Takeshima and the Northern Territories in Japan’s Nationalism


In 2005, Japan’s Shimane Prefecture adopted the ‘Takeshima Day’ ordinance that designated 22 February, the day the Lian- court Rocks (Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese) were incorporated into Japan in 1905, as a prefectural memorial day. The passage of the ordinance, the Korean reaction and the wide domestic coverage propelled Takeshima to the forefront of Ja- pan’s domestic debates on South Korea. It transformed the previ- ously obscure and unknown to most Japanese dispute into one of the main symbols in Japan’s nationalistic debates.

Commentators in South Korea but also in the English lan- guage media and academia elsewhere have interpreted this or- dinance as another expression of the rising official and popular nationalism in Japan. The process that culminated in the passage of the ordinance is, however, much more complex than this. The ordinance was adopted against the wish of the government and key members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and, as I will explain below, was directed at Tokyo rather than at Seoul. Furthermore, Japan’s other territorial dispute — the dispute with Russia over the South Kuriles/Northern Territories — has played an important role in bringing about the ordinance.

Shimane Prefecture’s Takeshima-related activism did not start in 2005, but rather dates back to the early post-war years. Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War and the loss of colonies, as well as the Allied occupation, brought about a sudden increase in population and shrinkage in fishing areas available to Japanese fishermen. Spurred by these developments, Shimane Prefecture embarked on a campaign urging the occupation authorities and the Japanese government to return the Liancourt Rocks, which during the occupation were used by US forces as a bombing range and were outside the so-called ‘MacArthur Line’, to Shi- mane Prefecture. The Japanese government also perceived the rocks as rightfully belonging to Japan and during preparations for the San Francisco Peace Conference lobbied the United States to include the rocks in Japan’s territory. However, the final ver- sion of the peace treaty carried no references to the Liancourt Rocks. While South Korea has effectively administered the rocks since 1952, both the Japanese and the Korean governments have adopted interpretations of the treaty favourable to their respective positions. The territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks was one of the main stumbling blocks in Japan–South Korea nor- malisation negotiations that started in 1951.

Prefectural lobbying

Meanwhile, Shimane Prefecture continued to send petitions to the central government arguing the need to establish Japan’s rights to the rocks. As such in the 1950s, the positions of Matsue (Shimane’s prefectural capital) and Tokyo on the territorial dis- pute were identical. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the 1965 Ba- sic Treaty, which normalised relations between Japan and South Korea, created a divide in relations between Shimane and Tokyo. As Daniel Roh has shown in his 2008 Takeshima Mitsuyaku [The Takeshima Secret Pact], in the early 1960s both the Japanese and Korean governments came to perceive the issue of ownership over the rocks as relatively insignificant, but neither side could compromise for domestic political reasons. As such, they reached a tacit agreement to shelve the dispute. According to this agree- ment, both governments would continue to hold their respec- tive interpretations regarding ownership of the rocks, but would maintain the status quo and avoid escalation of the dispute.

From that point onwards, the perceptions of the dispute in Tokyo and Matsue diverged. While officially adhering to the po- sition that Takeshima is illegally occupied by South Korea, To- kyo’s interests changed from attempts to retrieve the territory to a policy that aimed at keeping Takeshima away from the domestic public discourse. In contrast, in the late 1960s Tokyo embarked on an extensive domestic campaign related to the Northern Ter- ritories. The purpose of that campaign was to consolidate public opinion around the Northern Territories issue and through this to divert domestic nationalism away from the United States to- wards the Soviet Union.

The campaign involved extensive educational activities, es- tablishment of numerous memorials on Hokkaido and the en- actment of a national ‘Northern Territories Day’ in 1981. This extensive campaign has managed to transform the Northern Territories from an issue that was of interest mainly to former residents of the four islands into a national symbol. However, the extensive attention paid by the central government to the North- ern Territories from the late 1960s created a visible contradiction in Japan’s policy related to territorial disputes. On one hand, Japan’s official position on both disputes remained identical: both the Li- ancourt Rocks (Takeshima) and the South Kuriles (Northern Ter- ritories) were argued to be illegally occupied by South Korea and the Soviet Union respectively. Nevertheless, in terms of domestic policy, the central government has invested heavily in the North- ern Territories campaign but, with rare exceptions, has kept silent on Takeshima and has not allocated any resources to it.

Fishing agreement

The bilateral fishing agreement that accompanied the 1965 nor- malisation treaty enabled Japanese fishermen to fish in waters near the rocks and, despite the fact that from the late 1970s the Korean authorities prevented them from entering the 12-mile zone near the rocks, the agreement solved most of Shimane’s fish- ing-related grievances. Even so, the duplicity in Tokyo’s position has created a sense of victimhood and injustice among Shimane’s

prefectural elites and become the main stimulant in Takeshima- related activism. At the same time, Tokyo’s Northern Territories campaign informed and shaped the prefecture’s own campaign and the nature of its demands on the government.

The 2005 ‘Takeshima Day’ ordinance was an integral part of Shimane Prefecture’s Takeshima-related campaign. Certain actions of the Korean government, such as the issuance of the second Dokdo memorial stamp in 2004, served as the immediate trigger for Shimane Prefecture’s 2004 Takeshima-related memo- randum that became the basis for the ordinance. These actions, however, were interpreted through the lens of victimhood and injustice caused by Tokyo. Thus the memorandum demanded that Tokyo apply certain domestic polices related to the North- ern Territories, such as the national day and a governmental body in charge of development and co-ordination-related policies, to the Takeshima issue as well. The prefectural ordinance was a re- sponse to Tokyo’s refusal to accommodate Shimane’s demands and was adopted despite requests from the Liberal Democratic Party and the government not to do so.

Today, both the Northern Territories and Takeshima are im- portant symbols in Japan’s nationalism directed at its neighbours. But the processes that led to emergence of these national symbols are quite different. In a somewhat ironic fashion, Tokyo’s suc- cessful attempt to raise the visibility of the Northern Territories in the domestic discourse facilitated the emergence of Takeshima as another national symbol — against the desire of the central government.

Dr Alexander Bukh is a senior lecturer in the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University of Welling- ton. A detailed and more academic version of this piece can be found here. This article was originally published in the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs’ New Zealand International Review, May/June 2015, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 9 – 10.