“Japan has accomplished a lot,” said Jeong Eun-jae, 31. “I admire their economic achievement, their diligence. They’re nice people.”
It’s at the two countries’ leadership levels that the rhetoric becomes less compromising. Both Japan and South Korea, in official documents and on government Web sites, say that these islands are unequivocally theirs, according to “international law.”
“Dokdo is indeed our territory and a place worth staking our lives to defend,” South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said when he visited the islands in August, a trip that stoked tensions.
“There is no doubt about the fact that Takeshima is Japan’s territory,” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said weeks later.
North Korea supports the South’s claim.
The countries base their competing claims on a sequence of centuries-old records and half-told versions of more recent history. One of the clearest differences in their respective narratives comes in 1905, when Japan’s government, with a cabinet decision, incorporated the islands into Shimane prefecture.
According to Tokyo’s official story, the move “reaffirmed” sovereignty dating back centuries and stemmed from a citizen’s wish to use the islands to hunt sea lions. According to Seoul’s version, though, Japan strong-armed the deal after forcing Korea to revoke its diplomatic rights and used the island as a staging ground for its war with Russia. This presaged Japan’s 1910 invasion of Korea, and many Koreans refuse to separate the two.
South Korea regained control in the years after World War II and has stationed coast guard officers there since 1954.
Since 2005, tourists have been allowed on the islands, and several hundred come by ferry almost every day. They’re permitted to stay for 30 minutes, and on Thursday, they wandered around in the sunshine, snapping photos and waving flags. One man took off his shoes and bowed, doing it twice more as journalists snapped photos.
“Korea!” the man howled.
Japan, however, objected to the journalists’ trip.
“From the Japanese point of view,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Masaru Sato said in an e-mail, “visiting Takeshima from Seoul is not a domestic trip, but an international trip crossing the border between Japan and Korea.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.