Tokyo's support for islets riles Seoul

Ties cool as Japan sends a minister to event claiming the disputed territory

TOKYO - Japan, whose Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to mend ties with South Korea of late, has again upset its neighbour by sending a junior minister to a ceremony marking the incorporation of a group of islets claimed by both countries.

Yesterday's event held in Matsue city, Shimane prefecture, marks the incorporation of the Takeshima Islands as Japanese territory on Feb 22, 1905.

Administratively, the islands are under Shimane, which lies on Honshu island, facing South Korea.

Takeshima is at the centre of a territorial row between Japan and South Korea, which calls the islands Dokdo and has occupied them since 1954.

Seoul had earlier called for the Matsue event to be cancelled, saying it would hurt ties. But the Abe administration went ahead with its decision to send Parliamentary Secretary Aiko Shimajiri, who oversees territorial issues at the Cabinet Office.

Shimane designated Feb 22 as Takeshima Day in 2005 to highlight Japan's claim. Yesterday was the first time the central government had sent a representative since the event was first staged in 2006.

Speaking before some 500 participants, Ms Shimajiri said: "Takeshima is without doubt Japan's inherent territory. The Takeshima issue is very important as it concerns our sovereignty."

In Seoul, about 200 South Koreans staged a protest outside the Japanese embassy. The South Korean foreign affairs and trade ministry, calling the Matsue event "very regrettable", summoned a senior Japanese diplomat to lodge an official protest.

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga rejected Seoul's protest but said: "South Korea is an important neighbour with whom we share basic values and interests. We wish to develop relations from a broad perspective."

Bilateral ties soured last August after South Korean President Lee Myung Bak made a surprise visit to the disputed islets.

Ironically, yesterday's ceremony, attended by a record 19 parliamentarians, came amid efforts by Mr Abe to seek better relations with Seoul.

It came just three days before South Korea was to formally install Ms Park Geun Hye as President.

Seeing the inauguration as an opportunity to mend ties and enhance coordination with Seoul in response to Pyongyang's recent nuclear test, Tokyo is sending Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso as Mr Abe's personal envoy.

Reports said arrangements are being made for Mr Aso to meet the new president. Seoul has not indicated whether a meeting with Ms Park will materialise following yesterday's development.

But former defence minister Satoshi Morimoto praised Tokyo's decision to send a junior minister to Matsue, saying: "In view of the fact that Mr Aso is going to Seoul, sending Shimajiri to Matsue was a very balanced decision."

Earlier, the influential Asahi Shimbun had urged Mr Abe to reconsider sending even a junior minister, warning it would only complicate matters.

In order not to upset Seoul, the Abe administration had in fact shelved the idea of holding a state-sponsored event on Feb 22 to promote Japan's claim to Takeshima, reneging on a pledge to do so made by Mr Abe's Liberal Democratic Party during last year's general election.

The cooling of official ties between Japan and South Korea has not affected people-to-people exchanges. Reports said arrivals of South Korean tourists in Japan recently returned to the levels before the March 11, 2011 quake and tsunami disaster, largely due to the weakening of the Japanese yen.

wengkin@sph.com.sg