Japan from the inside out

This is nationalism?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 8, 2008

OF THE several simmering territorial disputes between Japan and its East Asian neighbors, the most well known involves the miniscule islets in the Sea of Japan collectively known as Takeshima. One reason for its high name recognition is the perpetual Korean effort to demagogue the issue for political advantage both in domestic politics and bilateral relations. The other is an international press corps that delights in diplomatic spats because it gives them another excuse to pursue their primary occupation of gossip-mongering. It also offers the press another opportunity to pull out their cardboard cutout of an unregenerate and potentially recidivist Japan from their collection of cartoon villains.


But the territorial dispute most likely to engage the Japanese involves what are known as the Northern Territories: the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan, and the Habomai islets. These islands were seized by the Soviet Union in 1945. There were no hostilities between the two countries for most of the Second World War because of the Soviet-Japan Neutrality Pact, but the Soviets abrogated the treaty on 9 August 1945 and declared war on Japan—three days after the Hiroshima atomic bombing. Japan surrendered unconditionally on the 15th, and the Soviets struck while the striking was good to occupy the southern Kuriles (to the north of Hokkaido) in the latter part of August. They didn’t finish until September 5.

No nation likes to be kicked when they are down, particularly when they have conceded the fight and the referee has called a halt to the fisticuffs. So it’s no wonder the Japanese still haven’t forgotten or forgiven.

Some of those who suffer from the handicap of depending on the press for their knowledge of international affairs might suspect there is an overheated element in Japan anxious to reclaim the Northern Territories by any means necessary, including military action. But Japan is rather laid back about matters such as these, particularly in comparison to its four closest neighbors. Therefore, the efforts to reclaim the illegally seized territories focus on sporadic diplomatic discussions with Russia and a low-key public awareness campaign.

For an example of the latter, take a look at the poster accompanying this post. It won the grand prize in a recent Hokkaido contest to select a poster for publicizing 7 February, which is Northern Territories Day. (Don’t get excited—it’s not a national holiday). While events are held throughout the country on the 7th, the focus of the efforts is in Hokkaido, that part of Japan closest to the territories. The poster will be hung throughout the prefecture to keep the issue alive in the minds of the public.

The designer of the winning poster was Mori Shota, a student at a vocational school in Sapporo. The vertical script at the right reads, “There is a problem that must not be forgotten.” The script at the bottom says that 7 February is Northern Territories Day. The blue circles are supposed to represent water.

And that—literally–is it. No strident or inflammatory appeals to patriotic pride. No demands that the government take immediate action. No marching in the streets or burning foreign leaders in effigy. No chopping off one’s fingers and mailing them to the Russian ambassador.

While I usually agree with Shakespeare that comparisons are odious, this is one exception. A comparison in this case is instructive.

Imagine how any other country in the world might behave if it found itself in a similar situation. (Or, in the case of the Falkland Islands, how one actually did behave.)

This comparison might be useful to remember the next time you encounter a story somewhere in one of the mass merchandisers of infotainment about the diehard Japanese “rightwing”. Those who are looking for countries where nationalism is a serious problem would more profitably spend their time looking elsewhere.

2 Responses to “This is nationalism?”

  1. Ken said

    Russian PM Putin carelessly revealed his real idea.
    His official home page was indicating the northern territory as Japanese with color classification.

  2. camphortree said

    At least Russians are geographically more honest than Japan’s other neighbor across the Sea of Japan.

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