SEOUL — If there were doubts about the passion some South Koreans feel over a group of barren islets off their east coast, a 61-year-old grandmother probably erased them when she sliced off her little finger in protest of a Japanese claim of sovereignty over the land.
Carried out with a sushi knife for maximum symbolic effect, the amputation Monday outside the Japanese Embassy here was only the most dramatic in a series of escalating protests over the volcanic islets known collectively as Dokdo. Park Kyoung Ja was joined in self-mutilation by her 40-year-old son as both shouted anti-Japan slogans and threatened to send their digits to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Throughout South Korea, people have been burning, defacing and stomping on Japanese flags. A man tried to immolate himself at the embassy by jumping into a heap of burning posters of Koizumi, and another protester launched a hunger strike. In the city of Taegu, local authorities arranged traffic so that vehicles would have to drive over a Japanese flag.
The protests rose to a crescendo Wednesday after a local assembly in Shimane, the Japanese prefecture closest to the islets, passed a resolution designating Feb. 22 as a day of celebration of Japanese claim to sovereignty over them. It was on that date in 1905, during the period when Japan was asserting colonial rule over the Korean peninsula, that the prefecture first laid claim to the islets, which it governed for a time.
The Japanese occupation of Korean territory, which ended with World War II, is one of the most bitter chapters in Korean history. Millions of Koreans were pressed into slavery by Japan as laborers or sex slaves.
As the local assembly approved the resolution Wednesday, South Korean television interrupted its regular programming with bulletins. The central government immediately sent a sharply worded letter to Tokyo denouncing what it called an "infringement of our territorial sovereignty."
"It's like being mugged. They're thieves!" yelled Lee Myong Jin, 64, one of hundreds of protesters who flocked to the Japanese Embassy after the vote. "South Koreans can never forgive over this issue."
Sovereignty over the islands, which have been administered by South Korea since 1953, is an unending issue for the nations, but the latest strife is the most heated in recent memory.
South Korea's indignation over Dokdo is in marked contrast to its muted reaction to North Korea's announcement last month that it had nuclear weapons. In fact, the Dokdo issue has been, if anything, a point of agreement between the estranged Korean neighbors.
North Korean radio Wednesday promptly denounced what it called "actions by Japanese reactionaries ... causing hostility among our people toward Japan to explode."
For the Bush administration, which needs the cooperation of Japan and South Korea in dealing with North Korea, the Dokdo flare-up comes at an inconvenient time. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due in the region this weekend and hopes to forge a consensus on reining in the North's nuclear program.
"On the face of it, this is a silly, silly issue, but it is really a needle that reaches into a very deep place in the Korean psyche," said Michael Breen, author of the book "The Koreans." "There is a feeling that the Japanese still haven't done what is necessary to distance themselves from their colonial past."
Almost everything about the islets is contentious, starting with the name. South Korea calls them Dokdo; Japan refers to them as Takeshima. The World Fact Book 2004, a U.S. government publication, uses the name Liancourt Rocks, a reference to a French ship that spotted them in the 19th century. Even the surrounding body of water is a point of debate: Known to most of the world as the Sea of Japan, it is called the East Sea by Koreans.
What is generally agreed on is that there isn't much to the islets. Their total land mass is about 46 acres, most of it jagged peaks, uninhabited except for a small contingent of South Korean police. Although there has been speculation that there could be natural gas reserves in the surrounding waters, the chief attractions now are fishing and bird watching.
In Tokyo, the Japanese government has tried to distance itself from the action of Shimane.
"Both sides need to deal with this in a level-headed manner, with the basic tone of friendship between Japan and South Korea not swayed too much by the recent emotional conflict," Koizumi said Wednesday.
On Feb. 23, Japan's ambassador to South Korea, Toshiyuki Takano, told foreign media that "there exists a clear difference of views between South Korea and Japan over the issue of Takeshima. It is historically and legally Japan's territory."
The ambassador has been recalled to Tokyo for consultations. South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon, meanwhile, postponed a visit to Japan last week, saying the Dokdo issue could take precedence.
A sign of how high tensions have been: South Korean fighter jets were scrambled last week to intercept a Japanese civilian aircraft that was on the verge of entering Korean airspace. The plane, which belonged to Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun and was trying to take photos, turned back after a warning.
The flap comes in what was supposed to be a year of celebrating the 40th anniversary of Japan and South Korea's establishment of diplomatic relations.
Gong Ro Myung, a former South Korean foreign minister who served as ambassador to Japan, noted that anniversaries tend to trigger such anger.
As for relations, he said: "I think they will survive and should survive.... Dokdo is ours. Whatever the Japanese prefecture does, it will not affect the ownership of Dokdo island at all -- unless they come and invade the island, which is unlikely in the 21st century."