TSUSHIMA, Japan (AFP) — With South Korea's bustling Busan visible on a clear day, the Japanese island of Tsushima is again living out the centuries-old curse of being stuck between the nations.
This island covered by lush green hills saw its fortunes rise as the Asian nations reconciled in recent years, but now is back in the crosshairs with a group of South Korean lawmakers staking a claim to it.
Signboards at many restaurants and shops in Tsushima, 49.5 kilometers (31 miles) from Busan, are written in both Japanese and Korean. Korean families pack temples and other tourist spots, while Korean songs echo at night from the karaoke bars.
"Tsushima is an island at the mercy of relations between the two countries," Tsushima Mayor Yasunari Takarabe, a 50-year-old native of the territory, said in a quiet voice.
"We have a history of exchanges for 2,000 years," he told AFP at his office, where a Japanese flag hangs on the wall together with an emblem of friendship with a South Korean sister city.
"We've gone through hardships from time to time. But unless we get rid of the island, we can't help but live together," the mayor said. "I guess it's our destiny."
Japan last month took the controversial decision to guide schools to teach that another set of islands between the countries -- Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korea -- is part of Japanese territory.
Seoul, which controls the uninhabited islets 350 kilometers east of Tsushima, responded by staging military exercises. Around 50 South Korean lawmakers also handed a resolution to parliament demanding that Seoul claim Tsushima.
"Whenever Japan attempted to make Dokdo a subject of international dispute, we've reacted meekly. We need to react strongly this time," Huh Tae-Yeol, a lawmaker of the ruling Grand National Party, said in Seoul.
Korean activists also took their protest to Tsushima itself, holding a rally in late July outside the city hall with a banner reading, "Dokdo and Tsushima are both South Korean territory."
To show the appeal's seriousness, one protester cut his finger to draw blood.
The dispute is worrying to Tsushima, where fishing is by far the biggest industry but a burgeoning tourism industry has raised hopes.
The number of Korean visitors, many of them on fishing trips, surged 56 percent from a year earlier to some 65,000 last year, compared with the island's population of 38,000, according to the city.
"But the number of Korean visitors has been slightly declining since last month. I'm afraid it's because of Takeshima," said Lee Hyo-Yun, a Korean salesclerk at a stand on a ferry connecting Busan and Tsushima.
A local government official in Busan, whom Tsushima invited to an annual festival as the main guest from South Korea, cancelled his attendance as a protest over the territorial dispute.
"South Korea is close to us in one sense but far from us in the other sense," said Tsugio Masumoto, a 51-year-old construction worker.
Tsushima first formed diplomatic ties with Korea in the 14th century, trading cloth and copper while jointly fighting pirates.
"Historically, Tsushima has played a role of mediator, even at great risk to itself," said Yuichi Tawara, a researcher at the Tsushima Museum of History and Ethnology.
In the late 1590s, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who unified Japan out of warring states, used Tsushima as a base to invade Korea.
But only a decade later, Toyotomi's successor, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, asked the island to help bring peace.
Tsushima's leaders secretly forged letters between Japan's Tokugawa shogunate and Korea's Josen dynasty as part of a plot that led the countries to resume diplomatic ties in 1607.
Tsushima's samurais later escorted Korean missions into Japan, who were almost the only foreigners allowed in during the island nation's two and a half centuries of strict isolation.
Japan ruled the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, an era over which many Koreans remain bitter. South Korea unsuccessfully asked the United States after World War II to hand over Tsushima from Japan.
South Korea, however, did not give it up. In 2005, the southeastern city of Masan designated a day for Tsushima as a countermeasure against similar measures by Japan's Shimane prefecture over Takeshima.
Some Koreans visiting Japan say that the discord should not affect relations between people.
"I think we should differentiate the relationship between two countries and the relationship between individuals," said Choi Eui-Hyun, a 29-year-old South Korean student visiting Shimane in an exchange programme.
"I think the Koreans and the Japanese should get along well because we are neighbours," she said. "We should keep talking and should resolve problems peacefully."
But Kenzo Ota, a Japanese businessman in Tsushima, resented Korean claims to the island.
"It's a groundless argument with a lot of emotion," he said.
South Koreans are "acting as if they entered into someone else's house with their shoes on," Ota said.
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