayuki Nakagawa, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 31, 2012]

The Japanese government immediately started preparations to file a suit on its own with the ICJ, Japanese government sources said. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has said that the proper path is to settle this issue in keeping with law and justice. Japan therefore will seek judgment in a court of international justice, the Japanese sources said.

According to Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry sources, the South Korean government claimed in the document that Dokdo, the name used for the islands in South Korea, is clearly their sovereign territory, a fact that precludes the existence of any dispute over the islands. Therefore, the joint filing to the ICJ is not worth consideration, the document said. Based on the same reasoning, South Korea also refused another Japanese proposal seeking mediation to resolve the territorial row in accordance with a bilateral diplomatic note on settling disputes between the two countries, signed at the time of the 1965 normalization of their relations.

There are two ways to start a trial at the ICJ against South Korea regarding sovereignty over the islands: A) Japan alone files a suit with the ICJ and South Korea agrees to the start of the trial; or B) Both Japan and South Korea agree to jointly file a suit. If Japan files a suit alone, it will prepare a written document based on international law and other rules to submit to the ICJ. The work may take several months, according to the Japanese sources. It is likely Japan will mainly argue that the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which went into effect in 1952, does not include Takeshima among the territories to which Japan gave up territorial rights, although South Korea had asked the islands be included. However, even if Japan alone files the suit with the ICJ, a trial will not be held if South Korea refuses.

The "International Court of Justice (ICJ) is a court tasked with resolving disputes between countries under international law. Based in The Hague, it is an organ of the United Nations. The ICJ is distinct from ordinary courts in that individuals and corporations cannot file suits there. Its duty is limited to settling nation-to-nation disputes, including territorial and border claims.

What is unusual about the ICJ is that a case cannot be opened unless both parties to the dispute agree to have the matter resolved by the court. Japan approached South Korea with an offer to have the international court settle their controversy in 1954 and 1962. However, Seoul rejected Tokyo's proposal. In August, Japan proposed once more to bring the dispute before the court. Again, South Korea rejected the proposal.

Bad Feelings by Japanese Towards Koreans After 2012 Flare Up of the Island Dispute

According to a 2012 public opinion survey conducted by the Cabinet Office. The percentage of Japanese who do not feel close to South Korea rose sharply, to 59 per cent, up 23.7 percentage points from the previous survey in 2011. A Foreign Ministry official said, "Confrontations between Japan and these countries over the Senkaku Islands, Okinawa Prefecture, and the Takeshima islands, Shimane Prefecture, led to the deterioration of public sentiment." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 26, 2012]

The survey was conducted between Sept. 27 and Oct. 7 and covered 3,000 adults nationwide. Of them, 1,838 people, or 61.3 per cent, gave valid responses. The results of the survey were announced Saturday. Regarding Japan-South Korea relations, a record 78.8 per cent of the respondents said they are "not good," up 42.8 percentage points. Though relations with South Korea had been good thanks to increased interest in the country among Japanese, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak's visit to the Takeshima islands in August 2012 chilled the relationship. Only 18.4 per cent of the respondents said Japan-South Korea relations "are good," down 40.1 points and a record low.

Image Sources: 1) CIA map 2) onmark productions 3) 4) Japan Zone

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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