Tokyo's old enemies unite over islands

Japanese disputes: Referendum embarrasses government while protests grow on territorial claims

Japanese ultra-nationalists have succeeded in uniting opposing political forces in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong in a manner not seen since the 1970s, when Chinese patriotic fervour was fired by Japanese attempts to consolidate its claims over a small group of islands known by the Chinese as the Diaoyus and by the Japanese as the Senkakus.

These uninhabited islands,190 miles west of Japan's Okinawa island and 125 miles east of Taiwan, are claimed by Taipei, Tokyo and Peking. Although the dispute dates back to 1895, the United States rekindled the controversy in 1972 by handing the islands over to Japan.

Protests over the US action marked the emergence of a patriotic student movement in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. These were rekindled in July when 200 Taiwan fishing boats threatened to sail to one of the Diaoyu islands and tear down a lighthouse built by the Japan Youth Federation. Since then Japan has reasserted its claims.

Some 3,000 demonstrators marched through Hong Kong yesterday and a bigger rally is being called for next week. Legislators promised to lead a protest to the islands. In Taipei, a new alliance was formed to "protect" the islands from alleged Japanese aggression.

The upsurge of protest has led to Hong Kong's pro-democracy politicians being admitted to China's de facto embassy in the colony for the first time since 1989. In Taipei politicians who advocate union with China have found a rare point of agreement with those advocating independence for the island.

The Chinese government has allowed its people to express "understandable patriotic feelings".

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