TOKYO, Feb 22 (Reuters) Japan vowed today to make cool-headed efforts to resolve a simmering territorial dispute with South Korea over two rocky islets midway between the Asian neighbours.
In a move likely to anger South Korea, a local government in western Japan was set to hold a ceremony to mark its ''Takeshima Day'' later today.
The tiny islands, located about the same distance from the mainland of Japan and South Korea, are known as Tokto in Korean and Takeshima in Japan.
''Our position on the ownership of Takeshima has been consistent,'' Japan's top government spokesman, Shinzo Abe, told reporters.
''We should not stir up the feelings of the people of both countries and we will continue our efforts to resolve the matter calmly.'' The bilateral relationship markedly deteriorated a year ago after the prefectural assembly of Shimane in western Japan adopted a local law designating February 22 as ''Takeshima Day'', sparking South Korean protests.
Resentment of Japan's often brutal 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean peninsula runs deep in South Korea, and many there see Tokyo's claims to the two islands as at an attempt to justify its wartime past.
South Koreans were also angered by Japan's approval last year of a history textbook by nationalist scholars that critics say whitewashes the wartime past and by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo, where convicted war criminals are honoured along with Japanese war dead.
In Seoul today about 20 South Korean protesters gathered near the Japanese embassy demanding Japan relinquish its claim to the islands. They also demanded Koizumi apologise for his annual visits to Yasukuni.
The protesters burned a Japanese flag and a picture of Koizumi.
Scores of riot police were on hand to prevent the protesters from making their way to the embassy and to make sure the fires did not get out of hand.
''Tokto is our land'', read one sign written in Korean.
South Korean officials said on Monday that a South Korean fisherman, his wife and a crew member had taken up residence on the disputed islets.
South Korea maintains a small garrison of police on the islands, which have almost no flat surfaces or fresh water.
South Korea's Maritime Ministry refurbished a building for fishermen on the island where the trio will be living. It has living quarters, a kitchen and a generator.
REUTERS SI SSC1035