The protests spread over China over the weekend, as large mobs demanded that Japan hand over control of a small island chain known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan.
The row between Japan and China has led to violent attacks on well-known Japanese businesses such as car-makers Toyota and Honda, forcing frightened expatriates into hiding and sending relations between Asia’s two biggest economies into crisis, writes Reuters.
In Beijing, demonstrators pelted the Japanese embassy with eggs and rocks, in front of masses of paramilitary police.
The protests focused mainly on Japanese diplomatic missions but also targeted shops, restaurants and car dealerships in at least five cities. Toyota and Honda reported arson attacks had badly damaged their stores in Qingdao.
According to The Telegraph, more than 1,000 protesters in Guangdong burned Japanese flags and stormed a hotel next to the Japanese consulate, while in the central city of Chengdu there was even an attempt by protesters to take their grievances to the US consulate.
An official at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing said they were the largest anti-Japanese demonstrations since 1972, when the two countries restored diplomatic ties.
However, points out The Wall Street Journal, there were signs that neither Japan nor China wants an escalation of tensions that could damage wider economic relations. Mr. Noda, while insisting on Japan’s sovereignty over the disputed islets, also called for “levelheadedness.”
“I will strongly demand to the Chinese government that it ensure their safety, and at the same time I will protest” over the violence, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said.
“It is important to remember that we are the world’s second- and third-largest economies, and growth in China means opportunities for Japan,” he said. “It is important for both sides to respond while thinking calmly of [the importance of] deepening such mutually beneficial, strategic relationships,” he said.
Leon Panetta, the US Defence secretary, arrived in China on Sunday and warned that territorial tensions could bubble over into conflict.
“I am concerned that when these countries engage in provocations of one kind or another over these various islands, that it raises the possibility that a misjudgement on one side or the other could result in violence, and could result in conflict,” he said.
“It is in everybody’s interest … for Japan and China to maintain good relations and to find a way to avoid further escalation,” he told reporters In Tokyo.
Chinese state media also sought to limit the damage. In some cases during the weekend protests, “patriotic acts exceeded the boundary of reason and legitimacy and conversely turned into the destruction of other people’s property and violated compatriots’ reasonable interests,” read a commentary in the Changjiang Daily, a state-backed newspaper in the central city of Wuhan.
“Smoking city blocks, overturned cars, faces contorted with anger – these are not the images of a civilised society,” the Beijing Youth Daily wrote on Sunday.
The overseas edition of the People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, warned that Beijing could resort to economic retaliation if the dispute festers.
“How could be it be that Japan wants another lost decade, and could even be prepared to go back by two decades,” said a front-page editorial in the newspaper. China “has always been extremely cautious about playing the economic card”, it said.
“But in struggles concerning territorial sovereignty, if Japan continues its provocations, then China will take up the battle,” the paper said.
However, the nationalist Global Times newspaper suggested the protests were strengthening China’s position against Japan in the struggle for the islands.
“China’s strong expression of its anger and countermeasures are legitimate and reasonable,” it said, in an editorial. “With a high level of support from the public, China is gaining the upper hand psychologically in such a contest.”