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Friday, September 01, 2006

(CNN) -- The following is a look at the relations between Japan and some of its most important regional neighbors.

Distrust between Asia's two leading powers has simmered for more than six decades, but hit new lows in April 2005 when the biggest anti-Japanese protests in China since the two established ties in 1972 took place.

The main catalyst for the unrest was China's anger over Japan's whitewashing of wartime atrocities in textbooks -- especially the Nanjing massacre and the use of "comfort women" sex slaves by the Japanese.

Protesters across China also took aim at Japan's leaders for visiting a shrine for the war dead that includes criminals, its bid for a U.N. Security Council seat and its handling of drilling rights in a part of the East China Sea claimed by both nations.

Analysts say relations will likely remain volatile in the years ahead -- especially as the two tussle over who will become the dominant power in Asia in the 21st century.

"With the two engaged in very emotional issues, the long term outlook is far less certain," Eric Heginbotham, a senior fellow of Asia studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, told CNN.

South Korea
"The political relationship is likely to remain poor, with more frequent and possibly more severe outbursts, unless Japan deals with its history more forthrightly," Heginbotham said.

In South Korea, there have been street protests and lawsuits in recent years over the sufferings of Korean "comfort women" who were forced into sexual slavery during Japan's harsh 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean peninsula.

Another flashpoint is territorial disputes, including the long-standing tussle between Seoul and Tokyo over a group of islets known as Takeshima in Japan and Tokto in Korea.

This dispute flared up recently, leading to protests in Seoul in 2005.

South Korea is also upset that a civics textbook approved in April 2005 reiterated Japan's claim to the islands.

Nonetheless, their futures are intrinsically linked, given their geographical closeness and the massive trade between the two.

Japan analyst David Powers believes the relationship is unlikely to change anytime soon.

"But like most neighbors, they have little choice but to try to get on with each other. It will probably involve both sides making a considerable effort," Powers told the BBC.

North Korea
Japan and North Korea, which do not have diplomatic relations, are at odds over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and missile programs, and the communist country's alleged past kidnappings of Japanese citizens.

In early July 2006, North Korea test-fired seven missiles, including a failed attempt to launch a long-range rocket believed to be capable of reaching the western United States.

All the missiles fell into the sea between North Korea and Japan, but the tests raised fears that Pyongyang was targeting Japan.

Tokyo slapped limited sanctions on the communist country and pushed for a punitive U.N. Security Council resolution.

Japan claims that at least 11 nationals were abducted by North Korea in eight cases between 1977 and 1983, apparently for espionage training.

The abduction issue is the main stumbling block to normal ties between the two countries.

In turn, North Korea has been angered over Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's numerous visits to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine.

Among those honored at the shrine are more than 1,000 convicted war criminals executed by the allies after World War II.

Pyongyang has called the visits "indiscreet," according to The Associated Press, adding that the shrine is "a symbol of militarism, in spite of the unvarying opposition from the international community."

Though faring better than North Korea and China, Japan's relationship with Russia is marred by an on-going and often bitter territorial dispute.

This was highlighted in August when Russian border security guards fired on a Japanese crab boat in disputed waters, killing a fisherman.

The incident took place off Kaigara, one of several islands that has been disputed between the two nations since the end of WW II.

Each country claims the fishing boat was in its own territorial waters at the time of the shooting.

The island dispute has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty formally ending World War II hostilities, according to The Associated Press.

The surrounding waters are rich in fish and believed to have promising offshore oil and natural gas reserves, as well as gold and silver deposits.

Russian authorities have seized dozens of Japanese boats and injured several fishermen over the years, but this was the first shooting death of a Japanese in the region since October 1956, AP reported.

United States
Koizumi is a staunch ally of U.S. President George W. Bush.

Koizumi has repeatedly endorsed the U.S.-backed six-party talks in dealing with North Korea's nuclear program, and has been a strong backer of Washington's war in Iraq.

Koizumi dispatched 600 Japanese military troops to Iraq in early 2004, saying they were needed to aid reconstruction, secure oil supplies and bolster ties with Washington.

"I think the stronger the Japan-US alliance is, the better Japan's relations with China, South Korea and other Asian nations would be," Koizumi said, according to the BBC.

Though the troops have since been withdrawn, Koizumi promised continual support in Iraq.

In turn, Bush has praised Koizumi for helping to "spread freedom and democracy," and said the US would continue to press for a permanent seat for Japan at the UN Security Council, the BBC said.

Category: Japan, China, South Korea, North Korea and USA.

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