The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
JAPAN – CONTEMPORARY ISSUES
On this page:
- Japan and South Korea
- Territorial Island Disputes
- Fukushima Waste Water and Nuclear Disaster
- Gender Inequality
- Ageing Society
Japan and South Korea
During World War II, approximately 200,000 young Korean women and girls were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to Japan to work as ‘comfort women’ for Japanese soldiers.
In the years following the war, Japan has technically apologised for its actions towards the Korean women and offered financial remuneration. Under the Abe and Moon administrations in 2015, a bilateral agreement to settle the issue was drawn with statements issued by both countries, which can be read here. A timeline of the ‘comfort women’ issue can be viewed here.
Japan and South Korea became engaged in a trade dispute which began in 2019, and while some cite the dispute as a result of these historic grievances, others suggest they are a result of Japan and South Korea’s differences on dealing with North Korea, on approaches to relations with China, as well as the ongoing territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks (Takeshima/Dokdo) highlighted below.
As a strong ally to both Japan and South Korea, the USA is using diplomacy to bring the two nations together. Both South Korea and Japan recognise the importance of building their relationship to become allies in the Indo-Pacific region; and with new administrations in both Japan and the USA, the prospects for greater cooperation between Japan and South Korea look more positive.
This video explains more about the trade dispute.
For more information on the relationship between Japan and South Korea, see the following resources:
- The Ongoing Struggle for Justice for ‘Comfort Women’
- MOFA: Japan's Efforts on the Issue of Comfort Women
- Biden’s high stakes on repairing Japan–South Korea relations
- Assessing the Direction of South Korea-Japan Relations in a New Era
- Japan-South Korea Relations and the Biden Factor
- South Korea and Japan’s Feud Explained
Territorial Island Disputes
The Japanese Archipelago consists of over 6850 islands that sit within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). While boundaries and demarcation of many of the islands have changed throughout history, there are a number of ongoing Japanese territorial disputes over some islands:
- Senkaku Islands – disputed by Japan, China and Taiwan
- Okinoshoritima Atoll – disputed by Japan and China
- Liancourt Rocks – disputed by Japan and South Korea
- The Kuril Islands – disputed by Japan and Russia
The following video and podcast, 'These Islands Are Ours', go some way to explaining these territorial disputes:
The Senkaku Islands are a group islands in the East China Sea, known by China as the Diaoyu Islands, and by Taiwan as the Tiaoyutai Islands. The islands are a rich source of fishing, potentially contain large oil and gas reserves, and sit close to shipping lanes used by Japan, China and South Korea for energy imports. After the end of World War II, the islands did not form part of the San Francisco Treaty, which handed back to China most of the territories occupied by Japan during the War. They were administered by the United States until administration reverted back to Japan under the Okinawa Reversion Agreement which came into effect in 1972, although for most of the last 120 years, they have been privately owned by a series of Japanese citizens.
The islands are of strategic importance as they are situated roughly in the centre of the sea separating Japan, China and Taiwan and therefore, sovereignty of the islands will increase the owning sovereign state’s 200 nautical mile (nM) EEZ and territorial boundary. This is particularly relevant, noting that the Senkaku Islands are only 175 and 91 nM from China and Taiwan’s coasts respectively, meaning that sovereign states would have to agree demarcation of the EEZ boundaries bilaterally.
China and Taiwan began laying claim to the islands in the 1970s citing historic rights to the area, and tensions between Japan and China increased in 2012 when the Japanese Government purchased three of the islands from one of the private owners, much to Beijing’s protests. Chinese fishing patrols were spotted in the region shortly afterwards, and since then, there have been repeated episodes of Chinese fishing and coastguard boats sailing close to the Senkaku Islands, with resulting protests from the Japanese Government.
In 2013, China created an air defence identification zone over the East China Sea, encompassing the disputed archipelago, within which commercial aircraft would be required to notify Beijing of their movements. This overlapped with Japan’s own 1968 air defence zone and was seen by Japan as an ‘escalation’.
This video gives a very brief overview of the air defence issue:
While the US has not made comment on the historic sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, it has formally acknowledged the administrative responsibility of Japan, inasmuch as the contested territory is included in the bilateral security treaty between the US and Japan and as such, the US-Japan mutual defence treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.
For further information on the Senkaku Island dispute, see the following resources.
- Japan asserts Senkaku Islands claim in dispute with China, Taiwan
- How the Diaoyu / Senkaku Island dispute began
- History of the Senkaku Islands (MOFA)
- Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands spat deepens as Japan warns China over coastguard ships in East China Sea
- Japan/China island dispute deepens (2012)
- Beijing claims Senkaku Islands are China's "Inherent Territory" - China justifies its intrusion
- Japan Coast Guard's attempts to block Chinese activists from landing on the Senkaku Island (in Japanese – Coastguard footage)
- MOFA Japan – Sovereignty over Senkaku Islands
- MOFA PRC: The issue of Diaoyiu Dao
- Why this Japan-China island dispute could be Asia's next military flashpoint
- Sino-Japanese controversy over the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai Islands: An imminent flashpoint in the Indo-Pacific?
- Islands on the frontline of a new global flashpoint: China v Japan
- China and Japan’s island dispute: Lowy Institute
- Japan’s Senkaku Public Awareness Campaign at Risk of Backfiring
- USA’s Commitment to Japan over the Senkaku Islands
- US-Japan alliance and the Senkaku Islands Dispute
- What is China’s Strategy in the Senkaku Islands?
- China Is Probing Japan’s Defences Over The Disputed Senkaku Islands
- Senkaku Islands China Vs Japan: Strategic and Historical Context
- Senkaku Islands: Japan Must Become Self-Sufficient in Its Defense
- The Senkaku Islands and Japan’s Evolving Diplomacy
The dispute around Okinotorishima is fundamentally about the legal classification of whether the atoll is considered to be a rock, or an islet. Japan claims the atoll meets the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) classification of an islet that is able to support human habitation, and has spent an estimated US$600 million building observation posts, promoting reef growth, and protecting the atoll against erosion and typhoon damage. With Okinotorishima classified as an islet, Japan can include it within its EEZ, which enables the nation to enjoy sovereign rights with regard to the exploration and exploitation of natural resources in the water and seabed, up to a 200 nautical mile exclusion zone around the atoll.
China, Taiwan and South Korea all dispute Japan’s UNCLOS classification of Okinotorishima and the inclusion of it within Japan’s EEZ.
However, this is not only about fishing and surveying rights, which have hit the news in recent years with Taiwanese fishermen being detained by the Japanese Coastguard, and Japan protesting Chinese maritime surveying around the region, but also because the location of the atoll makes it an area which is potentially strategically important to both Japan and China.
This video offers an explanation as to the importance of the atoll:
For further information on Okinotorishima, see the resources below:
- MOFA Japan Press Conference (see para 3)
- MOFA Taiwan: Okinotorishima Key Facts
- Japan’s Response to China’s Research Vessels near Okiotorishima
- Japan protests Chinese maritime survey off southern islets
- Small Islet, Big Controversy
- Japan's seizure of Taiwanese fishing boat unfair: The China Post
- Chinese Naval activities within Okinotorishima EEZ an increasing threat to Pacific Security
- The strategic value of territorial islands from the perspective of national security
The Liancourt Rocks, known as Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo or Tokto in Korean, are a group of two small islets and rocks in the Sea of Japan. The islands are not only rich in fishing and mineral resources, but with their geographic location in the middle of the sea between Japan and Russia, their strategic importance cannot be overlooked.
The islands were first annexed by Japan during the Russo-Japanese War, after which the Korean Empire became a protectorate of Japan. At the end of World War II the Treaty of San Francisco resulted in the handing back of Japanese occupied territories, including Korea; however, the Liancourt Rocks were not specifically mentioned. In 1952 South Korea claimed them as part of a 60-kilometre exclusive economic zone in the waters around the country.
Japan has protested the South Korean presence on the Liancourt Rocks, claiming that they were not included in the Japanese territory surrendered in the Treaty of San Francisco. North Korea has also made claim to the Liancourt Rocks, as both Korean nations claim the entirety of the Korean Peninsula.
Japan has made reference to its territorial claims to ‘Takeshima’ in its last 17 Defence White papers and more recently, there were calls within South Korea to boycott the 2020 Olympics when it was observed that ‘Dodko’ appeared as a small dot of Japanese territory on the Olympic website map. There have also been protests by South Korea over the inclusion of ‘Dokdo’ as Japanese territory in Japanese school texbooks.
The Takeshima/Dokdo dispute is explained in the following video:
For further resources on the Liancourt Rocks dispute see the following resources:
- Japan threatens South Korea to seize Dokdo Islands
- What’s made South Korea complain over Tokyo 2020 and why Japan’s refusing to budge
- Japan’s other Island dispute (2012)
- Rocky relations over disputed islands (2012)
- Dokdo dispute: History
- How much do you know about Japanese school textbooks' claims to Dokdo, Korea’s indigenous territory
- Korean tourists flock to disputed islands
The Kuril Islands
Demarcation and administration of islands within the Kurils has changed several times throughout history, most notably under the Treaty of Shimoda in 1855, the 1875 Treaty of St Petersburg and the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905. In 1945, the leaders of the three great powers, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt promised possession of the entire Kuril Island chain to the USSR if it agreed to enter into a Pacific War with the Japanese, which the USSR did. The USSR began occupying the islands in 1945 and formally integrated them into the USSR in 1947. Soviet ownership of the Kurils was agreed in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Conference, although this agreement was not signed by the USSR. Years later, Japan has disputed what was agreed in 1951, not only because the agreement was not signed by the Soviets, but also claiming that the four islands in dispute today: Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, and Habomai, were not considered part of the Kurils.
The islands also play an important role strategically. If Russia were to present the Kuril Islands to Japan, it would lose the access of its Pacific Fleet to the Pacific Ocean while at the same time, potentially facilitate the US Navy’s entry into Pacific waters close to Russia.
In 2015, Russia made the decision to build military facilities on the Iturup and Kunashir islands and to deploy military hardware there, which suggests they do not intend to hand the islands over to Japan. In recent years, the offer of splitting the disputed territories has been repeated by the Russian government, and leaders of the two countries have met several times to discuss a solution to the ongoing dispute.
This video gives a good explanation of the Kuril’s dispute:
For further information on the Kuril Islands dispute, see the resources below:
- Why Russia will not return the Kuril Islands to Japan
- Russia’s strategic interests explain stance on Kuril Islands
- Kuril Islands Dispute – History and slide show
- Could Russia and Japan Finally Find Peace in the Pacific?
- Kuril Islands: The unresolved dispute between Japan and Russia
- Russia and Japan on Different Wavelengths in the Kuril Islands
- Japan’s Northern Territories Vs Russia’s Kuril Islands
- The Kuril Islands roadblock on a Russia–Japan peace treaty
- It's Time to Solve the Kuril Islands Dispute
- Japan MOFA: Basic Understanding of the Northern Territories Issue
Fukishima Waste Water and the Nuclear Disaster
The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster
On 11 March 2011 an earthquake struck 43 miles off the Northeastern Coast of Honshu, Japan’s most populous island. The earthquake had a magnitude of 9.1 and was the largest in Japan’s history. Less than an hour later, a Tsunami over 15m high hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant causing a loss of power, which resulted in an inability to monitor the nuclear reactors and exposure of the core. The Prime Minister declared a nuclear emergency and the resulting incident caused significant radiation levels around the area, which had to be evacuated.
The Fukushima incident is summarised in this video:
For further info on both the Fukushima disaster, and the recent events regarding the release of waste water, see the resources below:
- 10 years of Fukushima disaster: What really happened
- Inside Fukushima: What happened after the nuclear disaster
- Ten years later: Here’s what Fukushima reactors look like today
- How robots are cleaning up Fukushima’s nuclear disaster
- Fukushima uncensored: Documentary
- Japan’s decision to release Fukushima water slammed by neighbours
- Japan to release Fukushima water
- Japan faces growing pressure to rethink releasing Fukushima’s wastewater into ocean
- Fukushima: Japan approves releasing waste water into Ocean
- The legal case against Fukushima’s wastewater decision
- Toxic reaction to Japan’s Fukushima water release
- Countries react to Japan’s plans to release Fukushima water into ocean
- Moon orders aides to look into referring Fukushima water decision to International Court
- Fukushima: Timeline of events
- Fukushima Nuclear Accident Analysis Report
- Fukushima disaster: What happened at the nuclear plant
- Japanese Government approves plans to release radioactive water from Fukushiuma nuclear plant
- IAEA updates: Fukushima Daiichi
Fukishima Waste Water
In April 2021, the Japanese Government announced it had approved a plan to release over 1 million tons of wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean. The release will commence in about two years’ time. While the Japanese Government announced that the water would be treated and diluted so that radiation levels would be below those set for drinking water, the local fishing industry, as well as China and South Korea have opposed the move. The decision and reaction is summarised in the following videos:
Following Japan’s announcement, the US issued a statement which stated that Japan had weighed the options and effects and been transparent about its decision. China also released an official statement citing concerns about what they saw as a unilateral decision by Japan, and other concerns regarding radioactivity.
Japan also received support for its actions in a statement by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), which is summarised in the following official IAEA video:
Despite being a highly developed and modern society, Japan has hit the news recently regarding gender inequality, particularly following comments made in February of this year by the head of the Tokyo Olympic Committee, Yoshiro Mori. In 2020, Japan’s rank was 121 of 153 countries on the Global Gender Gap report, which is considered very low for a developed nation.
Differing gender roles in traditional and modern Japanese society mean that there are very specific expectations for Japanese women in the home, at work, and in society. For example, women were and are still expected to have children after getting married, to quit work after such a life event, and are treated differently under the law.
The issue has been addressed by the Japanese Government, which, in a new five-year plan, has called for a society without gender bias by 2030.
The video below summarises this issue:
For further resources on gender equality/inequality in Japan, see the following resources:
Japan's overall population is shrinking due to low fertility rates, and the ageing population is rapidly increasing. Improved living conditions, advances in medical and pharmacological technologies mean that people are living longer in Japan – often described as super-ageing.
Japan’s rural population of 126 million (2019) is expected to plunge another 17% in by 2030. Longer-term, the decline will steepen, with the population falling by 2% per year in the 2030s.
By the 2040s, rural depopulation in Japan will be so high that some are predicting hundreds of small cities and towns will be completely deserted over time, and many more will become unlivable by today’s standards.
This clearly presents a significant economic and social challenge for the Japanese Government. The issue of Japan’s population problem is summarised in the following video:
For further resources on Japan’s population decrease, see the resources below:
- Japan’s demographic time bomb
- How is Japan dealing with its rapidly ageing population?
- Ageing Japan: The burden of a graying planet
- Japan’s ageing population
- Coping with a super-ageing nation
- The Japanese react to the ageing population
- How an ageing population and disruption will impact Japan
- How can Japan solve its population problem
- Government response to low fertility in Japan (UN)
- Japan’s demographic future
- The mystery of why Japanese people are having so few babies
- Japan shrinks by 500,000 people
- Japan’s population is in rapid decline
- Japan’s ageing society
- How does Japan’s ageing society affect its economy?
- What the Japanese can tell us about super-ageing gracefully
- Shrinkonomics: Lessons from Japan
- Japan: Population ageing and the fiscal challenge
- Japan’s intent to release wastewater from the Fukushima plant into the Pacific Ocean has been criticised by both China and South Korea. Noting that the IAEA, who are the international experts on nuclear energy, has endorsed and supported Japan’s plan, what is the rationale or motive behind the Chinese and South Korean protests? Do you consider their protests to be merely linked to ongoing and wider bilateral/regional issues or do they have a genuine cause for concern?
- The Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is considered by some to be the next flashpoint in the Indo-Pacific region. This is of particular significance as the islands sit within the US mutual defence agreement with Japan. Australia’s recent Reciprocal Access Agreement with Japan will potentially elevate our own bilateral security and defence cooperation with Japan to a new level. Could Australia’s ties to both the US and Japan see us drawn into this dispute? Should Australia seek to do more to reduce tensions over these islands? What are the potential impacts to Australia noting the dispute is between Australia’s two biggest trading partners?
- With an ageing population, and birth rates in decline, Japan will be forced to examine its ability to maintain a productive workforce, which will in turn affect its economic edge in the region. Australia is experiencing similar trends, albeit to a lesser extent. What impacts will an ageing population have on our own ability to maintain national security? What could Australia do to ensure we are positioned to deal with this factor when considering our national security strategy?
- Japan has often struggled with the legacy of its wartime actions and its relations with regional neighbours. Is Japan doing enough to reach its full economic and diplomatic potential? What can it do to improve its influence and power, both regionally and globally?