Paramilitary police with shields and batons barricaded the embassy, holding back and occasionally fighting with slogan-chanting, flag-waving protesters who at times appeared to be trying to storm the building.
“Return our islands! Japanese devils get out!” some shouted. One of them held up a sign reading: “For the respect of the motherland, we must go to war with Japan.”
Protester Liu Gang, from the southern region of Guangxi, said: “We hate Japan. We’ve always hated Japan. Japan invaded China and killed a lot of Chinese. We will never forget.” By early evening, police had succeeded in persuading some onlookers and would-be protesters to leave. Rings of anti-riot police stood guard in front of the embassy, apparently readying for a long night.
“I think it’s time for the Chinese government to get tougher. Look at what the ordinary people feel. The government should respond,” said one onlooker who came to protest and who gave his family name as Xue. “I don’t mean war, but tougher action like sanctions. You can see how much Japan depends on our economy. Then don’t sell them any rare earths,” he said, referring to elements key to advanced technologies for defence, electronics and renewable-energy industries.
The long-standing territorial dispute escalated dramatically on Friday when China sent six surveillance ships to a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, raising tension between the two countries to its highest level since 2010.
China, which has similar disputes elsewhere with other neighbours, was responding to Japan’s decision on Tuesday to buy the islands, which Tokyo calls the Senkaku and Beijing calls the Diaoyu, from a Jap-anese owner despite Chinese warnings against doing so.
Sino-Japanese ties have long been plagued by China’s bitter memories of Japan’s military aggression in the 1930s and 1940s and present rivalry over resources – the islands are believed to be surrounded by energy-rich waters – and regional clout.
Relations between the two countries, whose business and trade ties have blossomed in recent years, chilled in 2010 after Japan arrested a Chinese trawler captain whose boat collided with Japanese coastguard vessels near the islands.
In Shanghai, streets around the Japanese consulate in the western part of town were cordoned off. Hundreds of police let small groups of people in at a time to protest.
China’s official Xinhua news agency said big anti-Japan protests were also held in the Chinese cities of Xian, Changsha, Nanjing and Qingdao. Japanese media reported outbreaks of violence as people attacked Japanese restaurants and businesses.
Japan’s Kyodo news agency said that the demonstrations were the biggest in China since the two countries normalised diplomatic relations in 1972.