China now claims Japan's Senkaku islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyu. South Korea claims Japan's Takeshima in the East China Sea, which Seoul calls Dokdo. Here history enters the quarrel.
In 1908, in the Root-Takahira Agreement, Theodore Roosevelt agreed to Tokyo's annexation of Korea in return for recognition of U.S. annexation of the Philippines.
Root-Takahira is a black page in Korean history. For Japan's occupation ran through World War II, when Korean girls were forced into prostitution as "comfort women" for Japanese troops. Tokyo and Seoul were Cold War allies, but these old wounds never healed.
The visit to Dokdo last week by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, cheered by his countrymen, represented a rejection of Japan's claim and an assertion that the islets belong to Korea.
Russia, too, has now gotten into the islands game.
Two days after the United States dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, the day before Nagasaki, Stalin declared war and sent Russian troops to seize the Kuril islands north of Japan and expel the population. Japan still claims the four southernmost islands of the Kuril chain.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev just stoked the flames of tribalism in both nations by visiting the Kuril island that is closest to Japan.
With China, South Korea and Russia asserting claims and making intrusions on islands Japan regards as sacred territory, Tokyo is taking a new look at rebuilding her armed forces.
On Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, two cabinet ministers visited the Yasukuni Shrine to the World War II dead. A new nationalism is rising in the Land of the Rising Sun. China and Russia may be nuclear powers, but Japan could join that club swiftly should she chose to do so.
The bipolar world of the Cold War is history. The new world order, however, is not the One World dreamed of by Wilsonian idealists. It is a Balkanizing world where race, tribe, culture and creed matter most, and democracy is seen not as an end in itself but as a means to an end -- the accretion of power by one's own kind to achieve one's own dreams.
As Abraham Lincoln said in another time, when an old world was dying and a new world was being born, "As our situation is new, let us think and act anew."
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