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Japan in Territorial Disputes on All Sides
Japan looks highly unlikely to start shooting over the hotspots, but all players are wary of potential conflict.
"It's a hypothetical thing. But people do imagine that something might happen," said Akira Chiba, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman. "We don't plan to take them forcefully. It doesn't mean we gave them up."
Occasional flare-ups trigger wild protests in China, Taiwan and South Korea.
South Korean nationalists habitually burn the Japanese flag in street rallies. One patriot even covered his body in 200,000 bees this year to denounce Japanese "imperialism" _ getting stung a reported 200 times in the process.
Protesters from Hong Kong and Taiwan have repeatedly tried to storm the Senkaku Islands to plant the Chinese flag and tear down a lighthouse built there by Japanese rightists staking their claim to the islets. It's the job of Japanese ships like the Hateruma to intercept them, and one Hong Kong protester died in 1996 after jumping into the ocean when his landing attempt was foiled.
When it comes to Russia, it's Japan's turn to protest. Japanese roadsides within sight of the Russian-occupied isles are dotted with signs demanding "Give us back the Northern Territories!"
The Soviet Union expelled some 17,000 Japanese from the islands and the dispute still prevents Tokyo and Moscow from signing a peace treaty. Russia has expressed readiness to return two of the islands, but Japan insists on recovering all four.
"If you give up in one instance, other countries might think Japan would be willing to give up in other cases as well," said Shigenori Okazaki, a political analyst in Tokyo.
At the heart of the dispute is resources. Rich fishing grounds surround most of the disputed areas, as do potentially huge undersea reserves of natural gas and oil. Korea Gas Corp. estimates the sea floor around Takeshima alone has enough deposits to meet South Korean natural gas demands for 30 years.
Nascent military rivalries have also emerged.
In 2004, a Chinese submarine infiltrated Japanese waters while returning from a mission near the Pacific island of Guam. The foray underlined for Tokyo the importance bolstering its claim to two nearby outcroppings known as Okinotorishima.
Japan says Okinotorishima is an island, China says it's just a reef, meaning it has fishing rights there as well as access to strategic shipping lanes between U.S. military bases in Guam and the Asian mainland.
For now, China and Japan are talking about possible joint development of the East China Sea gas fields. But no breakthrough is in sight and the next round of talks hangs in limbo.