TOKYO — Japan temporarily recalled its ambassador to China on Sunday in response to renewed friction over a disputed island group, while it faces discord with its allies South Korea and the United States over women forced to work in Japanese brothels during World War II.
Though minor, the diplomatic flare-ups underscore how disagreements over history and territory continue to isolate Japan from the rest of Asia. They come after several years of relative calm in which Tokyo seemed to mend fences with neighbors still traumatized by Imperial Japan’s brutal, early-20th-century march across Asia.
The dispute over Asian and Dutch women forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers in wartime brothels has even put Tokyo at odds with its postwar protector, the United States. Unconfirmed reports that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has banned the use of the Japanese euphemism “comfort women” in favor of the more direct “sex slaves” prompted a curt retort last week in the Japanese Parliament by the foreign minister, Koichiro Gemba, who called the latter term “a mistaken expression.”
Under its conservative prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, Japan has tried to challenge some of the assertions about the women, who many historians say were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military but who many Japanese say willfully worked as prostitutes. Those assertions have drawn angry reactions in South Korea, where they are seen as signs that Tokyo remains unrepentant for its harsh colonization of the Korean Peninsula. On July 9, an irate South Korean drove his truck into the front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
Mr. Noda has similarly provoked Beijing, with a move this month to defend Japan’s claims to islands in the East China Sea that China and Taiwan also claim. Last week, China apparently responded by sending three fishery patrol ships into waters around the uninhabited islands, between Okinawa and Taiwan, which are known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.
On Sunday, Japan’s ambassador to China, Uichiro Niwa, returned to Tokyo for what Japanese officials said were discussions over how to prevent the island dispute from further damaging ties between the two Asian powers.
“We’ll send him back to Beijing soon after he finishes” the discussions, the foreign minister, Mr. Gemba, said late Saturday in Hanoi, Vietnam. Mr. Gemba had already lodged a protest with Beijing over the entry by the Chinese ships.
Mr. Noda announced plans for the central government to buy three of the uninhabited islands, which are owned by a Japanese citizen, after Tokyo’s rightist governor announced that he wanted to buy them. China says Japan seized the islands after winning a late-19th-century war between the two nations. Virtually worthless in their own right, the islands are near rich fishing grounds and possible undersea oil and natural gas deposits.
Mr. Gemba was in Southeast Asia to attend a regional meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, that failed on Saturday to find agreement on how to respond to China’s separate territorial claims in the South China Sea, which are disputed by Vietnam and several other nations in the region.
On the sidelines at that meeting, Mr. Gemba was expected to hold a routine meeting with the South Korean foreign minister, Kim Sung-hwan. But the meeting never happened because the two nations remained too far apart on the issue of sex slaves and a scuttled military pact, Japanese news media reported.
The pact, which would have allowed the Japanese and South Korean militaries to swap information on North Korea and China, was aborted at the last minute after an eruption of public opposition in South Korea over closer ties with its former colonial master.
Dormant for years, the sex-slaves issue suddenly got renewed attention in May after Japan’s consul general in New York tried to have a monument to the sex slaves removed from a public park in New Jersey. The move raised the ire of Korean-American groups, which rippled across the Pacific Ocean to South Korea.
Many of the sex slaves were Koreans, and some of them, now in their 70s and 80s, still hold vigils in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. They are demanding compensation and an apology; Japan says all war-related claims were settled when it established diplomatic ties with South Korea in 1965.