South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's decision to pick a fight with Japan is sure to have ramifications.
Officials in Tokyo have made clear that Lee's provocative actions and statements will come at a cost.
On Aug. 14, Lee demanded an apology from Emperor Akihito for Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula as a condition for a visit by him to South Korea.
The following day, Lee raised the temperature level by again insisting that Japan resolve the issue of "comfort women." The term is a euphemism for women, many of them from Korea, who were forced to provide sexual services for Imperial Japanese Army soldiers during World War II.
"I demand that the Japanese government take responsible measures," Lee said in his Aug. 15 speech on Gwangbokjeol (Restoration of Light Day), which celebrates the country's liberation from Japanese rule in 1945.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, speaking to reporters in his office on Aug. 15, expressed his strong displeasure at Lee's statements.
"It is difficult to understand why he made those remarks. I find them regrettable," he said.
Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba reiterated the government's stance that the issue of the "comfort women" was resolved under the 1965 Japan-South Korea agreement concerning the right of victims to claim compensation.
"The Japanese government's stance is unchanged," Genba said.
After reviewing Lee's demand for an apology from the emperor, Genba and other high-ranking Foreign Ministry officials concluded that Japan cannot ignore the remark.
In a news conference held Aug. 15, Genba said, "If South Korea does not deal with the issue in a calm and rational manner, it will not do the country any good."
An executive of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan called Lee's remark "outlandish."
"It went beyond the limit of common sense," the official said. "Japan will have to take a strong stance and be prepared to accept that a deterioration of bilateral relations is an inevitable result."
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a lawmaker with the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, offered the following perspective on the crisis Aug. 15: "Japan is entering a period in which it has to re-evaluate the diplomacy left over from the era of LDP-led rule, which gave priority to giving consideration to South Korea."
One official in Tokyo remarked that Lee's demand for an apology from Emperor Akihito "has made it impossible for a Japanese emperor to visit South Korea for the next 100 years."
Meanwhile, there is concern in Seoul that Japan will adopt a hard-line stance against South Korea over Lee's demand for an apology.
As such, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is making preparations for any measures Japan could take, including an appeal to the International Court of Justice over sovereignty of the Takeshima islets.
Lee is among South Korean presidents who have called for the emperor to visit South Korea. This idea germinated with a visit to Japan by President Chun Doo-hwan in 1984.
Behind the scenes, the Japanese government has often considered organizing such a visit, but due to concerns over his safety in light of Japan's colonial rule of the country, nothing has ever materialized.
The emperor himself has never voiced a desire to make a visit to South Korea. Under the Japanese Constitution, it is the government that must make that decision.
Lee's remarks come on the heels of his controversial Aug. 10 visit to the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan, which are effectively controlled by South Korea but are claimed by Japan.
Public sentiment in South Korea is also running high on the issue, as the country celebrated its independence from Japan's colonial rule Aug. 15.
That morning, two South Korean students swam to the disputed islets as part of a 220-kilometer relay to celebrate Gwangbokjeol. Students and TV celebrities also took part.
It took about 49 hours to reach the islets, which are called Dokdo in South Korea. The feat was reported widely on South Korean television.
Three hours after the two students landed on one of the Takeshima islets, Lee referred to the "comfort women" issue during his speech in Seoul. It was the first time he raised the subject in his annual Gwangbokjeol address.
"The issue of the victims goes beyond the bounds of the two countries. As a wartime human rights issue, the act (of forcing women to provide sex) runs counter to the universal values and history of humanity," Lee said.
In response to the South Korean constitutional court's decision in August 2011, which required the South Korean government to have diplomatic talks with Japan to resolve the "comfort women" issue, Seoul asked Japan to hold negotiations on the payment of compensation to individual women.
However, Japan has continued to reject the request, saying it was resolved legally under the 1965 bilateral agreement.
For that reason, Lee in his speech positioned the issue as a human rights problem that went beyond the framework of the agreement.
"Even if both governments discuss the interpretations of the agreement, the issue will not be resolved. That's why Lee cited the concept of the universal human rights," a South Korean government official said.
Opinions among South Koreans living in Japan differ on Lee's recent moves.
In Tokyo, the pro-Seoul Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan) held its own ceremony on Aug. 15 to celebrate liberation of the Korean Peninsula from the Japanese colonial rule. About 2,000 people participated in the event held in Hibiya Public Hall in central Tokyo.
One of them was a 75-year-old man, a second-generation ethnic Korean resident in Japan from Tachikawa, western Tokyo. Asked about Lee's Aug. 10 landing on Takeshima, he said, "It is important that the president went to the islands, which are claimed by Japan, on a day of the independence celebration season."
However, another participant, Kyoko Matsumoto, 35, from Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, whose grandfather is South Korean, has a different view.
"I feel that Lee only went to Takeshima to raise his popularity among the South Korean people," she said.
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