Japan lodges protest against China ship seizure

TOKYO (AFP) - Tokyo said Tuesday it has lodged a formal protest against China's seizure of a Japanese ship over unpaid bills dating back to the 1930s, in the latest row to underscore the bitter enmity between the Asian giants.

Authorities in Shanghai said on Saturday they had impounded the large freight vessel owned by Japanese shipping giant Mitsui O.S.K. Lines in a dispute over what the Chinese side says is money owed from the 1930s, when Japan occupied large swathes of its neighbour.

The two sides are embroiled in a territorial dispute over a small archipelago, as well as snapping at each other over differing interpretations of history.

On Tuesday, some Japanese media suggested the ship's seizure was meant to underline Beijing's assertiveness ahead of US President Barack Obama's arrival in Tokyo on Wednesday, part of an Asian tour aimed at reinforcing Washington's regional security alliances.

"We have told the Chinese side through diplomatic channels that we regret its seizure of the vessel...We demand China take appropriate measures," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese government's top spokesman, told reporters in Tokyo.

The ruling could "intimidate Japanese companies doing business in China", Suga said, adding that Japan was "deeply worried".

Suga said on Monday that the ship's seizure undermines a 1972 joint communique that normalised ties between Japan and China, in which Beijing agreed to renounce "its demand for war reparations from Japan".

China replied that the civil case had "nothing to do" with war reparations.

On Saturday, the Shanghai Maritime Court said it had seized the vessel "for enforcement of an effective judgement" made in December 2007.

Chinese and Hong Kong media said the seizure was related to a verdict by a court in Shanghai that said Mitsui must pay around 2.9 billion yen (S$35 million) in relation to the leasing of two ships nearly 80 years ago.

Reports said that in 1936, Mitsui's predecessor Daido Shipping Co rented two ships on a one-year contract from Zhongwei Shipping Co.

The ships were reportedly commandeered by the Imperial Japanese Navy and were sunk during World War II.

A compensation suit was brought against Mitsui by the descendants of the founder of Zhongwei Shipping, and in 2007 a Shanghai court ordered Mitsui to pay compensation. China's Supreme People's Court later rejected the Japanese firm's appeal against the judgment.

The ship seizure comes as a set of lawsuits related to wartime forced labour have also been filed in China against Japanese corporations.