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Japanese Claim Touches Nerve in South Korea

Anti-Japanese feelings in the region have waxed and waned for decades -- even centuries -- but analysts and diplomats describe the current outbreak as significant because of its scope, intensity and link to recent developments in Japan.

Last October, Japan's Education Minister Nariaki Nakayama hailed a revisionist junior high history book released in 2002. The book emphasizes the suffering of Japanese people on the home islands, rather than the brutality of wartime atrocities by Japanese forces. It omits references to forced laborers and "comfort women" -- or the hundreds of thousands of young females, mostly Koreans and Chinese, bonded into sexual slavery during the war and who have never received official compensation from Tokyo. Also gone are references to the 1937 Nanking Massacre in China. The Chinese government claims Japanese soldiers slaughtered 300,000 people there, mostly civilians -- facts and figures long disputed by the Japanese.

A man grapples with a South Korean protester, armed with a knife, to prevent him from stabbing himself at emotional protests in South Korea. (Seokyong Lee -- Bloomberg News)

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has infuriated Japan's wartime victims by regularly visiting Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's military dead, including World War II criminals. Japanese officials say their neighbors are misinterpreting the country's deeds and desires, and that any move to reconstitute a military would be strictly for self-defense or contributions to U.N.-led missions overseas. They point to the abhorrence of war that is still very present in Japanese society.

"Our country humbly accepts the fact that in the past it caused great damage and pain to people from Asian countries," Japan's Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said Thursday.

Japanese officials note that their government has spent more than $1 billion on war reparations -- and, in the case of South Korea, signed a 1965 agreement worth an estimated $500 million in economic aid to settle war claims. They also point to a series of official apologies by Japanese leaders.

But in 2000, a survey by South Korea's Dong-A Ilbo and Japan's Asahi newspapers showed that 90 percent of South Koreans polled still believed that Japan had yet to fully atone for past acts. Japanese officials and academics say that is in part because the Korean leaders, as with the Chinese, have routinely used anti-Japanese sentiment to stoke their own nationalist fires.

In recent years, Japan has reasserted claims to islands and territorial waters lost to or claimed by China, Russia and South Korea after its defeat in World War II. No dispute is more volatile than the one over the Dokdo/Takashima islands.

South Korea and Japan say their fishermen have used the islands for centuries. In 1905, Japan officially claimed the islands, which are about 100 miles northwest of Japan's Oki Island and 46 miles from the South Korean island of Ulleungdo. It was a time when Japan's military might was on the rise. South Korean officials, who say one of their last emperors, Gojong, claimed the islands in 1900, insist the Japanese military threat over Korea, annexed by Japan in 1910, prevented them from thwarting Japanese designs. In addition, a declaration during World War II required that Japan return all territories "stolen by violence and greed." The Japanese government does not consider the islands to be such a territory.

In an official response to South Korea's claim, the Japanese government described South Korean "occupation" as unlawful and "lacking any basis in international law."

Special correspondents Joohee Cho in Seoul and Sachiko Sakamaki in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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