HONG KONG—Thousands of people in China and Japan staged tit-for-tat protests at the weekend amid a row over disputed islands, reigniting tensions between Asia’s two biggest economies.
The protests erupted despite moves by the two neighbors to ease the strains over competing claims for islands in the East China Sea.
Observers had thought ties were on the mend after Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and his Japanese counterpart Naoto Kan held a surprise meeting this month in Brussels.
In China, over 10,000 people in total turned out in anti-Japan protests in several cities on Oct. 16, as nationalist sentiment was stirred up by the row triggered last month when Japan detained a Chinese fishing boat captain near the disputed islands.
The sometimes violent demonstrations were believed to be the largest in more than five years as the protestors gathered in the cities of Chengdu, Xi’an, Zhengzhou, and Hangzhou.
Protesters also turned out in Mianyang, Sichuan province on Oct. 17, where they clashed with police, threw rocks at a Japanese restaurant, and broke car windows, Radio Television Hong Kong reported.
"Japan is in danger"
In Japan, nationalist groups rallied in central Tokyo against China's "invasion" of the islands and delivered a protest note to the Chinese embassy, news agencies reported.
They carried banners with such messages as "Japan is in danger!" and "Don't forgive invader China!"
Organizers estimated the crowd at more than 3,200 people, and said Internet broadcasts of the event drew 10,000 viewers.
In the Chinese cities, protesters decried Japan's claim on what Beijing calls the Diaoyu islands. Japan calls them the Senkaku islands.
A reporter for China’s Shaanxi TV in Xi’an surnamed Ma told RFA that the demonstration in the city began around noon and went on until late night, lasting over 10 hours before riot police and public security persuaded the protesters to leave.
“There were armed police, wearing helmets and masks and carrying shields and batons,” he said.
Video of the demonstration in Xi’an showed people in Zhonglou Square shouting “Go China!” and singing the national anthem.
The protesters targeted Japanese businesses and shops selling Japanese products.
“There is a place called the ‘Yuan Shan Japanese Restaurant’ and on the sign above it the words ‘Yuan Shan’ are still there but the words ‘Japanese Cuisine’ were destroyed,” Ma said.
There is also a Canon Electronics store … that was destroyed and did not open today,” he said.
“I saw it. There was a march with many people carrying the Chinese national flag,” a woman surnamed Wang who observed the demonstration in Xi’an said.
A staff member at an Ito Yokado store in Chengdu that was damaged on Oct.16 told RFA that the store’s glass had been smashed and that security was tightened when it reopened a day later.
Protests in China are often quickly shut down or heavily controlled by the authorities.
The Chinese government said the protests were “understandable” but called on the public to express their outrage in a rational way.
“We maintain that patriotism should be expressed rationally and in line with law. We don’t agree with irrational actions that violate laws and regulations,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said early Sunday, according to Xinhua.
The Chinese protests were the first large-scale anti-Japanese rallies after those in 2005 to protest then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including war criminals.
Japan, following warnings from Beijing, had already released the Chinese captain, who was detained after a collision between vessels from the two countries near the contested islands in September.
Reported by Qiao Long for Radio Free Asia’s Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.