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Friday, Sep. 7, 2012

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Visitors pass among 100 Doraemon figures, each in a different pose, at an Aug. 14 exhibition in Hong Kong. KYODO

H.K. expats: Senkaku spat nonissue

Latest flareup over disputed islets raises issue of true ethnic identity

Staff writer

Video images of angry activists in Hong Kong that have flooded Japanese and Chinese media over the past three weeks and massive anti-Japan rallies staged on mainland China have left Hong Kongers residing in Japan feeling highly uneasy.

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A man hoists China's flag aboard a boat used by Chinese activists to land on one of the Senkaku Islands after their return to Hong Kong on Aug. 22. KYODO

Hong Kong natives recently interviewed by The Japan Times in Tokyo said they basically have little interest in the territorial row that has erupted anew between the two countries over the Japan-held Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, and are keeping their distance from the simmering nationalistic sentiment on the mainland.

"Most of the people I know in Hong Kong don't really care" about the sovereignty dispute, said one of them, a woman who works at an investment bank in Tokyo who asked to be identified only by her surname, Lam.

Hong Kongers, as many call themselves in English, are usually preoccupied with their personal lives and pay little heed to political or historical issues between China and Japan, Lam said.

Indeed, made-in-Japan products and Japanese pop culture for years have been particularly popular in Hong Kong, while Japan is one of the most popular tourist destinations for the region's residents.

But at the same time, some from Hong Kong find nationalism and the Senkaku islets row sensitive topics and fear angering elderly Hong Kongers and other Chinese if they fail to express similar opinions.

Hong Kong's long-term elderly citizens still remember the suffering of Chinese and others during Japan's occupation of the former British colony and parts of the mainland. Anti-Japanese sentiment remained widespread in Hong Kong until the 1960s and '70s.

"I don't see many young (Hong Kong) people who care about" the territorial row, said Kiu Kiu GiGi Ho, who traveled to Japan on a working holiday in 2010 and now works full time in Tokyo.

"(But) when I said working in Japan is OK (or) not too bad, something like that, my mom said: 'Please don't say Japan is good. Now is a very sensitive time,' " Ho said.

She said her mother doesn't have any specific political leanings, but is worried about her daughter remaining in Japan following the anti-Japanese protests in mainland China, fearing she could be caught up in a potential backlash.

A 52-year-old man from Hong Kong who has lived in Japan since the mid-1980s also said the territorial issue matters little to him, but asked to remain anonymous because it is still "a very sensitive issue."

"I really don't know which side the islands belong to, China or Japan. I didn't study modern history at school, as many Hong Kong people don't," he said. "I think Japan has done lots of good things for China (after the war), such as providing lots of (developmental) funds. But this is not widely known."

On the unauthorized Aug. 15 landing by Chinese activists on one of the Senkaku islets and their capture by the Japan Coast Guard and subsequent deportation, he said: "I think Japan should arrest (the activists) and put them on trial because it's illegal entry. Otherwise, they will come again and this (row) will just be repeated many times."

A 35-year-old man from Hong Kong who also declined to be identified said it is his understanding that Chinese may have discovered the islets first back in ancient times but added that this does not automatically make them part of China's territory.

After Japan's surrender in World War II, the United States seized the islets, regarding them as having been under Japan's administration, and no objections were raised by other countries at the time, he pointed out.

"Because of natural resources under the sea (around the Senkakus that were first indicated by a U.N. commission in 1969), this became an issue. It's highly political," he said.

Hong Kong's population has a high percentage of mainland Chinese who fled with their kin to what was then a British colony to escape communist rule.

Even after the 1997 handover to China, the special administrative region still enjoys relative freedom of speech and many of its citizens openly voice opposition to the Chinese Communist Party, rejecting any political influence the mainland tries to exert over them.

At the same time, most Hong Kong residents are ethnic Chinese and this apparent contradiction often gives rise to a mixed sense of identity.

"If you ask about my feeling about (the Senkaku) dispute between the two countries, it's really complicated. When I was a child, I was told the islands have belonged to China since ancient times. But I was still 'British,' at least nominally, so it was none of my business," Sunny Yip, now in Japan on a working holiday, wrote in an email exchange with The Japan Times.

"(But) after I came to Japan, I realized that this issue really matters to me. My boss talked about it (and of course saying the Chinese administration is really bad), my friends from Hong Kong and Japan talk about it," he wrote.

Yip feels "the attitude of the Japanese government is not proper" since the latest flareup of the decades-old row was triggered by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara's announcement that the metropolitan government plans to purchase three of the islets from a Saitama Prefecture businessman who holds the title to them.

But Yip said he is "standing in the middle" and does not want to take sides, writing, "Whoever might own the islands, I really think the governments (of China, Japan and Hong Kong) should focus more on the issues of their (own) countries/regions first."

Toru Kurata, associate professor at Kanazawa University and an expert on China-Hong Kong affairs, noted that many Hong Kongers deep down have complex feelings about their ethnic identity.

The activists who landed on the Senkakus are well-known anticommunist radicals who have demanded democracy in China and Hong Kong. They are harsh critics of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on the democracy movement and of other human rights abuses on the mainland.

Still, the same activists tried to raise China's national flag after landing on the islet of Uotsuri, somewhat puzzling behavior given their stance toward the mainland.

"They love China but don't trust the Communist Party. For them, it's not a contradiction," Kurata explained.

"They are indeed Hong Kongers and (favor democracy), but they are (Chinese) nationalists as well."

Kurata also said that this time, a majority of residents in Hong Kong reacted coolly to the Senkaku landing because they are tired of years of political grandstanding by activist groups.

In Hong Kong, a nationalistic campaign calling for the "reversion" of the disputed islets started in the 1970s. In recent years, however, the movement led by Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, as the islets are referred to by China, has lost momentum and is struggling amid a shortage of donations.

To be sure, many supporters welcomed the return of their nationalist heroes when the committee's protest boat arrived back at Victoria Harbor on Aug. 22. But a far larger crowd gathered at a venue next to the same pier for a festival celebrating the creation of Doraemon, Japan's most popular manga character and one loved by many in Hong Kong.

"It's not (true that) lots of people have very strong negative feelings about Japan. I think most (people in) Hong Kong actually love Japan," Lam, the Tokyo investment bank employee, said.

Asked about broader historical issues that regularly strain ties between Beijing and Tokyo, Lam said she feels Japan has yet to make a satisfactory apology for the war Japan waged in China in the 1930s and 1940s, as Germany did following its World War II surrender.

In Japan, not many people really know exactly what happened during the war, she said, "but in China, they actually put lots of focus on telling people how Japan treated" Chinese during the occupation.

Simon Leung, a dentist from Hong Kong who now lives and works in Yokohama, viewed the constant bilateral tensions calmly.

"I don't think you can say clearly which side the islands belonged to in the past, whether China or Japan. The important thing now is that they are under Japan's control," he said.

"Mongolians once advanced into East Asia and Europe and created a huge empire. But no one would listen if they said that is still their territory because they once owned it in the past."

Leung appealed to both countries to resolve the isle row through peaceful dialogue, and to resign themselves to the reality that periodic tensions will continue to flare up over the issue.

"The closer their relationship is, people will have arguments more often. Countries are like that, too, and that's just the way it is."

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