This week on the podcast: Why are Japan and South Korea’s governments so worked up about some uninhabited rocks in the middle of nowhere? Well, because sometimes those rocks stand for much, much more.
Featured image: A photograph of the Liancourt Rocks taken in 2008. (Image source)
Dokdo, Korea’s Beautiful Island – Archived source
Bukh, Alexander. “Korean National Identity, Civic Activism and the Dokdo/Takeshima Territorial Dispute.” Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 3, no. 2 (2016): 183–99. https://www.jstor.org/stable/48601795.
Choi, Sung-jae. “The Politics of the Dokdo Issue.” Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 3 (2005): 465–94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23417875.
A miniature model of the rocks in a South Korean museum. (Image source)
An 1875 Japanese map of the Oki Islands and Liancourt Rocks. (Image source)
Employees of the Osaka Asahi Shimbun on a trip to the rocks in 1934. (Image source)
Korean stamps of the rocks from 1954. (Image source)
The view from the top of one of the rocks. (Image source)
Korean students protesting Japanese claims to the rocks in 2012. (Image source)
So, while preparing for a related episode, I was taking inventory of some of the topics we’ve talked about, and uncovered a startling omission–we’ve covered most of Japan’s modern territorial disputes, from the issue of the “Northern territories” of the Kurile islands to the Senkakus/Diaoyu Islands in the south. But we’ve missed a spot–one that, in many ways, serves as a microcosm of one of the most important stories in the politics of modern Asia.
In fairness, the spot in question is pretty tiny, and thus easy to miss. I refer, of course, to the so-called Liancourt Rocks, the comparatively neutral name I am going to stick to here in lieu of using either their Japanese name–Takeshima–or their Korean one–Dokdo.
In fairness to me, they are pretty easy to miss; together, the Liancourt Rocks have an area of .07 square miles, or .18 square kilometers. By comparison, Kitanomaru Park just north of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo is around the same size in terms of its overall area. And unlike the Kitanomaru park, the Liancourt Rocks are not continuous; there are two major islands, called Seodo and Dongdo in Korean, or Otokojima and Onnajima (man island and woman island) in Japanese, and 35 smaller ones, plus an additional 54 islands that emerge or sink beneath the waves depending on the tides.
What I am getting at here is that these places are small. They’re also not super pleasant. As the name Liancourt Rocks might clue you in on, these are, well, rocks–not really suitable for human habitation, and mostly composed of dense volcanic rock with a thin layer of soil and moss in some places. Specifically, they’re volcanic rocks, formed during the last few million years (so comparatively recently geologically speaking). That also means that like most volcanic rocks, they are not exactly a flat and pleasant land–the Liancourt rocks are sharp and craggy, and while they don’t get high (the highest point of elevation is 169 meters, or 554 feet, on Dongdo/Onnajima), they shoot pretty much straight up from the waterline.
It’s also worth noting that the islands are square in the middle of the Sea of Japan, about 217km (or 135 miles) east of Korea and 211 km (131 miles) north of Japan’s main island of Honshu. Most important for us, however, is that the Sea of Japan is of course right next to the Russian Far East, an area not exactly known for its lovely weather–and of course they’re also exposed and very tiny rocks right in the middle of the open sea. That means the weather is both unpredictable and foul–gusty winds, heavy storms, and a LOT of rain: 1324 milimeters worth, or just over 52 inches. By comparison, Seattle–famous for its rain–gets 39.34 inches on average in a year, or just over 999 milimeters.
It’s hot in the summer, thanks to warm water currents blowing up from the East China Sea, and cold in the winter thanks to cool air blowing in from Russia. Oh and it gets so stormy in the winter that often you literally can’t even dock ships there because it’s too dangerous–not that you’d want to go outside with all the cold wind and rain, since given how treacherous and uneven the land is you’re more than likely just going to slip and injure yourself.
What I am getting at here is that this place is unpleasant–it’s gloomy and dangerous and just not somewhere I’d be super jazzed to go. It can be pretty in the way that harsh landscapes can be pretty, but still–this is not desirable land.
In a word, it’s not the kind of place you normally see people getting excited over–and yet it remains the center of a multi-decade territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea. So that raises the natural question–why on earth would anyone give a damn about these tiny islands off in the middle of nowhere?
But before we get into this, an exciting little foray into the wonderful world of international territorial law! Wait, no, don’t stop the podcast! I promise it’ll be interesting.
So: the question of how we determine who legitimately owns a piece of land–in fancy academic speak, whether or not a country has sovereignty, or the right of political control, over it–is very complicated. The idea of trying to clearly define a legal notion of sovereignty is fairly new, and while it has roots in ancient ideas–for example, the contracts between lord and vassal that were so central to feudalism–in practice, ownership for a long time boiled down to “if you can stop someone else from trying to take it, you own it.”
Still, over the centuries some conventions around determining ownership sans any violence did begin to crop up–after all, to borrow a famous phrase, you can fight some of your neighbors some of the time, but you can’t fight all of your neighbors all of the time. By the late 19th century, a series of standards for determining sovereignty over a particular territory had come into use among the powers of Europe as well as the United states, and those standards eventually came to form the basis of modern international law.
So what are those standards? Well, the most straightforward one is occupation and use. Simply put, if people live on those islands, and they treat a government as their legitimate rulers, that government has sovereignty. Kyushu is full of people who have mostly treated Japan’s government as their legitimate rulers, so Kyushu is the sovereign territory of Japan. But that doesn’t work with the Liancourt Rocks, because up until very recently nobody lived there full time.
There are some other standards that can be used to determine ownership of territory–for example, whether or not a given government has ever administrated the land of the disputed territory, or whether or not its citizens have made economic use of it (say, by fishing there). In fancy legal terms, to use the language of the Permanent Court of International Justice from 1933 (in a case on the legal status of the eastern part of Greenland), the proof of sovereignty lies in, “The intention to and will to act as a sovereign, and some actual exercise or display of such authority.”
But that standard is hard to apply in the case of the Liancourt rocks because there’s not a super consistent pattern to the older historical records showing a long-held claim over time. And this matters because if nobody claims a given piece of land, then under international law it becomes what is called terra nullius.
This is a fancy way of saying that since it’s unclaimed, anyone can just come in and grab it. That’s the notion of “right of discovery”, if you’ve ever heard of the term–if you find an unclaimed piece of land, you can just claim it yourself. Of course, in reality, few pieces of land on earth are unclaimed, and this doctrine is most famous for providing a thin veneer of legal cover to the seizure of indigenous lands in the Americas on the grounds that indigenous populations essentially just did not count for standards of ownership. But it also applies to genuinely unclaimed pieces of land–which the Liancourt Rocks might actually be.
Both South Korea and Japan dispute that, however–both say that they have longer-standing historical claims to the territory which make it legitimately theirs.
What are those claims? Well, to be frank, it’s complicated. South Korea’s claim–which is shared by North Korea, though the communist state’s economic weakness and lack of participation in international diplomacy make it kind of a non-issue–is based on references in historical texts to a place called Usan-do, an island nearby the larger island of Ulleungdo, which itself is 120 km/75 miles off the coast of Korea. The position of the Korean government is that these references–which date back in their clearest form to the 1400s, though earlier ones go as far back as the 500s–clearly state that Usando is administratively a part of Ulleungdo, which in turn is Korean territory. Thus, the criteria of international law is fulfilled: government reports describing the territory as a part of Korea show an “intention and will to act as a sovereign”, and other ventures–like mapping of the region by Korean cartographers–show some actual display of authority over it.
Those references, in turn, crop up pretty consistently at least once a century until Korea’s annexation in 1910 by the Japanese Empire. Indeed, in 1900, the Korean government issued a proclamation listing out these various claims and reinforcing its claim to the Liancourt Rocks specifically due to increased Japanese presence in the region.
I do want to point out that the Japanese government disputes that the “Usando” being referenced in all these documents is definitely the Liancourt Rocks (or Dokdo, in Korean today)–it is, indeed, somewhat hard to be sure given the variety of names used for the island over its history and the somewhat imprecise nature of maps during this period. After all, there are a lot of volcanic rocks out there. How can we be sure it’s this specific one?
Then again, we can’t be sure it’s a different one either–and certainly the description of Usando as near Ulleungdo does fit the bill for the for the Liancourt Rocks, which are visible from Ulleungdo on a clear day.
As for the Japanese side of things, the story begins in the early Edo period. Specifically, it begins in 1618 with a pair of merchants, Oya Jinkichi and Murakawa Ichibei, both from the village of Yonago in the Tottori fiefdom–now the westernmost part of Tottori Prefecture.
By the way, you sometimes see Oya Jinkichi’s name written as Otani Jinkichi–that’s just a different pronunciation of the same character. For consistency, I’m going to use the reading “Oya.”
Tottori today is on the western edge of the main island of Honshu, along the Japan Sea Coast. Thus, much of its economy was based on fishing the Japan Sea, and Oya and Murakawa were no different. Specifically, the two merchants wanted to set up a deep sea fishing business based out of the Oki islands, off the coast of Tottori in the Japan Sea. Their business would take them north to Ulleungdo–called Utsuryo in Japanese–to fish for abalone as well as hunt sea lions, whose bodies contained a waterproof oil with a wide variety of uses.
Of course, this was not a free market economy, and their voyages needed permission from the shogunate to go forward–which they applied for and received in due course.
The Liancourt Rocks to the southeast of Ulleungdo were a natural harbor for ships doing this back-and-forth route, and so the descendants of Oya and Murakawa, who would shelter in the harbors of the rocks during storms, and also visit them to harvest sea lions and to fish along their coastlines. And as far as they could tell, the islands were abandoned–because again, based on how I’ve described them, would you want to live there?
The Japanese claim is that all this demonstrates sovereignty over the islands going back to the early 1600s–particularly since when, in 1635, the 3rd Tokugawa shogun Iemitsu issued a prohibition on sailing out of Japanese waters, the Oya and Murakawa families were not required to end their fishing expeditions. That, so the argument goes, is a clear demonstration of an intent to treat the Liancourt Rocks like they were a part of Japanese territory.
With me so far? Good, because things are about to get a bit more complicated. In 1692, the Murakawa and Oya family fishing fleets came to the Liancourt Rocks, and there found some Korean fishermen who were, well, doing the exact same thing they were. A dispute then emerged as to who had the right to be fishing there, and apparently things got pretty heated–because the upshot of all this was that two of the Korean fishermen, An Yongbok and Pak EoDoon, were brought back to the Oki islands in Japan.
Reading between the lines, they might have been kidnapped? It’s a bit unclear, but Korea did have a law on the books similar to that of the Tokugawa shogunate banning overseas travel without permission–and so just volunteering to head to Japan for a bit is not exactly the sort of thing one would casually do if one hoped to, say, ever be allowed to go home again.
After some interrogation, the two fishermen were passed back to Tsushima domain, the feudal fiefdom on the island of Tsushima between Japan and Korea responsible for managing Japan’s relations with its neighbor. Thus commenced a whole complex back and forth about the whole incident and who was ultimately responsible for it.
I’ll spare you all the wrangling; the upshot was that the Tokugawa shogunate, anxious to maintain a good trade relationship with Korea and not really caring all THAT much about all the fish of Ulleungdo, voluntarily recognized the island as Korean territory. No mention was made specifically of the Liancourt Rocks, however–a bit of ambiguity both sides point to in order to reinforce their own narratives.
In the end, of course, there’s no answer that lies here–because while both sides draw from the history to support their narratives, that’s not really what the two governments are fighting about. What they’re fighting about are the more immediate circumstances of the conflict–specifically, the period of the Japanese Empire.
You see, by the start of the 20th century, the upshot of all this was that both countries were aware of the Liancourt Rocks, but neither one really put much effort into claiming them–because why would they?
This is also why the first Europeans to chart the area saw the islands as abandoned; this is actually where the name “Liancourt Rocks” comes from, as the name is derived from a French whaling ship that nearly ran aground on the islands during a storm in the 1850s.
On the Japanese side, after the Meiji Restoration the government did not immediately pursue a claim on the islands, as it did with more strategic areas like the Ryukyus or Hokkaido. Indeed, in an 1877 land survey directive the Dajokan, the supreme organ of the early Meiji State, specifically listed the islands as not a part of Japanese territory and thus not in need of surveying.
Because, after all, there was nothing to survey–those surveys were for agricultural tax purposes, and you can’t grow anything on the islands–nor, again, did anyone even live there.
The real core of the dispute begins in 1905, towards the tail end of the Russo-Japanese War, with a fisherman named Nakai Yosaburo. Nakai was a resident of the Oki Islands, who early in his life aimed at different get rich quick schemes–he’d actually planned at first to join the growing number of Japanese explorers going south in the late 19th century to make their fortune in Micronesia, but was robbed of his travel money by a thief while waiting to board his ship in Nagasaki. Instead, just like the Murakawa and Oya family fishermen of the Edo period, he ended up having to make a living fishing in the Sea of Japan, sailing north from his home in the Oki islands and and harvesting sea lions as well as abalone. By 1903, he’d begun constructing buildings on the Liancourt Rocks to help him process his sea lion kills, and even convinced a few workers to hire on to join him there.
His hope was to take advantage of the sea lion breeding ground on the island, harvesting the animals for their oil as well as their hide (which can be tanned in a way similar to cowhide to make leather). His timing was pretty good; both of these things were in high demand thanks to the Russo-Japanese War–for example, seal oil could be used to weatherproof certain pieces of gear, and leather was necessary to make boots for soldiers on the frontlines.
By 1905, he felt his business was stable enough there was no immediate danger of it folding–but he also wanted some legal protection for it, since he didn’t have any sort of claim to the land he was making use of. And so, he petitioned the Japanese government to do two things: stake a claim to the Liancourt Rocks on the ground that they were totally undeveloped and thus terra nullius, free for the taking, and then lease the islands to him for 10 years.
The Japanese government was more than pleased by the idea, both because Nakai’s business was successful (which meant employment and more tax money) and because the Liancourt Rocks could also house military observation outposts for the Imperial Japanese Navy.
What about the Korean government in all of this, you ask? Well, in 1905 Korea was technically still an independent country–but one that had been reduced to a colonial dependency of Japan. After Japan’s victory over China in 1895, Japan became the predominant power on the peninsula and forced Korea’s government to sign a series of humiliating deals essentially making the Korean government a puppet state of Japan. Five years after the Russo-Japanese War ended, all pretense would be dropped, and Korea annexed outright.
Practically speaking, therefore, there was no real way for the Korean government to object to the Liancourt Rocks–all Korean government decisions had to go through Japanese “advisors”, and I think we can all guess the “advice” that would be dispensed in this scenario.
And so by 1906 Japan had claimed the Liancourt Rocks, officially annexing them into rural Shimane Prefecture as a part of the same administrative district as the Oki Islands–which will be important in a bit.
For now, and of somewhat more immediate importance–fast forward to World War II!
So–we’re all familiar in broad strokes with this conflict, I imagine, given that it’s, well, reasonably important to basically all history and politics that have happened since. For us, what matters about the conflict is the strong stance the Allies took toward Japan’s colonial empire. Specifically, the Allies, led by the US, publicly announced that they would not seek territorial aggrandizement for themselves during the war and that lands conquered by Japan, Germany, and other Axis Powers would be restored to their previous owners.
Of course, in practice this didn’t always end up happening: Stalin gleefully broke those agreements to seize land in Asia and Europe, and the US annexed Okinawa for several decades before being pressured into handing it back.
But anyway–two documents came to define these goals of demolishing Axis empires. First, in 1943, the US, UK, and Republic of China agreed to something called the Cairo Declaration while their leaders–Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek–were meeting in Cairo to discuss the war against Japan. The central terms of that declaration are: “The Three Great Allies are fighting this war to restrain and punish the aggression of Japan. They covet no gain for themselves and have no thought of territorial expansion. It is their purpose that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and The Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China. Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed…”
Then we have the Potsdam Declaration, agreed to by American President Harry Truman as well as Churchill and Chiang Kaishek in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam in July, 1945. The Potsdam Declaration laid out terms for Japan’s surrender–terms the Japanese government refused at first, before eventually accepting them on August 15.
There are a whole bunch of articles listed in the declaration, but for us the most important bit is this sentenceL “The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out and Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.”
And then, finally, we have the Treaty of San Francisco, signed in 1951 as a part of the end of the Allied Occupation of Japan, Chapter II Article 2a of which reads: “Japan, recognizing the independence of Korea, renounces all right, title and claim to Korea, including the islands of Quelpart, Port Hamilton, and Dagelet”–the last of which is the European name of Ulleungdo.
So, I imagine you’re probably beginning to see where the trick lies here. These two documents spell out pretty clearly what’s happening to a lot of the Japanese Empire when the war ends–Taiwan, Manchuria, and other territories in China are going back to Chinese sovereignty, for example. But what about the Liancourt Rocks? Are they “territories seized by violence and greed” as it says in the Cairo Declaration? The Potsdam Proclamation has that line about Japanese sovereignty remaining on “such minor islands as we determine”–does that include these minor islands?
And what about the San Francisco treaty? Japan both agreed to renounce its claims in Korea and recognized that Ulleungdo is a part of Korea–with the Korean government contending that the Liancourt Rocks are included in that because of their proximity, and the Japanese government contending that since the Liancourt Rocks are not explicitly named in the treaty they are not included.
This is pretty much the core of the modern legal argument. The Cairo Declaration also said explicitly that Korea would be made into an independent state, and the position of the South Korean government is that said guarantee of Korean independence includes territories like the Liancourt Rocks that–thanks to all the history we’ve already covered–were indisputably a part of Korea. At any rate, according to the Korean government, the rocks are absolutely “territories seized by violence and greed” and thus must be given up under the terms of the Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Proclamation, which Japan agreed to accept as a part of its surrender.
The position of the Japanese government, meanwhile, is that the Liancourt Rocks were terra nullius before 1905, that a fragmentary record of Korean engagement with the islands does not prove ownership, and that as legally annexed terra nullius the rocks are exempted from the Cairo Declaration.
All of this is further complicated by one additional legacy of the US Occupation of Japan. After the start of the Occupation, the Americans began using the Liancourt Rocks as a bombing range for practicing close air support bombing–further devastating the ecosystem of the islands, by the by, after decades of Japanese hunting had also drastically lowered the sea lion population.
Legally, this matters because the use of the islands in this way implies the American occupation leaders saw them as Japanese territory over which they had authority. But in cases like that, it’d be common to sign a lease with the Japanese government to establish the legality of using the bombing range–which the Americans never bothered to do. And indeed the order setting up the bombing range also explicitly states that this should not be treated as a determination of sovereign rights–in other words, it was not a commentary on who the Americans thought should own the islands.
But the Americans DID think to inform the inhabitants of Shimane Prefecture and the Oki Islands (of which the Liancourt Rocks are, in the Japanese telling, a part) of the bombing range plan–the Koreans were not informed, leading to a horrific incident in June, 1948 where Korean fishermen headed to the islands were caught up in an Allied bombing exercise–killing 16 and injuring 29.
On the flip side of things, the American occupation leadership did issue an order suspending Japan’s jurisdiction of over 1000 outlying islands in the Pacific including the Liancourt Rocks, which South Korea today points to as ending Japan’s sovereignty over them–the Japanese response is that “suspension” has a temporary implication, in the same way that being suspended from school is different from being expelled.
It is worth noting that when handling yet another important issue for civilian government in Japan–where Japan had territorial fishing rights to feed its hungry population–the Occupation government explicitly did not include the Liancourt Rocks in the Japanese fishing zone. However, once again this came with the caveat that American decisions on this should not be perceived as a final settlement.
The Korean scholar HK Lee has also looked at some older versions of the San Francisco treaty, and discovered that up until 1949 drafts of the treaty explicitly included the Liancourt Rocks–until an American advisor on Japanese politics, William Sebald, pushed for the reference to be removed. His reasoning? “Japan’s claim to these islands is old and appears valid, and it is difficult to regard them as islands off the shore of Korea. Security considerations might also conceivably render the provision of weather and radar stations on these islands as a matter of interest to the United States.”
Sebald’s changes did get some pushback from the other Allies, especially the British–who were more supportive of the Korean position on the issue. Ultimately, it’s pretty likely the treaty was nonspecific on the Liancourt Rocks specifically because there was no consensus from the Allies.
The picture that emerges is pretty clear; initially, the US government was unconcerned with the issue of the Liancourts, and became more vocally supportive of the Japanese position over time as it became clearer that doing so had advantages for the American military position in Asia.
Still, the final result was that when Japan once again became an independent country at the end of April, 1952, the status of the Liancourt Rocks was unclear. And so the government of South Korea decided to make it clear.
In late April, 1952, just days before the slated end of the American occupation and the reversion of sovereignty to the Japanese government, President Syngman Rhee of South Korea proclaimed a “Declaration of Sovereignty Over Adjacent Seas”, claiming the Liancourts for South Korea and then sending the coast guard to occupy the islands.
Don’t forget, this is 1952–Rhee is still fighting the Korean War while this is going on, which nearly destroyed his government just a few years ago. That in turn provides a clear indicator of how important this issue was in his perception; to view things more cynically, Rhee was also a vicious dictator who brutally suppressed his own population, and may have seen stoking anti-Japanese sentiment around the Liancourts as a way to distract from criticisms of his own repressive government.
Still, the status quo put into place by Rhee–who was overthrown in a democratic revolution in April, 1960, but then replaced when a nascent South Korean democracy was crushed by a military coup early the next year–remains in place to this day.
Rhee’s successor, the dictator Park Chung-hee, lacked his predecessor’s anti-Japanese zeal; indeed, Park had gotten his original military training from the Japanese and had been an Imperial Japanese Army officer responsible for hunting the future leadership of North Korea before 1945. Park wanted to deal with the Japanese, particularly given that by this time the rapid economic growth of Japan had begun. But he was also no fool, and knew that the Liancourt Rocks were a valuable symbol of Korean nationalism and not worth compromising on.
Fortunately, both sides agreed that a deal to open up economic and political cooperation was worth more than those islands were–in the treaty that normalized relations between South Korea and Japan, both sides accepted a compromise of acknowledging each other’s claims while recognizing South Korea’s de facto control over the rocks.
And it’s remained that way pretty much ever since. Three times–in 1954, 1962, and 2012–the Japanese government has suggested referring the dispute to the International Court of Justice, the tribunal attached to the United Nations. Each time, South Korea has refused on the grounds that there is no dispute–because its claim is obviously correct.
Now, as we come to the close of the episode, I imagine a lot of you are thinking: that’s it? All this time on just a pile of damn rocks? There has to be something more here!
And frankly, you are absolutely right–there is. Partially, it’s the usual suspects; both countries are fighting not so much for the rocks but for the waters around them, since if the Liancourt Rocks are part of your territory their surrounding ocean is your territorial waters–giving you things like fishing rights, useful in countries with high demand for fish!
I’ve also read reports about possible offshore petroleum or gas deposits in the surrounding waters, but not consistent ones–and I am not well versed enough in the science to know why that is.
But just as important as the practical battle is the symbolic one. For South Korea, Dokdo, as they call it, is not just some crappy islands in the middle of a stormy ocean–they are a symbol of South Korean nationalism. That nationalism is often predicated on anti-Japanese resistance–the story of Korea, as it is often told to Koreans in schools, history books, or even media, is defined by a history of resistance to Japanese aggression, most recently in the colonial period but going as far back as Hideyoshi’s invasions in the 1590s.
From this perspective, Dokdo is a symbol of one more Japanese attempt to take South Korea’s territory–and hanging on to it, even to the point of constructing guard posts and a tourist dock on the islands to demonstrate your claim, is an act of patriotic resistance. Side note: I’ve seen photos of the tourists, and they never really look like they’re having fun to be honest.
On the Japanese side, meanwhile, things are a tad more arcane. First, Takeshima–as they call it–is ostensibly a part of Shimane prefecture, which if you know it you’ve likely heard of because it’s one of the most rural and depressed parts of the country. It’s also a bastion of support for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party–and thus a valuable local issue for Shimane’s elections, which the LDP can trot out to prove that it’s fighting for the interests of the people of Shimane to get them those fishing grounds, so please won’t you vote for us one more time?
Besides this, it’s more or less tacitly acknowledged that bureaucrats of the Foreign Ministry have advised the government not to abandon the claim–not because they think there’s realistically a chance in hell that South Korea will ever hand the islands over, but because abandoning one claim would send the message that Japan is prepared to cave on its other territorial disputes–an image of weakness that would damage Japan’s hand in relation to its other territorial disputes with China and Russia.
Realistically, the only other power with the ability to try and force the issue is the United States, and frankly why would we risk our alliances with South Korea and Japan on the issue when it’s always been in the American interest to get those two countries to work together? That’s just as true today as it was in 1952.
Frankly, I think regardless of the history the islands are staying with South Korea, and the most likely outcome is that sometime in the distant future the LDP will decide conceding the issue is worth some other deal they can get from the South Korean government. Predicting the future is always fraught, of course, and we’ll have to wait and see–but given the nationalistic symbolism attached to the Liancourt Rocks in Korea my perception has always been that people there simply care much more about the issue.
And ultimately, that’s what really matters about these windswept islands in the middle of a turbulent sea. Not the resources–though those are important–or their geographical position–though it could be strategic–but the symbolism. That’s why a place that looks for all the world like it’s barely worth anything can seem like it is worth everything, smack in the middle of one of the most turbulent and important relationships of modern East Asia.