Japan, China fishing boat row: a war of words

Just as the Diaoyu Islands row between Japan and China intensifies over the detention of a Chinese fishing captain, whose detention has just been extended by a further 10 days, a war of words has broken out between prominent bloggers Yoshikazu Kato and Zhang Wen.

Yoshikazu Kato, bilingual in Japanese and Chinese, is currently a student at Peking University and writes extensively on international relations, including a column for FT Chinese and a popular blog on iFeng. Meanwhile, Zhang Wen is a leading Chinese journalist, media commentator and blogger, with experience in leading Chinese and Western media such as the Guardian.

Kato recently commented on the incident in a blog entitled ‘The fishing boat row is a good learning opportunity,’ which is viewed by Zhang as a specious argument used for defending aggressive Japanese behaviors.

A good learning opportunity?

First, Kato comments that the incident is a good opportunity for China to learn about how the Japanese government operates:

过去,多数中国人不关心日本的行政制度和司法制度,把政治家、公务员、外交官、检察官全当成笼统的“官” 来看待,觉得他们既然是官就会受到某种统一领导,中国外交部门只要和这个统一的领导机关交涉就行了。但是这次事件与以往东海上的巡逻船、调查船之间的对峙不同,船只毕竟相撞了,日方已经采取了法律措施,把撞船事件的处理变成了一个涉及外交、司法和行政的综合性问题,单靠外交手段已经很难奏效了。日本的体制是,外交由政府负责,而司法系统完全独立于政府,而决定拘留渔船船长的检察官和法官,甚至在司法系统内部都有相当高的自主性。

In the past, most Chinese don’t care about how the Japanese executive and judicial systems operate. They rarely distinguish between politicians, civil servants, diplomats and prosecutors, but rather view them as a single group under the order of one department. Hence, they think that the Chinese Foreign Ministry only needs to deal with one Japanese department. But the current incident is different from past ones. After the crash, Japan has employed judicial measures, which means that the incident is not only a diplomatic problem, but also involves judicial and executive aspects. The Japanese system is that diplomacy is under the jurisdiction of the government, but the judicial system is completely independent. Even the prosecutor and judge, who make the decision to detain the captain, enjoy a high level of independence within the judicial system.

Zhang criticizes the argument as complete non-sense:


This paragraph is completely illogical. It is inappropriate for Japan to handle the Chinese captain with Japanese domestic laws, not to mention the fact that the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands is disputed. Furthermore, this is a diplomatic row initiated by Japan. If it should not be resolved through diplomatic means, are you saying that China should send in prosecutors, officials, or even soldiers?


By claiming that the Japanese ‘judicial system is completely independent,’ Kato is putting the cart before the horse. Although I admit that the Japanese system is superior that the Chinese one, Japan should not employ domestic laws and judicial measures in the first place, especially under the situation that the sovereignty of the islands is under dispute.

The Chinese government and nationalism

Kato then praises the Chinese government for its control of anti-Japanese protests within China, so that the strategic and economic relations between the two countries will not be damaged:


The more difficult the situation is, the more the Chinese government should do to control citizens’ attitudes on foreign affairs, and not to let political opportunists to benefit from the incident. The government should let the people know that achievements in foreign affairs are dependent on political, military and economic strengths, not the adventurism of a few Diaoyu Protection and Anti-Japan activists. Therefore, citizens should first thank the state. Even if the government has the ability for a military showdown, it is not willing to be forced by these activists to do so.

Zhang again claims that Kato’s argument is dubious, and has hidden agenda:


This paragraph shows the cunning nature of the Japanese. Beneath the praise, it is satirizing the Chinese government. It is also belittling Chinese nationalism and damaging its relationship with the state. Killing two birds with one stone.


No doubt, this paragraph describes the intention of the Chinese government, but it also has a hidden agenda of using the Chinese government to clamp down on anti-Japanese activists. I am opposed to extreme nationalism, but I support rational nationalism. I will be disappointed if the Chinese keep quiet in this incident! I have to correct Kato that anti-Japanese people are not only a few, but many. Although anti-Japanese protests are not wide-spread due to government control, I believe that many Chinese feel humiliated by the incident.


By his own dubious conclusion, Kato equates anti-Japanese people with political opportunists. Worse still, he is speaking on behalf of the Chinese government: the [Chinese government] is not willing to be forced [into a military showdown] by these activists.

The verdict

Finally, Kato concludes that this incident is a good opportunity for both countries to understand each other better:


The fishing boat row is a good chance for the citizens of Japan and China to learn about each other’s domestic politics. If it is dealt with satisfactorily, it will be a juncture for a rapprochement, and could even further lead to solutions to internal domestic problems which involve the opposite side.

And Zhang reiterates that Japan should be held responsible for the row:


I criticize the Chinese government for not acting more toughly, with the result that Japan is gradually grasping material control of the Diaoyu Islands. But my stance is real clear – that Japan starts the incident, and should bear historical responsibility for the deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations. Like the Japanese aggression on China during World War II, there is no room for Japan to defend.


  • zhuzidi

    Well that’s just missing the point.

    China’s point of view: Japan started this row because they arrested our fishermen in our territory.

    Japan’s point of view: China started this row because their fishermen were fishing in our territory.

    Both sides think they’re on the defensive against an aggressor. That’s the dispute, people. If everyone saw it the same way we wouldn’t be fighting over this.

    • tron

















  • RMilner

    When an incident like this occurs in disputed territory one solution is to allow a neutral third party to arbitrate.

  • RMilner

    The other issue is that if either boat was committing an error of navigation, then international law of the sea will have a concern.

  • Hmm

    Ok, I’m a third party so I’ll rate the various actors in this play:

    Chinese government – C
    Wants better relations with Japan but now has to overreact angrily to satisfy their public. They started the anti-Japan anti-West sentiment 20 years ago though, so they’re also responsible.

    Chinese media – F
    Stoking nationalism to sell papers. Firing anyone who isn’t “patriotic” enough (such as Chang Ping) Even faking news:

    Chinese netizens – D-
    The occasional rational post is drowned in an ocean of crazy.

    Japanese government – B-
    Should have realized how things were playing out in China and bent the rules to let Captain go. However at least they are acting calm and not playing tit-for-tat.

    Japanese netizens – C
    Peace, peace, love, love. Don’t you know how much China hates you?? Well, it’s partially the media’s fault because they go out of their way to hide Chinese opinion. The far right knows what’s going on, but they’re a bunch of nationalist troublemakers.

    Japanese media – A-
    The only rational actors. Minus a mark for hiding the true crazyness from the populace.

    Chinese intellectuals – C- Why is it that they lose all reasonableness when it’s a nationalist issue? Zhang Wen is the perfect example – arguing for democracy and the rule of law one day, and then suddenly frothing at the mouth. Seem unable to escape the “victimization” narrative.

    Japanese intellectuals – C
    Same as Japanese netizens above

  • tak

    As being a Japanese living outside of the country for more than 10 years, it is very frustrating to see how the Japanese government reacted upon the issue. Let’s lay down the issue, the Chinese ship intentionally hit the Japanese coast guard boat. Anyone tell me who can rationalize this act? I want to ask people in China, is it something that can be justified in China? hitting cost guard boat? If it is so, It is not definitely a country where the rights are protected.

    What frustrate me the most is that the Japanese government did not broadcast the video and GPS information to at least prove what really took place. At least. I have no clue why they did not show and if they ever intend to show? I have already lost the confidence in the Japanese government long time ago since they are too passive and reactive other than proactive. As a country, Japan is great. People live in Japan are very nice, polite, and good people (anyone who visited Japan can prove this to me). But I really hate and dislike how the government works in Japan. No good parental care provided to the family, no prime minister can speak up for the people of Japan, and no guts to say that “government will protect the people of Japan” in front of the world like Obama, Sarkozy, or Wen do. I really feel that Japanese government do not care to protect and support people of Japan, only care if their party is in power, lame and frustrated. cannot stop complaining about them, stop wasting our tax money and do the right thing for people of Japan.

  • clearminder

    Grace G- for the American government. It is the historical deed of Ameican hanging illegally the occupied Japanese Diaoyu Island to Japanese after the WWII. The whole Taiwan and Diaoyu Island should be returned to China after Japanese’s defeat in WWII. Japanese’s forceful occupation of the land through unjusticed treaty was ended after China defeated her after the eight years’ fight in WWII. American troops returned Taiwan but not the Diaoyu island to China after the WWII. Is it American’s purpose usually to leave something disrupted to bring dispute between countries when American due with international issue.
    Don’t fool others by claiming third party but not pointing the issue in a righteously way. Either a hypocrite or an idiot will do that.

  • […] cinese del Financial Times, questo incidente ha indignato gli utenti del web [cinese] più del conflitto sulle isole Diaoyu [en] che si è recentemente riacceso fra la Cina e il […]

  • Jean

    Just wondering what the Japanes citizens think about the slaughter of Dolphins by fishermen in the Cove at Taiji Japan? Do the citizens of Japan know that this is being done? Do they care at all that these intelligent inncent creatures are being slaughtered in such a horrible way?

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