updated 3/15/2005 10:08:27 PM ET 2005-03-16T03:08:27

A provincial assembly voted Wednesday to assert Japan’s territorial claim over a cluster of South Korean-held islands, raising the stakes in a dispute that has strained relations between the two countries.

The Shimane Prefectural Assembly approved a measure making Feb. 22 “Takeshima Day” to celebrate Tokyo’s claim of sovereignty over volcanic islets known in Korean as Dokdo, said assembly official Miho Fukushiro. The outcroppings are surrounded by rich fishing waters.

Passions over the islands have escalated rapidly in recent weeks. A Seoul city assemblyman was apprehended by police outside the Shimane legislature early Wednesday for allegedly trying to cut off one of his fingers in protest.

Two South Korean demonstrators each cut off a finger on Monday in a protest outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, and Tokyo recalled its ambassador.

Reflecting the tensions, police were out in force Wednesday in Matsue, 380 miles west of Japan, to guard against disturbances. In addition to South Korean protesters, Japanese right-wing extremists circled the area in sound trucks blasting nationalist slogans and songs.

Isles of friction
The volcanic islets have long caused diplomatic friction between the two countries. South Korea has stationed a small detachment of police on the otherwise uninhabited islets, effectively controlling them.

Proponents of the ordinance say it is designed to promote Japan’s territorial rights over the islets. Japan’s Foreign Ministry insists Takeshima is “historically and legally part of the Japanese territory.”

Many South Koreas, however, have been enraged by the claim, and the dispute has revived anger at Japan stemming from Tokyo’s harsh 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

Earlier this month, Shimane’s public announcement advocating Japan’s sovereignty over the islets on three local TV networks prompted South Korea’s North Gyeongsang Provincial council, which has local jurisdiction over the disputed islets, to officially request the Japanese prefecture to withdraw the ad and its claims to the islets.

South Korean activists have also pushed for their government to establish a “Dokdo Day” on Oct. 25 — the date South Korea officially declared its sovereignty over the islets in 1900.

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