Guest Post: China, Japan And The Senkaku Islands: The Roots Of Conflict Go Back To 1274

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh Smith from Of Two Minds

China, Japan And The Senkaku Islands: The Roots Of Conflict Go Back To 1274

Sensitivity to domination, aggression and loss of face run deep in East Asia.

Longtime correspondent Cheryl A. asked me to comment on the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. I am happy to oblige, as this raises a great number of deeply intertwined issues that are playing out in Asia.

Let's start by noting the "stranger than fiction" absurdity of privately owned islands in ambiguous-nationality waters off China--the scenario of Bruce Lee's classic martial arts film Enter the Dragon. The plot revolves around an ex-Shaolin monk engaged in the drug and prostitution trade who has acquired a private island with murky nationality where he stages martial arts competitions of "epic proportions."

Despite the resemblance to fiction, the dispute is soberingly real, and rooted in chains of events stretching back to 1274 and 1592. Although ostensibly about rights to possible undersea oil/gas reserves, the conflict is about more than territorial or mineral rights.

Japanese fear of Chinese domination can be traced back to the 1200s, when two massive fleets under Mongol leader Kublai Khan attacked Japan in 1274 and again in 1281. The four thousand-ship fleet carrying nearly 140,000 men is said to have been the largest naval invasion in history, eclipsed only in modern times by the D-Day invasion of France (Normandy landings) in 1944. The Mongol fleet was twice dispersed by timely typhoons known in Japan as the "divine wind" (kamikaze).

If you visit Korea, you will notice a curious repetition in the placard descriptions of the historic temples and palaces. Each description includes the phrase, "burned by the Japanese in 1592."

Hideyoshi, the feudal daimyo of Japan, seeking some project to occupy 200,000 battle-hardened samurai and soldiers who had been engaged in decades of feudal-fiefdom warfare in Japan, decided to invade Korea, an independent kingdom that paid tribute to Ming Dynasty China and was within China's sphere of influence.

The Japanese were not kindly conquerors. Not only did they put many of the national treasures to the torch, they destroyed crops, leading to widespread starvation and civilian death, and enslaved thousands of craftsmen who were shipped to Japan.

The Korean Navy managed to limit the invader's sea-supply chain, and eventually the Chinese Ming Dynasty entered the conflict to aid its Korean protectorate. The losses suffered by Korea were catastrophic, and the drain on the Chinese Imperial budget may have contributed to the decline of the Ming Dynasty, which fell in 1644.

There were actually two invasions separated by a brief Chinese-brokered peace. The war finally ended in 1598.

Japanese designs on Korea did not disappear, as Japan annexed Korea as a colony in 1910, a status that lasted until the end of World War II.

Though there is a lively trade between Japan and Korea, it is safe to say that the Koreans have not forgotten the brutal oppression they suffered under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945, nor have they forgotten the needless destruction and civilian deaths resulting from the Japanese invasion of 1592. Even today, Koreans are second-class citizens in Japan, though you will be hard-pressed to get any official recognition of this reality.

China suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese during World War II, when Japan invaded and occupied major swaths of coastal and northern China. The senseless, needless massacre of hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians has been well-documented, though Japanese "Holocaust deniers" claim otherwise. The 1998 account of one city's experience, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, awakened many to the brutality of the Japanse occupation.

Tens of thousands of Chinese civilians were killed by Japanese Imperial Army troops in China as punishment for Chinese aid to the 1942 Doolittle raid flyers who crash-landed in China after bombing Tokyo. The Japanese killed an estimated 250,000 civilians while searching for Doolittle's men.

Though it is not acknowledged, the primary reason American troops remain stationed in Japan is not to protect Japan but to protect its Asian neighbors from Japanese aggression. This is also the reason American troops remain in Germany, 67 years after the end of World War II and two decades after the Soviet Empire collapsed. While the U.S. maintained an extensive military presence in Japan and West Germany as part of its defensive protection of the West from Soviet encroachment, the military presence also reassured nervous neighbors that the U.S. would limit the German and Japanese armed forces and cap those nations' aggressive tendencies.

This is why all the calls in Asia for the U.S. to reduce its presence ring hollow. Not only have people not forgotten Japanese aggression, they also haven't forgotten a thousand years of Chinese domination. The U.S. presence in East Asia reassures everyone in the region that neither Japan nor China will have a free hand to colonize, annex or otherwise dominate the region.

The Chinese people have a chip on their shoulder which they do not even see. The consensus view in China--once again, not spoken publicly, but real nonetheless--is that China's rightful place in the world is at the center (hence the term "middle kingdom," which actually means "center of the world"). Thus the entire world "should" recognize China's natural place at the head of the table, so to speak, and any other nation's resistance to this "natural order" (for example, America's) is seen as "they're trying to hold us back" rather than as an expression of national self-interest.

In other words, to the Chinese, it's always about China: whatever any other nation does, not just in Asia but anywhere on the planet, it's always "they're trying to hold back" China.

This smoldering chip on the shoulder has two sources: the humiliation of the 19th century at the hands of European and American colonial powers (imagine San Francisco being carved up and occupied by foreign nations, and you get a taste of Chinese resentment) and the aforementioned sense of dominance being the birthright of China.

Then there's the Asian focus on "face" that I discuss in China: An Interim Report: Its Economy, Ecology and Future (2005). Apparently The Japanese felt they lost face in last year's kerfuffle between a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese patrol craft, and so "backing down" on the Senkaku Islands is not a domestic-politics option.

China's leadership, scheduled to change hands later in the year, is keen to avoid any public loss of face as well, as the last thing the leadership wants is any public perception of weakness against "Japanese aggression." One need only read The Rape of Nanking to udnerstand why it doesn't take much to incite mobs to trash every outpost of Japanese commerce within sight.

The Japanese have a peculiarly virulent strain of right-wing militarism that continues to influence domestic politics. In this worldview, reverence for the Imperial household is mixed with an aggrieved sense that Japan's expansion in World War II was justified (though few would say this publicly). As a result, any official Japanese attempt to apologize for the horrendous destruction, murder, enslavement and torture inflicted by Japanese forces in World War II sparks outrage in one sector of the domestic political order.

Deep within this mindset is the view that the only thing wrong with World War II was that Japan lost.

Even more galling to those who suffered so mightily, Japan has refused to publicly acknowledge (though they claim they have) and compensate the "comfort women," young women who were forced into prostitution to serve Japan's armed forces in the Asian/Pacific theater of World War II.

This official dance between apology and refusal satisfies no one, and the general sense outside Japan is that the Japanese acceptance of guilt is grudging public relations rather than sincere.

Combine an obsession with "face" and a plethora of deep-seated resentments, and you get the tinder for territorial disputes. What appears to be lost on the Chinese is the consequence of their saber-rattling and bluster: they appear to have obliterated 20 years of careful diplomacy aimed at convincing their neighbors of China's peaceful intentions.

What seems to be lost on the Japanese is the painful proximity of their World War II brutality in the awareness of their Asian neighbors.

As for solutions: one would hope there is a face-saving way to "engage in peaceful negotiations." If not, then this issue will fester. Though no one wants to state it publicly, there is a role for the U.N. as "honest broker" here, if only the participants can take their hands off their saber handles and practice a bit of honest self-criticism.

Could Asia really go to war over these? The bickering over islands is a serious threat to the region’s peace and prosperity. (The Economist)

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LongSoupLine's picture



Seems we can trace a lot of issues back to the early 70's huh?

ParkAveFlasher's picture

Iran's gunpowder program was totally about to reach critical mass around then. The European Powers That Were should have put a stop to it but there were a lot of doves in their court.  The Crusaders couldn't march past the Red Sea in full plate armor. 

None of this ever happened before, really.

spanish inquisition's picture

The Irish were already warmed up by then....

The first Anglo-Norman intervention in Ireland came in 1167.

JPM Hater001's picture

UPDATE" Japanese and Chinese Coast Gaurd have water fight.

Bitch slapping to start soon.

Buck Johnson's picture

It looks like they will be shooting at each other real soon.

Precious's picture

Point their hoses at that island and pretty soon it will just go away.

SilverRhino's picture

True ... they don't do that. 

The Japanese only did things like the Bataan Death March, Unit 731, Fukushima's disatrous response (saving face was more important)

In Asia?   Not a single damned nation over there is innocent or has clean hands.  


francis_sawyer's picture

Scaramanga & Hai Fat have concealed compounds there... Thus the hoopla... They're hiding the SOLEX capacitor...

CPL's picture

Yup, it was a strange time Man!

Sex, Drugs and Mongol Empires.

I am more equal than others's picture

According to a Sunday NYT article, no one has lived on the islands since WWII.  They were used by the US as late as 1985 as a bombing range.  They are usless rocks in an ocean.  The islands are the focal point of some other arguement.  Maybe its a test run of Bond dumping?  What better way to alter the power structure of this region and the world then to send your adversery to financial collaspe.

optimator's picture

They all could use a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Plan" to solve their differences.

The Alarmist's picture

Arabs pissed about the Crusades, Japs and Chinks pissed about 1274 ... what ever happened to modern problems?

CPL's picture

Well today we have news. 


In 1274 your pre warning usually came at the shouts of a million horsemen tearing ass through your city.  If you were lucky enough to survive you were put in labour camped or fucked to death by the Hoard.  I've often wondered how truthful that is though, but from Muslim and Jewish settlements in the middle east that were leveled by the Khan to the Polish and Northern French settlements off the steppes of Russia, there is a consistent message.  

Have that tale told a thousand times across an entire continent for hundreds of years in various forms.  The Polish tale of Lajkonik is a good example.  The theory is the Mongols told a story to survivors to tell other villiages to prep them, because of the human concept of pride before the fall.  A survivor would talk of how they won to the villiagers as the warning, everyone would prepare to fight with some poor information.  Mongol zerg rush.  No more villiage.

New words are invented.  Orge, Troll, Goblin, Orc.  Tolkien didn't invent them, he borrowed them.  The rings saga is as much a retelling of the story of the Great Khan.  Myths of a monster hoard that rides wolves like the wind and eat the young for food or gratification...close enough.

falak pema's picture

BS, the mongols were killers but not cannibals. They hated all forms of sedentary life. They disappeared because they couldn't adapt to it, inspite of their empire. Karma.

They disappeared like they came, after 150 years. Back to the yourts! And a near thousand year sleep. 

CPL's picture

No they weren't cannibals, but myth has a life of it's own. Tolkien added the touch of Macbre with the Urik-Kai.  There are lots of myths/stories about the Khan in every country he charged through.  From absorbing as much as I can from written history and my nerd love of Lord of the Rings, a tonne of the history created with the Mongols seemed to be repeated nearly verbatim with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  He says as much in the Similarion.  

The history though shows deception, co-opts, buy ins, and once the army achieved critical mass, it was months between messages if they were recieved.  It's pretty rough country between Tibet and Damascus or Lyon.  150 years and yup, back to the Yurts to view a dead body on display.  All in the Mongol army had to go back to pay homage to the Khan.


So they left, and that was that.  After his death, the Mongol hoard adopted Tao, and made sure there was a strong prescence in what is modern China.  

It doesn't mean they didn't attempt to go back to claim sovereignity though.  The Mongols did of course, what they didn't realise like the US is learning with arming the Muhajadeen in the 80's, is cultural memes.  When the mongol hoard disengaged, they left behind the Russian secret weapon used until until today by all nations.  


Medieval Russians adopted and adapted the horse, and then invented the counter to a million screaming mongols.  Light Calvary.  Armour shape changed to deflect arrows and swords, pikes grew longer, swords curved, silk seen up until the WW1 and Draught horses crossed with Mongol stock.  The Russians crushed them like bugs. It caused a big economic collapse in China when it did.  Dynasties just folded one after another, the entire time were shaky and prone to collapse quickly.  Mostly the Chinese royality just poisoned each other, one after another and managed to weaken their position until the British did what they do.  Divide and conquere by proxy of a shipping company in promise to the crown.


It's facinating stuff.  Cannot get enough of.

falak pema's picture

Not just the Russians; Tamerlane! In 1395 at Terek River battle, before russian revival. 

The golden Horde disappeared after Turcomen revival; the latter only lasted the span of Tamerlane's life; he defeated the nascent Ottomans at Ankara in 1402 but his progeny lost it all. 

The Tatars, sons of Horde, as they were called met their match in the Cossacks. But they were a shadow of their past. 

Timur - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 

Don Cossacks - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

CPL's picture



Thanks Falak Pema.

ElvisDog's picture

The Mongols didn't kill everyone. If you were an artisan or had a skilled craft, you got to go back to Mongolia to serve the Khan. Hey, beats getting fucked to death.

Precious's picture

Yah, and Fuck You English!

Unbezahlbar's picture

Glow in the Dark origami from Fuki ?

CrashisOptimistic's picture

"Despite the resemblance to fiction, the dispute is soberingly real, and rooted in chains of events stretching back to 1274 and 1592. Although ostensibly about rights to possible undersea oil/gas reserves, the conflict is about more than territorial or mineral rights."


Nothing matter but oil.  Everything, EVERYTHING, else is handwaving.

darteaus's picture

"right-wing" militarism

Try nationalist

jballz's picture


right-wing nationalist militarism.

Theosebes Goodfellow's picture

My only question is this: If the islands were for sale, why didn't the PRC or Taiwan just outbid the Japanese? This would save a lot of face for everyone and the islands would become the most expensive real estate in the world. Or better yet, since this is about fish and oil, set up a triumvirate to exploit the natural resources with a fourth party overseeing that it is managed equitably. I nominate the island nation of Vanuatu. They know how to run islands and frankly could use the work.

optimator's picture

If only Goldman or the FED bought those islands all would be calm.  The aformentioned will own them anyway in the long run.

earnulf's picture

Your question is a sound and valid one and the solution you proposed is also sound.    Which is why squabbling children will refuse to listen to the advice of others and have thier playground proxie battles because it's fun and the folks starting the shit won't be the ones getting hurt (only their proxies/slaves/soldiers/fishermen).

As Will Smith said "Don't start no shit, won't be no shit"

Since three different countries (yes, Taiwan qualifies) claim rights, set up a company to develop the resources with all three countries kicking in the intitial startup costs and all three benefiting from the profits generated in equal thirds.     Sadly, this won't work because China is so big, it should get more and japan is second biggest so it should get more than taiwan and taiwan paid an equal amount, so it should get a third, etc, etc, etc.

Kinda like the US deficit.   We need spending reductions and tax increases to start to turn around this mess, but the driver has his foot on the gas and the passengers keep throwing darts at the tires.


RafterManFMJ's picture

I heard they held a Chinese auction, but damned if the Chinese didn't fuck up and bid on more treasuries. 

Precious's picture

Charles.  I didn't think I would ever read a more self-righteous, indignant commenter than myself.

But really, you are probably the world's champion, bloviating, pompous, self-important, anal-retentive bag of shit of all time.  Or maybe it's just the fucked-up effeminate way the British have developed their prose ever since they enshrined homosexuality.

"Longtime correspondent Cheryl A. asked me to comment on the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. I am happy to oblige, as this raises a great number of deeply intertwined issues that are playing out in Asia."

Wolferl's picture

Why the fuck is this post taged with "Germany"? We have no stake in this game whatsoever, we are living on the other side of this globe. If those stupid Asian fuckers want to start a world war, fine, finally a major war without us, we´ll have fun whatching the show on TV. Pass the  popcorn.    

buzzsaw99's picture

Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no! And it ain't over now. [/bluto]

Crisismode's picture

The Germans didn't bomb Pearl Harbor.


They bombed Hiroshima and Nagisaki.


Get your facts straight.



RafterManFMJ's picture

Crisis, your post made me LOL; Kudos.

LMAOLORI's picture



Just think how we feel in the U.S. the Japs wanted us off their Island they protest us even to this day call us an irritant but yet we get stuck defending them thanks to our leaders what kind of insanity is that? We should bring home our troops defend our own damn country and when the rest of the world is in trouble tell them to go screw themselves like they do us when it's convenient.

U.S. comes to agreement with Japan to move 9,000 Marines off Okinawa




M2Market's picture

True words of wisdom and yet there are hoards of Jap lovers that just can't wait to throw their money and lives away for Nihonjin, and they even have the galls to ask the rest of us to foot the bill too.  The fact of the matter is these god forsaken islands aren't worth a single American life over and Japan is not exactly a friend of ours and China is not exactly an enemy of ours.  This world is just different shades of gray instead of what the Neocon idiots wants us to think.  Fukushima is radiating us with lots of love and it should be our damn business to tell Japan to come clean with the truth on the extent of the pollution, since we're the ones eating those Alaskan king crabs and salmon jerky, and yet all these idiots care about is containing China?  These Nihonjin have nuked us back with Fukushima and we're still defending their sorry asses over some rocks that can't pay down our national debt?  We should tell the whole world to just fuck off and leave us alone

darteaus's picture

The only thing I'd add to the piece:

Many nations start complaining about external enemies when their domestic politicians are experiencing domestic economic problems that they can't solve.  This is well known.

Turning that on its head, when you see two nations mutually escalating a territorial issue, then you see two nations with serious domestic economic issues - regardless of what statistics they publish.

Urban Redneck's picture

Since Obummer and his trailer park trash sidekick both lack any sort of diplomatic skill appropriate for their current positions, perhaps they should call Rex and see if he can come up with a JDA that saves face and profits the concerned parties-

InconvenientCounterParty's picture

Chinese expansionism is just over the horizon isn't it?

Their territory is increasingly pollluted, affecting domestic food and water sources, they have a relatively high male/female ratio, they are racially and culturally homogenus, they are cash rich where cash matters.

As ususal, people will look back and say "how did we miss that?"

GeezerGeek's picture

Ask the Tibetians if Chinese expansionism is just over the horizon. Or ask India or Vietnam how easy China (PRC) has been to get along with.

As for China being homogeneous - not even close to true. Heck, they can't even decide which version of Chinese to speak. Sure, Mandarin is the official language, but Cantonese is far from abandoned. I once belonged to a Chinese Culture Association here in Florida, via my wife. I found it curious that the group met every Saturday and Sunday. One day for the Cantonese speakers, the other for the Mandarin speakers. When they occassionally got together the predominant language was - surprise! - English. Naturally I preferred those get-togethers, since most of the Chinese words I learned from my wife were not fit for polite company.

SilverRhino's picture

50,000,000 men that will never find wives, a fucking pansy emperor in your biggest threat / rival state,  domestic troubles at home, banking systems having a hard landing ....  What's a modern day Mandarin Emperor to do?  

  • Start a war,
  • kill off extra men,
  • grab a bunch of territory & resources 
  • restore the "glory" of China.  
  • Oh and stiff the Americans on all of their invested infrastructure and monkeyfuck their financial system at the same time.  
  • And the ultimate prize:   Global Reserve Currency Status

 That's the end game.

g3h's picture

Pretty pointless.

Joe A's picture

"While the U.S. maintained an extensive military presence in Japan and West Germany as part of its defensive protection of the West from Soviet encroachment, the military presence also reassured nervous neighbors that the U.S. would limit the German and Japanese armed forces and cap those nations' aggressive tendencies."

AKA assuring America's dominance over the world. Which country benefitted the most from WWII? It was the US. Did this fact assured that there has not been another world war? Perhaps. But is a uni-polar world with one world power really a safer place?

Bear's picture

Wow 1274 ... two years after the last (9th) Crusade ... I guess wars have been pretty continuous since man started walking on the earth, but 'this time its different' as we can expect Project 21 to unit us globally

falak pema's picture

the year when Marco Polo expedition arrived in Baidu. The first Chinese expansion into Japan, then a country of "barbarians". 

The Mongols were the scourge of humanity. 

bankruptcylawyer's picture

the most valuable lesson to learn from the experience of the communist party of china AND the united states military, is that the only way to truly win an extended war of epic proportions is to enter the war as late as possible , after the initial agitators have not only exausted many of their resources, but after their strategic positioning has been made aparrent and cannot easily be changed. 


he who begins with a good defense, can transition towards the winning offense. 

defense includes being unnoticed or inactive for as long as possible while the agitators are exausting themselves.

the next 'war' with iran may well be a disaster for the u.s. if , after a year or two of agitation, china and russia decide to become even more active than they alreay are.


DutchR's picture

"I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."


Zeilschip's picture

No offense, but you're just a grunt.