by Jon Day
TOKYO, Aug. 24 (Xinhua) -- The Japanese government has upped the ante in an escalating territorial dispute with South Korea on Friday, with Prime Minister Yoshiko Noda signing off on a resolution on the issue in parliament, that may further unsettle bilateral relations between the two neighbors.
As the territorial row rumbles on, diplomatic rhetoric and actions are being amped up on both sides with Tokyo once again calling South Korea's control over the disputed islands in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) "illegal," marking the first time this word has been officially adopted by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the opposition bloc -- a move that's certain to rile their South Korean counterparts.
Following Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba and Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto originally using the expression "illegal occupation" to describe South Korea's control of the disputed islands earlier in the week, Noda himself approved the description as part of an official resolution adopted Friday by Japan's lower house.
"South Korean control over the islands referred to as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea, constitutes an "illegal occupation" and Tokyo strongly urges Seoul to end it as soon as possible," the resolution, supported by both the ruling DPJ and opposition parties said.
The resolution also strongly denounces South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's unprecedented visit to the islands just days before the August 15 anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender and demands Seoul withdraw remarks Lee made, calling for Japan's Emperor Akihito to apologize for Japan's war-time colonial rule of the Korean Peninsular.
While it goes on to suggest that Japan is interesting in improving bilateral ties with South Korea, stating that South Korea is an "important" neighbor and for that reason the relationship needs to move on to a more amicable footing, Tokyo is simultaneously talking of ramping up protection of its territories.
"We can see from Tokyo's posturing that it's taking the territorial dispute with South Korea very seriously," independent political analyst Teruhisa Muramatsu told Xinhua.
"The previous (Naoto) Kan administration had seemed weak-kneed over territorial issues and with elections drawing closer, the government wants to show a new resilience to behavior and claims by South Korea it believes are illegal and unacceptable," Muramatsu said.
Muramatsu added that the language used in the new resolution was unequivocal and highlighted examples such as calls for the Japanese government to "take a decisive stance" over territorial protection and to do this "with grim determination."
"Noda's public support rate is at an all time low since his party took power in 2009, but the current territorial standoff and Tokyo's resolute position is more than just PR fro potential voters," political commentator and author Philip McNeil told Xinhua.
"Japan feels deeply insulted by what it feels are belligerent moves by South Korea and it will not simply rollover. South Korea returning the official letter from Noda protesting South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's unprecedented visit and comments as well as refusing to take the island dispute before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for arbitration, have led to Tokyo's stance firming and diplomatic and economic retributions from Tokyo will follow," McNeil said.
McNeil added that the Japanese public were becoming more open to the views from some politicians with nationalistic leanings, such as outspoken Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara who has floated the idea of purchasing another set of disputed islands, and the populist right-leaning mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, who recently and controversially said that there is no evidence that the Imperial Japanese Army forced Korean women and girls into sex slaves during World War Two.
"It's not necessarily that the public agrees with their views, but rather the passion they have for their country against a backwash of politicians who seem indifferent and lackluster and incapable of effecting change," McNeil said.
"This is what the public is responding to right now in the face of disputes with three countries, so with elections looming it's not really a great surprise to see more vigorous, nationalistic saber-rattling by politicians," he said.
Bilateral ties are beginning to unravel between the two nations, with Noda saying on Friday that South Korea returning the letter showed a "complete lack of level-headedness" and that he would now possibly refuse to meet with Lee on the sidelines of the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok in September.
Other senior ministers have also said upcoming appointments with their South Korean counterparts may also be canceled in light of the heightening feud.
Finance Minister Jun Azumi will be postponing this weekend's meeting with his counterpart in Seoul and Trade and Economy Minister Yukio Edano has decided not to hold bilateral talks with South Korean officials at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations economic ministerial meeting, which takes place later in August.
"In a news conference after the Cabinet meeting Friday, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano expressed strong concern, saying Lee's visit to the islands "is bound to have a huge adverse impact" on future prospects for bilateral economic ties," the Yomiuri Shimbun said in an editorial on the matter.
Some observers have suggested that South Korea now places less emphasis on its Japanese neighbor economically and hence is now in a position to be more brash about its territorial claims. In fact Lee has been quoted as saying that Japan's economic power is ebbing away.
South Korea's economy in 1996 was a third the size of Japan's, but of late has ballooned to half the size of Japan's, with companies like Samsung, LG and Hyundai flourishing.