TOKYO, Japan – Sensitive national anniversaries have a habit of arriving at the most inopportune moments.
Just as China appeared to move to quell anti-Japan protests that gripped dozens of cities over the weekend, any prospect of a quick end to the row over the Senkaku islands dimmed with the arrival of its “day of shame” – Tuesday marked the 81st anniversary of the Mukden Incident, the catalyst for the start of Japan’s occupation of northern China.
By Tuesday afternoon, protests had spread to about 100 cities. Japanese companies responded by shuttering factories and businesses, and warning expatriates to avoid demonstrations for their own safety.
Thousands of people had gathered outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing by early afternoon, but were vastly outnumbered by police and paramilitary teams and made to walk past in orderly groups of about 150 people.
More from GlobalPost: What Japan and China stand to gain, and lose, in Senkaku
While widespread, today’s demonstrations lacked the fervor of those that gripped dozens of cities over the weekend.
The embassy again became the target of plastic bottles hurled from the crowd, according to one report, but there were no repeats of the weekend’s violence, when Japanese factories, car dealerships and other businesses were torched or damaged.
In Shanghai, where Japan has considerable investments, only a few dozen people turned out in the city’s People’s Square, amid a heavy police presence.
Demonstrators repeated calls for a boycott of Japanese products, and called on their own government to assert its claims over the Senkakus, known as the Diaoyu islands in China.
As if an emotive anniversary was not enough to test US calls for both sides to “exercise restraint,” a flotilla of as many as 1,000 Chinese fishing boats was reportedly expected to arrive in waters around the islands late on Tuesday or early Wednesday.
Their presence at the epicenter of the worst bilateral crisis since Tokyo and Beijing normalized diplomatic relations 40 years ago, threatens to take the dispute to a new, and worrying, level.
The last time its coast guard clashed with a Chinese fishing boat off the Senkakus, in 2010, Japan detained the trawler’s captain, and China retaliated by limiting exports of rare earth metals. Then, as in 2005, the countries managed to quickly repair the admittedly limited economic and political damage, but there is more durability about this latest encounter.
More from GlobalPost: China livid after Japan 'buys' disputed Senkaku Islands from private owner
One Japanese newspaper has even suggested that the task of dispersing Chinese fishermen – assuming that they enter Japanese territorial waters – could prove too big for the coast guard alone, and raised the possibility of involvement by the self-defense forces
It would be wrong, though, to characterize the dispute as mere posturing over a few uninhabited rocks. Fishing rights aside, studies have suggested the islands sit amid huge gas reserves that could become the target of a regional scramble for new sources of energy.
That said, domestic political considerations are never far from the surface. The demonstrations and the vitriol aimed at “little Japan” are a useful diversion for China’s government as it proceeds with what has so far proved a less than seamless transition from one generation of Communist Party leaders to the next.
Japan’s embattled prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, needs to be seen to resist Chinese pressure ahead of a possible election in November in which his Democratic Party of Japan — weakened by an unpopular tax increase and internal defections — is expected to struggle.
In a strange twist, his main opponent as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party could be Nobuteru Ishihara, son of Tokyo governor Shintaro – a congenital China-baiter whose controversial plan to buy the Senkakus in April forced Noda’s government to step in with a rival bid, and set the country on a diplomatic collision course with its neighbor.
There have been suggestions that the protests will fizzle out once the Mukden anniversary has ended, and that threatened boycotts will be forgotten amid the countries’ mutual trade interests, which were worth a record $345 billion last year.
But with reports that two members of a Japanese nationalist group landed on one of the islands on Tuesday morning, plus the possible arrival of the Chinese fishing fleet in the coming hours, it may be some time before calm heads prevail.