April 22, 2014 3:39 am JST

Ship seizure in China baffles Japan

TOKYO -- The seizure of a Mitsui O.S.K. Lines vessel in China may have consequences for Japanese business activity there, Tokyo warned Monday as officials here pondered the true intention behind the move.

     Embittered by a territorial row, Japan and China were just starting to seek a rapprochement when the Shanghai Maritime Court said Chinese authorities had impounded the Baosteel Emotion on Saturday.

     The iron ore carrier appears to have become a pawn in a dispute stretching back to the 1930s. At the time, a Chinese shipowner chartered two freighters to a Japanese shipping company that later changed names and merged with Mitsui O.S.K. Lines. The vessels were commandeered by the Japanese government and subsequently sank. The owner's relatives sued Mitsui O.S.K. Lines for damages in China and won, with a high court upholding the original verdict in 2010.

     The company "was seeking the possibility of out-of-court settlement when the vessel was suddenly impounded" by authorities in Zhejiang Province, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines said in a statement Monday.

     The Japanese government expressed its concerns over the incident through its embassy in Beijing.

     The seizure threatens to "fundamentally undermine the spirit of the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations as laid out in a 1972 joint communique," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters.

     Tokyo maintains that because China renounced its demand for war reparations from Japan, any private claims for war-related damages are void. The Japanese government is calling for an explanation of the ship seizure and, depending on what it hears, may lodge a formal protest.

     "It's not clear why the Chinese chose to impound the ship at this time," a government source said.

     A Chinese court agreed last month to hear a lawsuit brought by victims of forced labor for Japanese companies during World War II -- the first such case ever to be tried in China. Tokyo is watching to see "how serious China is about this series of actions," a government source said.

     Hu Deping -- the eldest son of Hu Yaobang, a reformist who led the Chinese Communist Party in the 1980s -- traveled to Japan earlier this month and met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The son is close to Chinese President Xi Jinping, and his visit "sent a message about working toward better bilateral relations," a senior Japanese foreign ministry official said. Coming after this gesture, the ship seizure looks all the more perplexing.