Early this month there was an incident near the disputed (and uninhabited) Senkaku islands between China and Japan. Japanese Coast Guard vessels first collided with and then impounded a Chinese fishing boat fishing within Japan's self-declared territory around the islands.
At first the fishing boat fled the scene of the collision, forcing the Japanese vessel to pursue and board the Chinese ship, and assault the crew with samurai forces.
Ok, I made up the samurai bit.
So the Japanese Coast Guard arrests the captain and crew. The crew were quickly released, but the Chinese captain was detained for the next 17 days.
Unleashing a hellfire shitstorm.
In China the islands are known as the Diaoyu islands and considered to be Chinese. In fact one of the interesting aspects of the affair is to read newspaper editorials from either side of the China Sea- or is it the Japan Sea. In Chinese newspapers the islands are "indisputably Chinese from ancient times." In Japanese editorials, however, "there is no question at all that the islands belong and have always belonged to Japan".
Which allows me to make one obvious point, a point that has not been made by the media of either country: there is a dispute and there is a question about the ownership of these islands.
So anyway in China the issue becomes a patriotic and nationalistic flashpoint. There are demonstrations outside the Japanese embassy. Internet forums explode with abuse. Several thousand people cancel tourist trips to Japan. A Japanese group is forced to pull out of a cultural dance exhibition because of security concerns. The Chinese suddenly cancel joint mineral and resource exloration plans for the islands. The Japanese ambassador is summoned repeatedly for official complaints. And just yesterday China announced the beginning of trade sanctions against Japan starting with the suspension of rare earth exports, necessary for the production of cars, mobile phones and other electronics. Chinese news reports are full of coverage of the "illegal and immoral detainment of the patriotic Chinese fishing captain."
So just today the prosecutors in charge of the case in Japan announce that the captain is to be released without charge or further prosecution of the case.
Well, to me this is
1. Very obviously the best thing to do, and
2. Very obviously due to the pressure from China on the Japanese government.
So the issue is set to dominate Japanese politics for some time. The opposition parties are saying it shows Japan to be weak-kneed and that the decision compromises its national security. They say that the decision is 'very regrettable'.
Which is easy for an opposition party to say. They don't have to deal with the second most economically powerful nation in the world, feverously nationalistic and rabidly anti-Japanese at the best of times, howling with fury just across the water and launching trade sanctions faster than you can say 'Nanking massacre'.
The funniest part of the whole business is how Japan has handled the inevitable. Even I noticed that in the last couple of days the media has been emphasising the negative aspects of detaining the Chinese captain: pictures of empty hotel rooms, frantic company employees calling rare earth suppliers in China, videos of protestors in Beijing. They were telegraphing the punch.
So when the Secretary General of the governing DPJ announces with a straight face that the decision to release the Chinese captain was 'the result of investigations and not political', well, you just have to smile at the attempt to save face.
Because if you believe that, well, maybe the Nanking massacre didn't happen after all.