- This event has passed.
Alexis Dudden on “Islands and Japan”
- Alexis Dudden (Professor of history at the University of Connecticut)
Islands increasingly contain the seas that surround them rather than the other way around. As a result, it is possible to imagine that oceans on globes of the future will be color-coded to match individual states: pinks, tans, yellows, and greens. Gone may be any remnant of the familiar blank blue given international law’s open-ended rules for itself. Changes to international law during the past several decades have begun to turn islands into points in the open sea with which to claim the ocean floor, meaning that their value in terms of national interests has shifted from what you see above the waterline to the ways in which islands radiate outwards onto the earth’s crust far below the surface. Part and parcel of this change has been redefinition of the ocean itself into a solid form, the planet’s only remaining area over which to name control.
Japan lies at the center of this monumental shift even if many Japanese are not yet aware of it (or anybody else for that matter). Japan’s leaders, however, demonstrate profound understanding of what is going on, making significant policy shifts during the first decade of the 21st century to align the nation to these changes. These people work together with international institutions, norms, and laws and group themselves collectively by defining Japan anew as a maritime state.
At the same time, however, Japan has territorial disagreements with each of its international neighbors — Russia, Korea, China, and Taiwan — in the form of sovereignty contests over tiny islands that are shards of Japan’s modern history of war and empire. The nation that wins exclusive control not only gets the island but the ocean floor, too. With the most to win, Japan has the most to lose. Looked at differently, although Tokyo has made these disputes a centerpiece of national policy, the nation’s practical ability to draw firm boundaries around itself remains at bay. Taken together, the moment reveals at once competing versions of pre-1945 histories throughout the region and highlights the fact that Japan’s borders are up for grabs. In simplest terms, Tokyo’s spatial understanding of the nation is critical to Northeast Asian regional co-operation or lack thereof.
Professor of history at the University of Connecticut
AlexisDudden is professor of history at the University of Connecticut. She has written extensively about Japan and Northeast Asia, publishing recently in Dissent, The Diplomat, and the Huffington Post among others. Her books include Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States and Japan’s Colonization of Korea, and she is currently a visiting research fellow at Princeton University writing a book about Japan’s territorial disputes and the changing meaning of islands in international law.