Four years ago, on the day the Beijing Olympics started, Russia attacked Georgia.
During this year's London Olympics, the surprising event was the visit to the Takeshima islets by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. South Korea refers to the islands as Dokdo.
Was it purely coincidence that the visit came just before Japan and South Korea were to take the field at the London Olympics to determine the bronze medal winner in men's soccer?
It was a performance that can only be described as a sad one, considering the fact this year marks the 10th anniversary of the co-hosting of the World Cup by Japan and South Korea, that the Korean wave of culture into Japan has become well-established, and that the two nations are truly becoming neighbors as witnessed by the fact that 5 million people travel between the two nations over the course of a year.
It was rather unbecoming of a president who has, until now, placed importance on Japan. At the same time, a custom of South Korea ever since it moved toward a democratic government has been to take a decidedly anti-Japanese stance in the waning months of any administration. Because Dokdo has almost religious connotations in South Korea, it has become the issue to fall back on when facing a difficult situation.
One reason South Korea becomes so emotional about Takeshima is because, unlike the Japanese understanding, it considers the 1905 inclusion into the Japanese jurisdiction of Takeshima served as a milestone for the eventual annexation of South Korea by Japan.
In other words, not only is it a historical issue, but there also appears to be something deep within the South Korean psyche.
SOUTH KOREA'S DEMOCRATIZATION
In addition to the bitter memory held in South Korea of being forced into assimilation by Japan and participating in World War II, there is also the perverse feeling that it was liberated not through its own efforts, but through the power of the United States.
South Korean President Syngman Rhee unilaterally brought Takeshima under South Korean control in 1952 and sent in a private-sector volunteer defense unit as well as coast guard troops to turn away Japanese fishermen and fire on Japanese Coast Guard ships. That background gives South Koreans the feeling that the islets are one place which they took back through their own efforts.
That is why the islands stand as a symbol of independence for South Korea.
In 1965, when diplomatic relations were normalized under President Park Chung-hee, there was an implicit agreement to table the Takeshima territorial dispute. However, that understanding was gradually forgotten with the passage of time, and the issue moved to the forefront as military rule was replaced by more democratically elected leaders.
Lee was placed in a difficult situation after the Constitutional Court handed down a ruling last year that urged the South Korean government to start negotiations with Japan over the issue of "comfort women" who were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II. The court ruling came amid calls from groups supporting the former comfort women to take a harsher stance against Japan.
While it was unusual for the courts to become involved in a diplomatic issue, the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda did not respond to such overtures.
When Japan was hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake, South Korea provided generous support, and Lee even visited Fukushima Prefecture after the nuclear accident there last year to partake of cherries grown locally along with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
Lee likely felt such efforts were not being repaid by Noda, who continued to take a stubborn position even as Lee faced greater difficulties back home.
On the other hand, the Japanese government has shown signs of consideration toward South Korea despite criticism about a "diplomacy of humiliation" voiced by hard-liners in Japan. One of those signs was the statement of apology issued by then Prime Minister Naoto Kan in 2010 on the centennial of Japan's annexation of South Korea.
With the South Korean government also failing to adequately deal with the comfort women issue, Japan also faces strong pressure domestically over the Takeshima issue.
Under such circumstances, a visit to Takeshima that will surely stir up negative reaction in Japan cannot be said to befit the head of a state that has joined the ranks of major nations.
In other territorial issues, Japan has had to deal with a Chinese trawler seeking to cause trouble near the Senkaku Islands as well as Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev making a second trip to Kunashiri island even after President Vladimir Putin indicated that the Northern Territories issue should settle for a draw between Japan and Russia.
While some people criticize Japan's weak diplomacy for allowing other nations to walk all over it, the major issue facing the administration is the fact that it cannot engage in true diplomacy with a lack of consistency as prime ministers go through a revolving door as well as due to the nitpicking being conducted by opposition parties and even within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.
Under such circumstances, other nations know full well the weak position the government is in.
Recently, there has been a lack of diplomacy based on trying to reach out to the other party, due in part to an excessive emphasis on being resolute.
In any nation, diplomacy is always an extension of domestic politics and leaders are constantly facing difficulties.
Even if there is no obvious solution, a leader of another nation who recognizes the difficult situation and psychology a counterpart faces will not purposefully do anything hurtful to the other party.
Those are the lessons that can be learned from the latest development surrounding the Takeshima issue.
All of the territorial issues are difficult to deal with, not the least because they have roots that go back to World War II.
Because of that background, it is highly unlikely that any of the issues will be resolved simply by taking a resolute stand.
Now is the time to take a long-term perspective and become more flexible on some points while sticking to our principles.
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Yoshibumi Wakamiya is editor in chief of The Asahi Shimbun.
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