If comments on bulletin boards were bullets and hacking attacks real skirmishes then East Asia would probably be a war zone now.
Mirroring offline diplomatic clashes, Internet users in Japan, China and Korea have been posting verbal assaults and hackers launching determined cyber-attacks.
Internet technology has also been at the core of recent frictions over textbook and territorial disputes.
In China, mobile phones and the Internet were used to organize protests against Japanese diplomatic missions and businesses. In Korea, citizens debated the row through blogs and bulletin-boards. In Japan, irate netizens reacted with sometimes jingoistic attacks on their country's neighbors.
As tensions peaked this Spring, numerous sites in Japan were targeted by hackers -- presumed to be based in China and Korea. Government ministries, universities, local authorities and the national police agency Web site were affected.
Yasukuni Shrine posted a notice on its Web site reporting that as many as 15,000 DOS (denial of service) attacks a second had been launched against its home page. The shrine described them as "a base act . . . terrorism that is a fundamental negation of Internet law and order."
Despite some reports of counter-attacks by Japanese hackers, it seems that Japan generally came off the worse in the cyber skirmishes.
Until recently Japan's digital security has been weak, says Naoki Miyagi of the National Information Security Center, a 26 strong department set up this April.
The Chinese government was also caught out by changing Internet technology.
During domestic protests against Japanese diplomatic missions and businesses organizers employed text messages, blogs, Web sites and online messaging systems.
"If it wasn't for the Internet then such large and widespread demonstrations wouldn't have taken place," says Qi Jing Ying, a researcher into the Chinese Internet at the University of Tokyo.
Chinese Internet users have become increasing adept at breaching the so-called Great Firewall of China.
"My friends and teachers in China can use proxy servers instead to access banned sites," says Qi Jing Ying. Denied many other democratic freedoms, the Chinese have thrown themselves into political debate on the Internet, she says.
Qi contrasts the tone of the Chinese Internet to that in Japan, where the content of bulletin boards like the popular 2 Channel is often dismissed as trivial.
"Even Chinese foreign office officials and political leaders look at Chinese political Web sites. I doubt that Koizumi is watching 2 Channel."
Meanwhile, in South Korea the Internet has hosted public reaction to the territorial and textbooks disputes.
South Korea has the highest broadband penetration rate in the world. Sites like the popular Daum Web portal and its bulletin boards are a venue for debate and protest.
Hacking attacks on Japan and other countries are well publicized in Korea. During a previous Japanese textbook controversy in 2001, three South Korean high school students going by the nom-de-net "anti-Japan" attacked the server of the rightwing revisionist "tsukurukai" textbook association, disabling it for several days.
The most interesting thing here for me is the differences between young people in the three countries: in South Korea, generally high levels of activism and high technical literacy; in China, a small proportion of mainly young people getting around the government's restrictions; in Japan, complacency.
In a country that had been almost unique in its overwhelmingly pro-American popular opinion a generation earlier, statistics reflected a sharp change of attitude. For example, a poll by the Joongang Ilbo newspaper, taken in December 2002, revealed that 36.4 percent of South Koreans viewed the U.S. unfavorably, only 13 percent favorably, and 50 percent were neutral. Within these statistics, there were striking differences according to age: only among those in the over-50 age group did the majority express a favorable opinion. Furthermore, 62 percent of South Koreans in their 20s and 72 percent in their 30s wanted to restructure the U.S.-ROK alliance to make it more equal; only 21 percent of those in their 60s agreed with this.
Again, there is more going on here than simply the general rise of "anti-Americanism." Several factors contribute to this changing Korean attitude toward the U.S., 60 years after liberation from Japanese colonialism. First, there has been a generational change, with the rise to power of the "386" generation (Koreans in their 30s, who entered university in the 1980s and were born in the 1960s), who had come of age in the era of democratic protest, a time when criticism of the authoritarian ROK governments, and of the Americans who had backed them, went hand-in-hand. With the rise of this generation came the decline in influence of the conservative and reflexively pro-U.S. political establishment that had dominated South Korean politics since liberation. While the current conservative opposition is by no means insignificant, it seems unlikely that a simplistic "pro-Americanism" will ever return as the dominant mode in South Korea.
Second, there has been the growth of a vocal and critical civil society, and with it a re-examination of historical events and memories both by the government and various non-governmental organizations. Historical investigation commissions have been formed to examine various aspects of the Japanese colonial period, as well as events in which the U.S. played a direct or indirect role: the Gwangju Massacre of 1980, the bloody suppression of the Jeju Island uprising in April 1948, missing persons from the period of military rule, and so on, inspired in part by similar such commissions formed in the post-authoritarian states of South Africa, Argentina, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere.
Significantly, investigators are probing not only the role of the U.S., but also of the former ROK government and citizens. Citizens' activism and participatory democracy have become part of the political landscape and everyday vocabulary of today's South Korea, with the explosive growth of NGOs, many quite critical of U.S. policy. The organization of such groups and activities has been greatly facilitated by the use of the Internet, in which South Korea ranks among the highest in the world, and the concomitant rise of what Koreans call "Netizens."
Third, with the relative decline of South Koreans' sense of affinity with the U.S., there has been a strong turn toward Asia, especially China but also, in complex ways, Japan. China has replaced the U.S. as South Korea's largest trading partner; more Korean students now study in China than in America; South Korean popular culture has become all the rage in Japan, China, and Southeast Asia, while Japanese culture -- long banned by the South Korean government -- has taken off in Korea. On the other hand, the current dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima, as well as the controversy over the Japanese textbook issue and war memories more generally, reflect underlying differences between Korea and Japan that need to be resolved before relations between the two countries can become stable and friendly over the long term. And yet, despite these tensions, Koreans have increasingly warmed to the idea of an East Asian free trade area, and even a European Union-style economic and political community, although these may be only be a distant dream at this point.