Japan’s foreign minister on Tuesday labelled as “very regrettable” an incident in Beijing in which the national flag was ripped off a car carrying Japan’s ambassador, fanning diplomatic tensions.
Monday’s incident came amid widespread anti-Japan demonstrations in China over a disputed East China Sea island chain known in China as Diaoyu and in Japan as Senkaku.
“This is very regrettable — the national flag shows a country’s dignity and it is a principle of international law that you must respect it,” Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba told reporters in Tokyo.
Gemba said he would send an envoy to deliver a letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao, adding that Tokyo “strongly protested and demanded preventative measures, as well as a criminal investigation into the case”.
He declined to elaborate on the contents of the letter, but said it was a good opportunity to address ties that have soured over the island dispute.
“I believe that we must exchange opinions now on the situation of Japan-China relations, on the situation of the region as a whole, including the Korean peninsula, as well as the global situation,” Gemba said.
Ambassador Uichiro Niwa was not hurt and there was no other damage to his diplomatic vehicle, according to the Japanese embassy.
Diplomatic vehicles in China are identified by special car plates but typically only ambassadors’ vehicles carry national flags.
Gemba said officials would try to track down the man who grabbed the flag from the license plate on his car.
He added that “the Chinese side has told us they will deal with the case strictly under the law and that they will take measures to ensure the safety of Japanese nationals and companies in China”.
Senior Vice Foreign Minister Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi was expected to leave for Beijing later on Tuesday to deliver the letter from Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to Hu.
Tensions between Japan and China flared earlier this month after pro-Beijing activists landed on one of the disputed islands, which are controlled by Japan.
They were arrested by Japanese authorities and deported.
About a dozen nationalists raised Japanese flags on the island days later.
Thousands of Chinese citizens in more than 20 cities have protested over the last two weeks. Japanese businesses, restaurants and cars were targeted in some cities.
Japan is also embroiled in a territorial dispute with South Korea amid tense relations over issues tied to Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula.