Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said South Korea's leader should apologize for demanding that Emperor Akihito apologize to Koreans for Japan's wartime acts if he wants to visit South Korea, in another tightening of tensions linked to a festering territorial dispute.
"(President Lee Myung-bak's demand) flies in the face of common sense. He should apologize and retract it," Noda said Aug. 23 at a meeting of the Lower House Budget Committee.
“It is looking like a game of chicken," said a government official in Seoul. "We cannot tell how far it might go.”
"Although (the emperor) wants to visit South Korea, I have told Japan he can only do so if he visits (the graves of) those who died in independence movements (against Japan) and apologizes to them from his heart," Lee said Aug. 14, addressing a seminar for teachers in Cheongwon, North Chungcheong province.
Akihito acceded the throne in 1989.
Noda protested the remarks in a letter delivered to South Korea's embassy in Tokyo on Aug. 17. In it, he also criticized Lee's Aug. 10 visit to the disputed Takeshima islets, which are administered by Seoul, and called Dokdo in South Korea.
South Korea rejected the letter. A diplomat tried to return it to Japan's Foreign Ministry on Aug. 23, but was denied entry on the orders of Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba.
"I have been told that the embassy’s cars were not allowed in,” said a senior official at the presidential office in Seoul. “Could something like this have happened?”
The letter was mailed later that day by registered post, the embassy said. It arrived at the Foreign Ministry on Aug. 24.
Genba said Japan will not send it back to South Korea, saying, "A further exchange (over the letter) is not conducive to maintaining Japan's dignity in diplomacy."
The snub played poorly with Japan's leadership.
"It completely lacks level-headedness," Noda said during the Budget Committee session. He indicated he may not meet with Lee on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vladivostok in early September.
On Aug. 23, South Korea explained its decision to reject the letter.
"It contains unreasonable content that cannot be accepted," said a spokesman for South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. "It stands to reason that we return it."
Officials earlier said the letter contained an inaccuracy. It said Lee landed on one of the Takeshima islets in Shimane Prefecture, a name and administrative location unrecognized by Seoul.
South Korea's new fighting spirit toward Japan can be attributed in part to Japan's declining importance to its economy.
Lee said Aug. 13 Japan has less clout internationally than it once did.
South Korea's per-capita gross domestic product, which in 1996 was only a third of Japan's, has now increased to nearly half.
Last year for the first time South Korean trade topped $1 trillion (79 trillion yen). China's share jumped from 4 percent in 1992 to more than 20 percent in 2011, while Japan's share halved to 10 percent over the same period.
Companies like Samsung Electronics Co., LG Electronics Inc. and Hyundai Motor Co. have grown into global brands.
One British consulting company even ranked Samsung as the world's sixth greatest brand, above Toyota, the Yonhap news agency reported Aug. 23.
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