In territorial disputes, the governments of Japan, China and South Korea are obliged to pay attention to public opinion in their respective countries.
This partly explains why diplomats have been exchanging recriminations.
Japan has traditionally made it a basic policy not to provoke the other side in a territorial dispute. But Japan and South Korea have been exchanging opinions without restraint since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak landed on the Takeshima islets.
Unlike Takeshima, the Senkaku Islands have been under Japan’s control for more than a century.
The Japanese government has exercised the utmost restraint. This is clearly seen when Japan’s behavior there is compared with South Korea’s over Takeshima.
The government is considering purchasing the Senkakus with the sole purpose of administering them in a stable manner.
South Korea and China have misunderstood what Japan has been doing, and nationalism has only grown stronger.
In the circumstances, public sentiment has deteriorated in Japan, too. Vicious cycles of emotional confrontation have deepened.
Nevertheless, I believe that it is possible to prevent the conflicts from escalating and to bring frictions under control.
East Asian countries, including Japan and South Korea, have no choice but to co-exist with a rising China.
In areas such as national security, Japan has been trying to forge closer cooperation with South Korea and Australia, and with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, among other countries.
This comes not because Japan is taking a hostile view of China, but because it is seeking a strategy based on co-existence in East Asia.
Experts in Japan and South Korea have begun to formulate the future of the two countries from just such a perspective.
The Joint Research Project on a New Era of Japan-South Korea Relations was an initiative of the two countries' leaders.
In October 2010, I was among Japanese and South Korean researchers who submitted a report to the two governments. It discussed problems to be addressed as we pursue coexistence with China.
One proposal was the establishment of an East Asia knowledge bank.
This repository would hold modern historical records and diplomatic documents, plus declarations and speeches by government officials, in a database that could be accessed freely by anyone.
The database might record historical materials on territorial issues as well as arguments by countries involved.
Another proposal was a Campus Asia project. Young people from Japan, China and South Korea would study politics, economy, society, history and languages other than their own.
If a new generation of people began to share knowledge between them, emotional vicious cycles would gradually ease.
A growing number of people in Japan and South Korea have developed a passion for the other nation's culture, such as entertainment. In many fields, exchanges have increased.
Even in China, some citizens are not out-and-out anti-Japan. Just as it has done with South Korea, Japan must increase exchanges with Chinese scholars, journalists and students. It should create a multitude of channels through which both sides can express opinions.
Building a multi-dimensional relationship will serve as a bulwark to prevent a catastrophic deterioration in bilateral ties.
This article is based on an interview by staff writer Kazuaki Isoda.
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Yoshihide Soeya is a professor of international politics and Japanese diplomacy at Keio University. He is also director of the Keio Institute of East Asian Studies at the university.
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