Proposed sale of Japanese land for Chinese consulate stokes anti-Chinese views

Kenichi Sugita, 56, has organized a petition to stop the land sale for a new consulate building to China.
Kenichi Sugita, 56, has organized a petition to stop the land sale for a new consulate building to China. (Chico Harlan - Twp)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 10:31 PM

NAGOYA, JAPAN - The local government in Japan's fourth-largest city has some land it wants to sell. The buyer is China. And disdain for that buyer has prompted Kenichi Sugita, a 56-year-old prep school teacher, to stand in front of windy train stations, distributing petitions and encouraging citizens to thwart the latest Chinese incursion.

Sino-Japanese relations had turned sour in September when a Chinese fishing boat collided near disputed territory with two Japanese patrol vessels, prompting a vicious diplomatic argument. But experts now say that the government-level acrimony of September has spilled downward, leading to widespread public mistrust on both sides - particularly in Japan, where opinion toward China has hit its lowest point in decades, according to polls.

"This has lasting consequences," said Shi Yinhong, a professor at Beijing's School of International Studies. "For the future of China-Japan relations, there are special difficulties, because any measures to improve ties will encounter the hardware of public opinion. For those who want to improve relations, I think everybody has a pessimistic view."

Unmistakable shifts

The rift between China and Japan has already caused deep changes, with Tokyo drawing closer to Washington and revising its military strategy to deal with the "concern" of Beijing's increasingly modernized, emboldened military.

But an enduring shift in public opinion had been harder to measure - at least until Sugita, the teacher in Nagoya, started collecting signatures and delivering them, folder by folder, to the local finance bureau, protesting the sale of the land, which China hopes to use to build a new consulate. (Currently, its consulate is on rented land.) His efforts have prompted the government to put the sale on hold, the latest strain between two countries whose relationship has broad implications for East Asia's security outlook.

Although the finance bureau hasn't rejected the sale, it has no timetable for moving forward on the sale of the land, which stretches seven acres and is across the street from a castle built four centuries ago.

"It doesn't feel like the complaints have died down," said Osamu Hayashi of the finance bureau's asset-management department. "We do hear the complaints. They are still actively protesting."

Some analysts attribute the latest wave of anti-China sentiment in Japan to despair over the country's direction, with two decades of economic stagnation and revolving-door leadership unable to offer much help. In August, China overtook Japan as the world's second-largest economy. Once viewed as the model for Asia, Japan now finds itself in a state of torpor, watching China boom and roar.

"In China, people are making money, they're finding jobs. They have fewer reasons to worry," said Phil Deans, a Sino-Japanese expert at Temple University's campus in Tokyo. "But on the Japanese side, the anti-Chinese sentiment has spread from just the typical crazies to the disaffected youth. Graduates are not finding jobs, the country isn't growing, and in a period like that, you kind of want something to complain about."

Sugita considers himself a nationalist but not a right-winger. He gets excited about pro-Japanese issues. He knows his country's land, its history. He wears a pin that appeals for the rescue of Japanese abductees in North Korea. Every month, he drives 40 minutes to a temple that honors fallen Japanese soldiers because he believes it's proper to pay respects. Several years ago, he grew so curious about a disputed set of uninhabited, windswept islands - claimed by both Japan and China - that he tried to charter a tour to visit them. He was stopped en route by the Japan Coast Guard.

"No, I'm not a right-winger," Sugita said. "I just love Japan."

Sugita has now become the central character in the grass-roots effort to prevent a sale from the Tokai Local Finance Bureau to the Chinese Consulate General. The government had posted a notice of the sale in April, and it expected a quick transaction. China soon submitted a bid, explaining its financial plans and intended construction. Local government officials thought they would be able to all but finalize the sale by September, but on Sept. 7, near the exact islands Sugita tried to visit, a Chinese fishing boat rammed the patrol vessels, even as Japanese crewmen yelled, "Stop!" and, later, "It's coming at us!"

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