When the flotilla of 21 fishing boats arrived at an island chain at the center of a growing territorial dispute with China, the captains warned the dozens of activists and politicians aboard not to attempt a landing.
Ten of the activists jumped into the shark-infested waters anyway, swimming ashore on Sunday and planting the rising sun flag that evokes painful memories of Imperial Japan’s 20th-century march across Asia.
“We feel that they dragged us into an international incident,” said Masanori Tamashiro, one of the boat captains.
That feeling is widely shared in Japan, where a small number of nationalists has pushed the country to assert itself more boldly to counter China’s and South Korea’s economic rise and China’s quickly evolving territorial ambitions. The conflict with China has raised the specter that the United States, Japan’s longtime defender, could be pulled into the fight.