TOKYO -- Pent-up anger at Japan erupted this week into protests in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, triggered by a clash over a tiny ocean islet.
The new territorial dispute started after a report that Japan's Maritime Safety Agency would soon approve a new lighthouse on the Senkaku Islands. The lighthouse has been partially restored over the past decade by a private right-wing group in Japan.
Along with Okinawa, the islands were returned to Japan by the United States in the early 1970s. The United States gave its official approval to Japan's claim to the islands, which dates to the late 19th century. Both Taiwan and China also lay claim to the islands.
On Sunday, two Taiwanese boats tried to plant a flag on one of the islands, only to be chased away by the Japanese agency's sea craft and helicopters.
Anti-Japanese demonstrations have been held for several days by ethnic Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong, with officials in Taiwan and China protesting Japan's action.
The group of eight small islands, 120 miles northwest of Taiwan, measures about 4 square miles. Their only economic value lies in fishing rights and potential deep-sea oil. But that has little to do with the emotional outcry at Japan's action.
"Those islands are the territory of Japan. Taiwanese ships have done something which we regretted to see," said Taizo Watanabe, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman.
The dispute comes at an inauspicious time. Japan is debating the regionally sensitive issue of sending troops to the Middle East, and talks between Tokyo and Moscow are reaching a climax over Japan's claim to four other small islands held by the Soviet Union since World War II. The talks are timed for the visit of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to Tokyo next spring.
Japan, as a nation of islands, takes such disputes very seriously. Last year, for instance, the government completed a project to pour thousands of tons of concrete around a small outcrop that was being eroded away by waves -- and along with it, Japan's claim to a surrounding 200-mile economic zone. Known as Okinotori island, the spit of land is the southernmost point of Japan.
Another territorial dispute for Japan is an inhospitable chunk of rock in the Sea of Japan. Known as Takeshima by the Japanese, it is occupied by South Korea, which calls it Tokto. In 1977, Japan tried to lay claim to the island, touching off protests in Seoul. Since then, Korea has planted trees, dug a well and set up one family as island residents. Such steps help fulfill international rules on island claims.