TOKYO – Japan's government Tuesday defended its decision to include in school textbooks its claims to islands currently controlled by South Korea, a move that prompted Seoul to lodge a strong protest and recall its ambassador.
Japan reignited the controversy Monday by announcing its intention to recommend in a government-approved teaching manual that students learn about Tokyo's claims to the tiny islands in the Sea of Japan.
"It's been decided between myself, the chief Cabinet secretary and involved ministers that this is the best solution," Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said.
Japan claimed the islets in 1905, but then South Korea laid claim in 1952. Seoul effectively controls the rocky outcroppings — called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese — and has stationed police on them. The area surrounding the islands is believed to be rich in fish and may also hold undersea resources.
In response to Monday's announcement, South Korea said it would recall its ambassador to Tokyo, Kwon Chul-hyun, for an unspecified time and lodged a strong protest with Japan's Foreign Ministry.
Kwon told reporters after meeting with a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo that the dispute is "straining the relationship further between Japan and Korea." Kwon was expected to leave Japan later Tuesday.
"I am filled with sadness and anger as one person who valued Japan's friendship the most," he said.
Japan's ambassador to Seoul, Toshinori Shigeie, was summoned Monday by South Korea's Foreign Ministry to receive a formal complaint.
South Korea's strong response was seen as an attempt to show decisiveness after recent domestic political setbacks for President Lee Myung-bak, who had been nicknamed "The Bulldozer" as a construction company CEO for his ability to push through tough projects.
South Korean leaders have played on anti-Japanese sentiment before to appeal to Korean nationalism as a way to boost their standing. Many Koreans harbor resentment against Japan for its 1910-45 colonial rule.
Hong Joon-pyo, an official in Lee's ruling Grand National Party, told Parliament on Monday he would rally the country to block what he called "the Japanese ambition for territorial aggression."
South Korean lawmakers took helicopter trips to the islands Monday in a symbolic gesture.
South Korea's Coast Guard said it had increased the number of patrol boats and helicopters operating in the islands, and the National Police Agency instructed the 42 police stationed there to be on a high alert.
Japan has a similar dispute with Russia over several islands in the Kurile chain it calls the Northern Territories.