These Islands Are Ours
The Social Construction of Territorial Disputes in Northeast Asia
Alexander Bukh



ONE OF THE FIRST HISTORIC SITES a foreign visitor to South Korea notices is neither the majestic Gyeongbokgung Palace nor the solemn Bulguksa Temple. Nor is it the expansive Gyeongju Historical Areas complex designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, but rather a group of remote and tiny disputed islets known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan. The exposure to Dokdo starts even before one reaches the capital, with a government-sponsored video clip explaining the importance of the islets to Korea, Korea’s rights to ownership, and Japan’s hideous claims to the islets being played on the express train to Seoul from the Incheon airport. Probably only a few of the foreign tourists make it to the islets, as the journey is cumbersome and can be quite costly. One, however, is continuously reminded of Dokdo while in Korea, as the islets are omnipresent in numerous posters, signs, and placards throughout Seoul and other Korean cities.

In Tokyo, the presence of Takeshima is somewhat less noticeable. However, it features prominently in official publications, websites, and, recently, school textbooks as well. A pamphlet centrally placed on Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs webpage dedicated to Japan-Korea relations states that the islets are indisputably part of Japan’s territory, illegally occupied by Korea. A video clip on the website of the Cabinet Secretariat’s Office of Policy Planning and Coordination on Territory and Sovereignty features a picture book that depicts the peaceful fishing activities by Japanese fishermen on the islets prior to the Korean takeover and the tragedy of their loss. In 2016, electronic copies of this book were distributed by the government to over thirty thousand primary and middle schools across the country.

Hundreds of kilometers away from the centers of political power in Seoul and Tokyo, in a small hotel in Japan’s Shimane Prefecture’s capital, Matsue, Choi Jae-ik, chairman of a Seoul-based civic group called the National Front of Dokdo Guardians, holds a press conference. Together with a handful of supporters, he annually travels to Japan from Korea to protest Shimane Prefecture’s “Takeshima Day” ceremony, aimed at commemorating Imperial Japan’s 1905 incorporation of the islets. During the press conference, Choi makes a placard written with his own blood in which he denounces Japan’s attempts to steal the islets and demands a revocation of the Takeshima Day ordinance. In the 1980s, Choi took an active part in Korea’s democratization movement and was an avowed socialist. In the late 1990s, he became one of the founding members of the “Protect Dokdo” movement. Today he makes a living as a kindergarten caretaker, while most of his free time and money is devoted to organizing demonstrations and holding various gatherings related to the “protection” of Dokdo.

It is a twenty-minute walk from Choi’s hotel to Shimane’s Prefectural Assembly, whose members enacted the Takeshima Day ordinance in 2005. Although the birthplace of numerous national-level powerful politicians, including one prime minister, Shimane Prefecture is one of Japan’s least economically developed prefectures and before enacting the Takeshima Day ordinance rarely appeared even in the national news. Before 2005, it had a multifaceted “sister prefecture” relationship with Korea’s North Gyeongsang Province, which administers the disputed islets. The two regional governments conducted numerous cultural and expertise exchange programs and cooperated in facilitating tourism between the two regions. Most of these ties were severed after the passage of the ordinance, which did not bring any tangible benefits to Shimane residents.

The somewhat extravagant actions of actors such as Choi’s National Front of Dokdo Guardians and Shimane Prefectural Assembly may look like manifestations of a nationalist propaganda campaign designed and crafted by the central governments in Seoul and Tokyo, respectively. This is not the case though. Until the early 2000s, the Korean government was trying to prevent any involvement of civic groups in the dispute and even restricted civilian access to the islets. Neither the Korean nor the Japanese governments engaged in any kind of public campaign related to the dispute, and the efforts of both were focused on keeping it on the back burner of bilateral relations. Accordingly, Seoul did not provide any funding to the groups that formed the early “Protect Dokdo” movement, and Tokyo applied considerable pressure on Shimane Prefectural Assembly not to enact the Takeshima Day ordinance. Thus, the emergence of Dokdo/Takeshima as one of the key issues in the domestic debates on bilateral relations in both countries was not a result of governmental policy. To the contrary, it happened despite the efforts of the political elites in Seoul and Tokyo to keep it away from the public eye and can be attributed to actions of actors such as the National Front of Dokdo Guardians and the Shimane Prefectural Assembly, which I refer to here as national identity entrepreneurs.

Although the roots of the dispute go back to state-level negotiations of the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 with Japan, the narratives regarding the dispute and, even more important, their centrality in the public discourse in both countries are a relatively new phenomenon. In early 1960s, the Japanese and the Korean negotiators of a bilateral normalization treaty acknowledged the relative insignificance of the islets (they are no larger than Grand Central Terminal) and even considered blowing them up as a (quite radical) solution to the dispute. They would probably have been bemused and perplexed by references to the islets as the heart of the nation or as a treasure box of natural resources, which are integral to today’s depictions of Dokdo/Takeshima in Korea and Japan. In the following decades, there were hardly any publications devoted to the dispute, and it rarely featured in bilateral negotiations. Half a century later, however, the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict became one of the key issues in Japan-Korea relations, with hundreds of books, articles, TV programs, and movies devoted to the islets. Today, the dispute over tiny uninhabitable islets of little economic importance is an integral part of historical memory and debates about bilateral relations in both countries.

National identity is a highly contested concept subject to numerous academic debates beyond the scope of this study. Most of the constructivist International Relations (IR) scholars as well as scholars of nationalism, however, agree that collective memory of the nation’s past plays a key role in what constitutes a national identity. Overall, identity and memory exist in a symbiotic relationship; the core meaning of any individual or group “self” is sustained mostly by remembering (Gillis 1994, 3). Internalization and identification with the group’s collective memory by its members, therefore, is the basis of any social identity (Zerubavel 2003, 3). When it comes to a nation’s collective memory, stories about its past create the collective experience of the nation, define its boundaries through differentiation from and in contrast to “others,” and also serve as a basis for projections about the nation’s collective future (Somers 1994, 38–39; Triandafyllidou 1998). As Anthony Smith, one of the pioneers of nationalism studies, has aptly put it, “one might almost say: no memory, no identity, no identity, no nation. . . . ​Only by “remembering the past” can a collective identity come into being” (1996, 383).

These collective memories, though, are not some abstract stories but are built of specific narratives that depict and interpret certain events and issues in the nation’s interactions with its “others.” The repertoire of these narratives is not constant but evolves and changes over time. Certain narratives disappear from the collective memory whereas others emerge as important markers of national identity (Kansteiner 2002, 192–93). The dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima has become one such issue, emerging in the 1990s and becoming an integral part of the widely accepted story regarding the nation’s collective past and present in both Japan and Korea. Needless to say, Dokdo/Takeshima is not unique but just one example of many other disputed territories in Northeast Asia and beyond that function as markers of national identity (e.g., Varshney 1991; Deans 2000; Goddard 2009; Bukh 2012; Bong 2013; Strate 2015).

It is often assumed that national identities are forged by the powerful as tools of control and domination. The foregoing example suggests that this is not always the case and the process of identities’ creation is not necessarily a top-down one. Exploring these sociopolitical processes with particular reference to disputed territories will enable us to gain a more nuanced understanding of how specific stories of which national identities are built emerge, the role of nonstate actors in these processes, and the importance they assign to disputed territory in question. Moreover, the narratives on territorial disputes are politically consequential—they carry important implications for the policies related to the disputes in question as they create a frame of reference for the policy makers.

The point of departure for this book is that territorial disputes are socially constructed, namely, that the meanings associated with these disputed territories and the narratives about them, emerged as a result of sociopolitical processes. Literature on broad identity narratives and discourses of the national “self” in Northeast Asia is abundant (e.g., Suzuki 2009; Tamaki 2010; Rozman 2011; Hagström 2015; Wachman 2016), but with few exceptions (e.g., Samuels 2010), it rarely explores the domestic microprocesses through which certain narratives and ideas that serve as the building blocks for these identity constructs emerge and gain prominence. Narratives do not simply appear out of thin air, and the social processes that result in a certain construct are neither anonymous nor abstract but can be traced to human agency (Thompson 2001). In the context of North Korean abductions of Japanese and South Korean citizens, for example, Samuels (2010) convincingly traced the social construction of the issue in both countries to interests and actions of specific actors, ranging from relatives of abductees to political associations and politicians.

Focusing on the processes of construction of territorial disputes and the role played by nonstate actors, this book provides a comprehensive and comparative analysis of the emergence and transformation of such constructs in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. What are the factors that gave rise to national identity entrepreneurs and shaped their narratives related to the territories in question? Why and how do territorial disputes that at one point mattered little, became salient? What are the domestic sociopolitical processes that propelled these narratives to the fore of public discourse? These are the main questions I seek to answer.

Casual observers may think that territorial disputes–related campaigns by non-state actors and stories deployed in the process are about recovery or protection of national territory. In this book I argue that this is not the case. In all of the cases examined here, campaigns and related narratives originated at a time of crisis, as tools of contention or criticism against a perceived failure of the state. The actors that advocate the protection or return of a disputed territory may resemble each other in their rhetoric and framing techniques, but the nature of the crisis they responded to as well as their goals differed greatly and often had little to do with the disputed territory per se.

“Territory,” this book shows, can be an empty signifier. By this I do not mean that territory cannot have an important economic or strategic value to the state or the people whose livelihood depends on it. However, when a certain territory’s material value is negligible or simply nonexistent due to its location, limited resources, or lack of actual control over it, just like other objects of no practical use, it is “liberated for full symbolic or ritual use” (Hobsbawm 1983, 4). In other words, a territory’s lack of tangible value expands and enhances its symbolic potential, which stems from the generally shared sentiment regarding the territory’s importance to the nation. Neither the symbolic meaning of “territory” nor norms associated with it, however, are predetermined or static. Similarly to the notion of the sacred, it “occurs to represent an indeterminate value of signification, in itself devoid of meaning and thus susceptible of receiving any meaning at all” (Lévi-Strauss 1987, 55). This indeterminateness enables the actors to strategically attach meanings to the territory in pursuit of their goals while identifying themselves with the nation. Indeed, because of the widely shared agreement on a territory’s utmost importance to the nation, disputed territory is easily embraced by national identity entrepreneurs as a rhetorical resource aimed at positioning themselves as champions of the nation, garnering public support and, in some cases, avoiding sanctions from the government. This framing of the disputed territory, however, can lead to an often unintended outcome in which the territory emerges as one of the markers of national identity.

Analytical Framework

The analytical framework used in this book treats the construction of a disputed territory as a bottom-up process, initiated by nonstate actors at a time of a significant change in their society. Here I distinguish between a territorial dispute per se and a social construction of the dispute and the disputed territory. The former refers to contending claims of ownership between two or more states over a certain territory. Social constructs, by contrast, are the widely shared perceptions of the disputed territory, the dispute itself, and the actions of the “self” and the other party. These constructs are built from narratives. Narratives are stories that imbue certain real events, places, nations, and other phenomena with a certain symbolic value and meaning, by this making them socially meaningful (Mattern 2005, 83). The factors that generate such narratives related to disputed territories and the processes through which they are transformed and developed are the focus of this book.

The narratives do not emerge from nowhere and are no doubt related to the disputes they depict. All of the territorial disputes discussed in this book involve Japan and its neighbors, and today they constitute one of the main sources of tensions between states in the region. Thus, it is not surprising that international relations, area studies, international law, and historical scholarship devoted to the state-level causes and ramifications of these disputes is abundant (e.g., Stephan 1974; Chung 2004; Fravel 2008; Emmers 2009; Schoenbaum 2009; Koo 2010; Lee and Lee 2011; Iwashita 2015).

The roots of competing territorial claims in contemporary Northeast Asia can be traced to several historical, geographical, and political factors. One such factor was the virtual simultaneity of two projects that shaped Japan’s modern history: nation-state building and colonial expansion. Japan’s transition from a feudal society to a modern nation-state with unified history and defined geographical boundaries began with the Meiji Restoration of 1868. It was only in 1875 that Japan delimited all parts of its northern border with the Russian Empire. In 1876 Japan concluded an unequal treaty with Korea dealing mostly with opening Korea’s ports to Japanese trade and did not delimit the borders between the two countries. In the following years, as a prelude to formal colonization and settlement, Japanese started to migrate to the Korean Peninsula (see Uchida 2011 for a detailed discussion). Well into the 1880s, the borders of Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, were still not fully determined. Similarly late, the Constitution of the Empire of Japan (the Meiji Constitution) was adopted only in 1889. In 1895, after defeating Qing China, Japan gained control over Taiwan as its first formal colony. Only ten years later, Japan acquired Southern Sakhalin as part of the spoils of the Russo-Japanese War and made Korea its protectorate.

This partial concurrence of Japan’s modern nation-state building with the colonial expansion of the Japanese Empire resulted in certain ambiguity as to the borders of Japan proper. Further exacerbated by the geography of the region, where tiny and remote islands are abundant, this ambiguity created the potential for territorial disputes arising in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War II and the dissolution of its empire.

Historical and geographical factors aside, the most important factor in the emergence of the disputes (see map) was the international politics of the Cold War, when the United States—the main architect of the regional postwar order—decided that ambiguity on the ownership of certain parts of the now defunct empire would best serve its interests in the region. One of the most germane works on territorial disputes in Northeast Asia, by Hara Kimie, traces the roots of all of the territorial issues in question to the Peace Treaty between the Allied Powers and Japan signed in San Francisco on September 8, 1951 (Hara 2006). The Peace Treaty was supposed to put an end to above-mentioned indeterminateness, but the relevant provisions in what was supposed to be the main legal document to delimit postwar Japan’s borders are rather brief and vague, leaving room for conflicting interpretations regarding the belonging of the islands in question. Looking at the numerous drafts and negotiations that preceded the conclusion of the treaty, Hara (2006) convincingly traced this ambiguity in the final text of the treaty to the Cold War policy of the United States, the main occupying power in Japan and the chief architect of the postwar settlement.

Source: Center for Security Studies / ETH Zurich.

The evidence offered by Hara related to the roots of the territorial disputes on the state level is indeed compelling. The international politics of the Peace Treaty, however, offer little to explain the process of social construction of these disputes that can be traced to actions and narratives of nonstate actors. For example, in Japan, the perception of the territory today under Russian administration as Japan’s “inherent territory” originated in civic groups whose activism predates the San Francisco Peace Conference. Contrastingly, the first wave of Chinese activism related to the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai Islands took place only in the early 1970s, and, in Korea, the first “Protect Dokdo” groups appeared in the late 1980s. As such, one needs to look beyond the Peace Treaty for factors that explain the emergence of such actors and the narratives they developed and deployed.

Mobilization by political elites is one of the most commonly offered explanations for public interest in territorial issues (Huth 1996; Fearon and Laitin 2000). This argument, however, is not applicable to the cases examined here because the activism related to territorial disputes was spurred without any governmental support and the nonstate actors engaged in this activism, at least at the initial stage of their existence, criticized and contested the existing governmental policy rather than supported it.

Whereas the rationalist IR scholarship locates the value of territory mostly in its economic or strategic properties (e.g., Fearon 1995, 408), the constructivist school focuses more on its intangible value and explores the various sentiments embedded in “national territory” as a social construct. Constructivist literature suggests that actions and narratives related to territorial disputes are an expression of a “national consciousness,” a social construct whereby “our territory,” within which the ethnic or national group is located, is seen as an integral part of both the personal and the group identities (Newman 1999, 13). Boundaries indeed create social entities and not the other way around (Abbott 1995). Thus, geographical boundaries between “our” territory and “their” territory, or bits of territory perceived as “ours” and occupied by “them,” function as symbolic markers of identity that produce and reproduce the “us” entity by differentiating it from “others” (Paasi 1998, 80–81).

What exactly are the symbolic meanings attached to a territory? In an extensive study of ethnic conflicts, Toft (2005) suggested that these meanings differ across actors, in her case, states and ethnic groups. Territory, according to Toft, is construed as a defining attribute of the ethnic groups’ identities, as a homeland where distinct culture and language are practiced, inseparable from the group’s past and intrinsically linked to its survival as a distinct entity (2005, 19–20). Although this identification of control over the “homeland” with the group’s survival is seen by Toft as a rational act (2005, 20), her conception of the symbolic meaning of territory is not dissimilar to the one offered by the “national consciousness” literature. Namely, in both cases, territory is seen as an expression of an identity, national or ethnic, and as means to distinguish the “self” from the “other,” be it a different nation or the state. Similarly, Shelef (2015) drew on the theories of nationalism to argue that homelands are a specific kind of territory, constitutive of a nation and constructed as sacred in the nationalist discourse. Thus, he suggested, their value is not reducible to the territory’s material attributes, and the ideational value of the homeland is one of the main factors considered by actors (state and nonstate) when calculating the costs and benefits of territorial conflict.

It is beyond doubt that “homeland” or “territory” is one of the most important markers of national identity, formerly embedded in an “uncontested background of thought” (Lessig 1995, 951) in all modern societies. “Territory” is an integral part of the nationalist discourse—one of the key modern regimes of truth in Foucauldian terms. As a material object, “national territory” performs a twofold role in nationalism: it serves both as the material base for the projection of the nation and as an evidence for its existence (Koenigsberg 1977, 9). “Territory,” however, is also a social construct, and the same can be said about certain parts of the “national territory.” If we are to accept one of the fundamental claims of constructivism—that processes determine identities (Mercer 1995, 231)—the questions then arise as to when and how these specific constructs of disputed territories emerge and how, why, and by whom the “national territory” discourse is activated in relation to a certain disputed territory.

Focusing on the political processes that led to the construction of Jerusalem and Northern Ireland as indivisible in the Israeli-Palestinian and Anglo-Irish disputes, respectively, Goddard (2010) argued that the link between identity and a disputed territory is not a given. She traces the emergence of these two constructs to legitimation strategies deployed by politicians in the bargaining process. Goddard shows that the specific symbolic meaning (indivisibility in her case studies) associated with a certain territory is a structural effect, often unintentional, of political elites’ strategically chosen rhetoric. This rhetoric, she argues, is both a product of the domestic social and cultural networks in which the politicians are embedded and a strategic choice aimed at appealing to certain audiences and undercutting others.

The value of Goddard’s use of network theory and its application to the cases of Northern Ireland and Jerusalem lies in its emphasis on process rather than on the final construct. This enables her to challenge simplistic, outcome-focused constructivist explanations and to identify and analyze the complex processes of social construction of the two territories as indivisible and intrinsically linked to national identity. As with many other works on territorial disputes, however, Goddard’s analysis suggests a top-down process in which the social construct and actors that identify with it are structural by-products of politicians’ strategies. In this sense, it resembles the above-mentioned political elites’ mobilization literature. This kind of argument may indeed be true for Jerusalem and Ireland, but it would be a gross generalization to claim that it applies to all cases of disputed territories. As the chapters in this book will show, such constructs often emerge as tools of contention between nonstate actors that claim to represent the nation and political elites, advocated by the former and initially resisted by the latter.

I suggest that, in order to be able to conduct a more multifaceted and multidirectional analysis of the social construction process of a disputed territory, one should explore the role of actors outside of the political elites, referred to here, as mentioned previously, as national identity entrepreneurs. National identity entrepreneurs are non-state actors (individuals, civic groups, or any other entity that is not part of the state and has a capacity for agency) who create and actively promote a certain narrative (related to territorial disputes for the purposes of this book, but overall not limited to such) that invokes the nation. In other words, national identity entrepreneurs are signifying agents who engage in linking of a certain issue or event with the nation and national interest.

The concept of national identity entrepreneurship draws on the broader scholarship interested in the origins of ideational constructs and their diffusion. Literature on norms’ emergence, for example, emphasizes the role of norm entrepreneurs. Norm entrepreneurs, also referred to as moral proselytes (Nadelmann 1990, 482) or meaning managers (Lessig 1995, 1008), are agents that have strong notions about appropriate behavior or desirable behavior in their societies and engage in promotion of these notions in their societies through active persuasion. They play a key role in norm emergence through deployment of a cognitive framing that implies a fundamentally new understanding of appropriateness (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998, 896–97). National identity entrepreneurs are also similar to political entrepreneurs as analyzed by Tilly (2003, 34–35) in his work on collective violence. Both claim to represent the nation and, while doing so, activate certain symbolic boundaries, stories, and relations and connect certain groups and networks. National identity entrepreneurs are also not dissimilar to other identity entrepreneurs such as those out-group members who intentionally leverage their out-group identity to derive a certain social or economic benefit (Leong 2016, 2–3).

The above-mentioned literature suggests that the motives for entrepreneurship are either instrumental or ideational. In other words, they are divided along the “strategy versus identity” line, which has dominated the broad debate on the motives behind social activism (Finnemore and Sikkink 2001, 409). Whereas the advocates of the strategy approach argue that actors invoke and promote certain ideational constructs as means for material or political ends, the identity approach traces these actions to the actors’ identities and their belief in the virtue of the ideas they advocate. Occasional references in the scholarship devoted to the territorial disputes in Northeast Asia usually treat such identity entrepreneurship as manifestations of nationalism (e.g., Valencia 2000; Choi 2005; Emmers 2010; Bong 2013), by this suggesting the ideational explanation for their actions.

Several caveats, however, should be considered when thinking about the framework for analyzing the causes of national identity entrepreneurship in territorial disputes and beyond. To start with, nationalism is a rather ambiguous concept. As Reicher and Hopkins have pointed out, the term nationalism has been used to denote a range of phenomena and wide-ranging definitions of the nation and its interests (2000, 81–82). Writing more than half a century ago, Hans Kohn, the pioneer of nationalism studies, argued that “everywhere nationalism differs in character according to the specific historical conditions and the peculiar social structure of each country” (1955, 89). From a somewhat different perspective, Calhoun (1997, 21) noted that an enormous range of otherwise different movements is constituted through the usage of terms like nation, national, and national interest. Moreover, different nationalisms can often exist concurrently within the same country, offering competing visions of the same nation. For example, Reicher et al. (2005, 629) showed how the essence of Scottish nation has been construed differently by different political groups in Scotland. The left-wingers depicted Scots as inherently egalitarian, communal, and welfarist, whereas for the right-wingers, canniness, hard work, and entrepreneurship constituted the essence of Scottish national identity.

More relevant to the topic of this book, the diversity of nationalist symbolisms associated with disputed territories has been exemplified in Zellman’s (2015, 2018) study of public attitudes in Serbia and Israel toward lost or contested territories. His individual-level experiments show not only the existence of multiple and concurrent valuations of disputed territories in the two nations but also the various ways their symbolism is tied with other dominant narratives in the two societies. Thus, even if we assume that national identity entrepreneurs engaged in territorial disputes–related activism are driven by nationalism, simply labeling them as nationalist obscures more than it reveals about their motives. To wit, the nationalist label fails to account for the exact vision of the nation these actors advocate as well as the particular symbolic role these territories play as markers of national identity in different narratives.

Moreover, ideational motivation does not necessarily mean sameness of the invoked ideas and those actually pursued by the actors. Certain ideas and norms can be used as framing techniques in pursuit of fundamentally different values. Consider the following example as an illustration of this point.

In early November 2018, Japanese prime minister Abe’s cabinet approved a revision to immigration legislation that will enable more foreign blue-collar workers to work in Japan. A few weeks later, an email from a Japan-related mailing list drew my attention to an article that decried the slave-like conditions of current foreign workers in Japan and came out strongly against the new legislation, arguing that it does not guarantee the human rights of the workers (Yamawaki 2018). The new immigration policy was criticized by many on similar grounds, but what made this article stand out was that it was published in the conservative Gekkan Nippon magazine. The magazine devoted an entire section to the new immigration legislation in its December 2018 issue, with many of the articles criticizing the conditions of foreign workers in Japan. It is indeed possible that the editors of Gekkan Nippon were genuinely concerned with the human rights of foreign workers when planning this special issue. However, bearing in mind the broader ideology espoused by the journal, it is more likely that the main motivation for the extensive criticism of the new legislation was its perceived threat to the ethnic homogeneity of Japanese society. The latter is seen as a unique and an ultimately positive feature of Japan by many in the conservative camp.

Furthermore, the instrumental motivation in identity entrepreneurship should be neither dismissed nor taken for granted but explored inductively. Overall, it is quite dangerous to explain behavior by relying on the categories that the actors themselves employ (Gould 2003, 2–13). Individuals, collectives, and states often appeal to certain ideals and norms in pursuit of their rather mundane interests. As Bürkner (2015, 29) noted, ideas, symbols, and images are often introduced by agents to legitimize their objectives, create power resources, and rationalize their project. Tobacco manufacturers’ appeal to the notion of liberty enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence as part of their efforts to preserve smoking as a social practice and maintain their profits (Lessig 1995, 1009) serves as a perfect illustration of this point. In cases of territorial disputes, symbolism associated with these territories may indeed be utilized by political actors in their rational calculations aimed at legitimizing their claim and boosting their domestic support (Goddard 2010). Instrumental use of “national territory,” however, is not limited to political actors. In one of the most insightful studies on nationalism and territory, Peter Sahlins (1989) showed how borderland villages along the French-Spanish border in the Pyrenees in the early nineteenth century appropriated and utilized the emerging nationalist discourse. “National territory” was used by the villagers as part of a strategy to mobilize the state’s support for their cause in the land conflicts with their neighbors.

At the same time, we should also not forget that territory can indeed be related to tangible benefits such as natural resources, and often access to or possession of these resources is the actual source of conflict (Hensel and Mitchell, 2005). On the sub-state level, territory may provide real resource value to people (Starr 2005, 392), and its loss may also become an incentive for identity entrepreneurship.

All this suggests that any kind of a priori theorizing regarding the motives behind national identity entrepreneurship is to be avoided. The motives should be explored inductively in each of the cases through a careful analysis of the entrepreneurs’ actions and narratives in the context of their broader social, political, economic, and ideological backgrounds.

Furthermore, to fully understand the causes of national identity entrepreneurship requires looking beyond the agent-level factors. The latter provide us with certain immediate insights into motives for action, but structural factors are of utmost importance when trying to understand the broader conditions that enabled and shaped identity.

The key importance of drastic social, political, or economic transformations in emergence of new ideas and agents that carry these ideas is one of the general themes of constructivist literature (Finnemore and Sikkink 2001, 406). That theme also runs through other works concerned with social change across various disciplines. For example, social movements theorists have long argued that contentious collective action emerges in response to changes in political opportunities’ structure as well as appearance of new threats and incentives, all of which can be either material or ideational (Della Porta and Diani 2006, 33–62; Tarrow 2011, 7–16). The importance of broad structural transformations has also been emphasized in the literature on norms emergence. In his analysis of the rise of global prohibition regimes, for example, Nadelmann (1990) pointed out the importance of changes in trade volume and the structure of diplomatic relations in late seventeenth-century Europe in the emergence of antipiracy norm entrepreneurship as well as the ascent of the Enlightenment in the emergence of antislavery norm entrepreneurship.

Eric Hobsbawm, an acclaimed historian, observed that the process in which new national traditions (defined as social practices that seek to inculcate certain norms and values) are formalized and ritualized occurs more frequently when social patterns are weakened or destroyed as a result of a rapid and profound transformation. Hobsbawm referred to such times as critical junctures (1983, 4). In his classic work on social theory, Anthony Giddens used a similar term, critical situation, which refers to a radical disjuncture that threatens or destroys social routines. This kind of radical rupture in social routines, Giddens argued, results in important transformations of the affected subjects and often triggers a new identification process (1979, 123–27 and 1984, 61–64). Similarly, scholars working on discourse theory have suggested that disruptions in the structures of meaning threaten and undermine identities but at the same time create the foundation for the construction of new identities and enable political subjectivity (Howarth and Stavrakis 2000, 12–14). Applying this theoretical framework to the case of religious populism in Greece advocated by the Greek Orthodox Church in the early 2000s, Stavrakakis (2005) traced its emergence to the widely spread sense of crisis related to Greece’s membership in the European Economic Community. Overall, crisis as the main cause for the emergence of populist discourses and agents that promote them is one of the dominant tropes in the literature on populism (Moffitt 2015, 190–91), which can also be seen as a form of national identity entrepreneurship. Borrowing from Hobsbawm and the broader historical institutionalist literature, I refer to such important transformations as critical junctures in analyzing the structural causes of national identity entrepreneurship. Although the concept of critical juncture has been defined in multiple ways (Capoccia and Kelemen 2007), the definition used here is a synthesis of Hobsbawm and the one offered by Soifer (2012) in his exploration of the causal logic of critical junctures. Critical juncture is defined as a period of significant social change that threatens or destroys social routines and creates both the permissive and the productive conditions for new agency. Permissive conditions stand for loosening of the constraints imposed by the structure and hence provide increased capacity for agency, whereas productive conditions are those aspects of the critical juncture that determine the shape and the content of new forms of agency. This definition of a critical juncture is broad enough to encompass not only social and discursive disruptions but also economic and political changes that may play a role in emergence of identity entrepreneurship.

Another important point to keep in mind is that the process of social construction is complex, and the resulting construct may have little in common with the initial interests and motives of actors who triggered it. As Tilly (2005, 211) noted, interactions among parties can alter the stories and symbolic boundaries initially invoked by the political entrepreneurs who initiated the process. Legitimation strategies deployed by actors and strategic interactions they engage in can transform the actors or turn into a focal point around which new actors and identities emerge (Goddard 2010, 36–37). One of the best examples of such a transformation is probably the global antiwhaling regime. Initially driven by the long-term economic interests of the whaling industry to conserve stock, over time the whaling regulation efforts evolved into a prohibitory norm (Nadelmann 1990, 517–19), still opposed by some states but actively advocated by many others, including former whaling countries such as Australia and New Zealand. Or consider the chronologically parallel process that led to the construction of whaling and consumption of whale meat as an integral part of Japan’s national culture. Today, the government of Japan and numerous conservative pundits in the country act as national identity entrepreneurs, advocating whaling and whale meat consumption as an integral part of Japan’s national tradition. The origins of this “national tradition,” however, can be traced to postwar efforts of the American occupation authorities aimed at popularizing whale meat as part of its efforts to eradicate widespread malnutrition (Hirata 2005; Arch 2016).

The preceding examples suggest that the sociopolitical process that results in a certain social construct is not a linear one and that the interests of the actors that contributed to its emergence cannot be simply derived from the existing construct. As Tilly observed, there is no convincing general theory that explains the process by which politically consequential narratives form, gain credibility, and transform (2005, 212). Such a theory is probably impossible simply because the factors that shape such processes vary greatly from one case to another. As Tilly argued elsewhere, human affairs are far too complicated to be explained through a limited set of grand laws (Tilly 2004, 9–10). Rather, these processes need to be explored inductively in individual cases through a careful examination of the actors involved, their interests, and their interactions.

One last question to be considered is related to the factors that result in the social acceptance of a narrative. In her work on Jerusalem and Ireland, Goddard (2010, 37) referred to the elevation of the idea that these territories are indivisible to the level of national identity as a yoking effect. She suggested that yoking occurs when two conditions are met. One is a presence of a powerful actor with links to multiple parts of the society who acts as an identity bridge to connect otherwise disparate social groups. The other condition refers to the legitimation strategy deployed by this actor, who must be culturally inventive, combining existing symbols and histories into new legitimation strategies. Unfortunately, Goddard does not unpack these pointers and the exact meaning of cultural inventiveness as well the most effective combinations and choices of symbols and histories are not elaborated on. Here I draw on two distinct but not unrelated bodies of literature to define the conditions for such narrative to become part of the national identity discourse.

One is the social movements literature. When it comes to successful consensus formation or social reception, social mobilization theory points out the importance of framing. Framing refers to the provision of interpretive packages that make a compelling case for injustice that the movement seeks to correct, but also, as in any identity discourse, distinguish “us” from “them” (Polletta and Jasper 2001, 291). The framing perspective views social movements as signifying agents, engaged in the production and maintaining of meanings in their respective societies. It refers to this process of signifying or the assignment of particular meanings and interpretations of the event or the situation that is the object of the movement’s activism or is intrinsically related to it (Snow 2004; Snow and Benford 1988, 198). Thus, framing is the process of invoking one set of meanings rather than another when communicating the movement’s grievances (Johnston and Oliver 2000, 45). To be successful and win attitudinal support, social movements theory argues, “frames” provided by the activists must resonate with the “cultural narratives” (Snow and Benford 1988, 210), or what Klandermans (1988, 175–76) called “collective definitions,” dominant in their respective societies.

The other body of literature with direct relevance to social acceptance of certain narratives is the one on ontological security. In sociology, ontological security is seen as a fundamental prerequisite for an individual’s ability to exercise agency. In a nutshell, ontological security refers to stability and continuity in the individual’s self-identity (Zarakol 2010, 6). Building on sociological work by Anthony Giddens and others, the IR ontological security approach extrapolates the argument to the state level. Thus, in IR, ontological security refers to states’ need for a stable cognitive environment, which is achieved by developing a cognitive “cocoon” (or cognitive apparatus) through which they interpret their everyday reality and regularize their social life. Ontological security of the state is maintained through social relations with other states that are interpreted through, but also confirm, the veracity of the state’s cognitive apparatus (Mitzen 2006, 342–43). It is also maintained through the narratives about the state as a coherent “self,” created by state leaders or other agents acting on behalf of the state (Steele 2008, 19–20).

The extrapolation of the notion of ontological security to the level of the state or any other collective actor is not without its dangers, as it implies that they are capable of a purposive and reflexive agency (McSweeney 1999, 151). If we assume the existence of national identity as a generally accepted discourse about the nation’s “self,” however, we can also treat the nation as if it were an agent with a coherent sense of the “self.” What happens then, when as a result of internal or external transformations, this construct of the “self” is threatened or undermined? When the accumulation of outcomes that cannot be explained through the existing cognitive apparatus undermines its validity? This ontological insecurity is addressed through construction and reconstruction of historical symbols, myths, and chosen traumas which either stabilize the existing identity construct, or, alternatively, provide a different story of the collective “self” (Kinnvall 2004,763).

Although the “framing” literature pays more attention to the purposeful agency of social movements and the ontological security literature focuses more on the structures of meaning, both suggest that the social acceptance of a certain narrative depends on its relationship with the dominant discourse. That is, a yoking effect is achieved not simply as a result of cultural inventiveness by the identity bridge actor, but when the narrative this actor advocates either feeds into the dominant identity construct or creates a modified and a more stable version of this construct.

To summarize, the analytical framework used in this book treats the construction of a territorial dispute as a complex sociopolitical process in which national identity entrepreneurs play an important role. National identity entrepreneurs are defined as nonstate actors who create and actively promote a certain narrative in which a certain issue or event is linked with the nation and the national interest. Causes of such entrepreneurship lie in the interplay of structural and agent-level factors. On the structural level, identity entrepreneurship is most likely to emerge during critical junctures: a period of significant social change that threatens or destroys social routines and creates both the permissive and the productive conditions for new agency. On the agent level, the motives behind identity entrepreneurship can be either ideational or instrumental and need to be explored empirically in each of the cases by examining the actors and the narratives they advocate in the context of their broader background, interests, and ideology. Neither the agent-level motives nor the critical juncture defines the shape and content of the process of social construction of the dispute in question. Interactions among parties to the process can alter the narratives, transform the actors, and lead to emergence of new actors and identities. The yoking effect in which the construction of a territorial dispute becomes part of the national identity discourse is likely to occur when there is a powerful actor that can reach multiple parts of the society and when the narrative advocated by this actor either resonates with the dominant national identity or, when the latter is severely undermined, provides an alternative vision of the national “self.”

To reiterate, the main interest of this book is the process of construction of territorial disputes rather than the policy effects of those constructs. Social constructs and foreign policy are no doubt related, as the former create a frame of reference through which policy elites are socialized into a particular mode of thinking to interpret the international environment (Tamaki 2010, 15). The relationship between identity and policy, however, is not in a simple straightforward causal relationship as often suggested by the constructivist literature. Social constructs do set boundaries for appropriate behavior, but rarely do they rise to the level of causal or principled beliefs (Oros 2008, 11). For example, most scholars of Japan would agree that the so-called nuclear allergy has been an integral part of Japan’s national identity throughout the postwar decades. This widely shared social construction of nuclear weapons as the ultimate evil and Japan as its victim did not, however, prevent Japanese policy makers from conducting feasibility studies looking into the pros and cons of nuclear armament (Kase 2001; Hughes 2007).

All of the empirical chapters do note some of the policy effects of constructs related to territorial disputes. Many of these effects have already been examined elsewhere (e.g., Kimura and Welsh 1998; Choi SJ 2005; Bukh 2012; Iwashita 2015), and I try to avoid repeating those arguments here. Policy, in one form or another, does feature throughout the book, but my main concern here is with the process of social construction and the domestic policies that played a role in shaping it.