SAN FRANCISCO -- Joining large, angry demonstrations in Asia, Chinese-Americans from throughout the Bay Area massed in this city's Chinatown Saturday to denounce Japan's purchase of an island chain that has long been the focus of a bitter dispute between that nation and China.

A few thousand people crammed into Portsmouth Square at the base of Chinatown to clap, chant and cheer as a series of speakers decried Japan's announcement Tuesday that it had bought the three uninhabited East China Sea islands, called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

Hoisting banners and signs reviling Japan's action as well as its bloody occupation of China during World War II, the protesters paraded down nearby streets.

Japan's Kyodo News agency said more than 60,000 people also protested in at least 28 Chinese cities, making the anti-Japanese demonstrations the largest since the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1972.

For many people of Chinese descent, Japan's announcement regarding the islands has brought to a boil intense animosities that have simmered for decades.

"Of course we are angered," said 72-year-old Ying-Ying Chang of San Jose, whose late daughter, Iris Chang, wrote the best-selling book "The Rape of Nanking,' which detailed Japan's mistreatment of the Chinese during the war.

Noting that she was born in China during the Japanese occupation, she added: "My parents went through such difficulties -- all Chinese did -- to resist the Japanese aggression. ... That's the kind of thing that people can never forget."


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Protester Thomas Chu, a 55-year-old health-care provider from Oakland who was born in Hong Kong, agreed.

"I'm very upset," he said of Japan's decision to buy the islands. "It's just like somebody comes to occupy your house. It's the same feeling. ... This is basically a very wrongful act by the Japanese government."

But a high-ranking diplomat at the Japanese Consulate in San Francisco, who asked not to be identified, insisted the islands "have been an integral part of Japan's territory for a long time, and we don't see any reason for the Chinese claim."

He added that he hoped the dispute can be resolved amicably. "There are many Japanese living and working in China and many companies investing in China," he said. "So it would be for the mutual benefit of both of us to calm down."

China and Japan long have been at odds over ownership of the islands between Okinawa and Taiwan, which also claims them. Although the dispute dates back hundreds of years, Japan first took control of them when it defeated China in an 1895 war. After the second World War, the United States retained jurisdiction over them for a while, but eventually put them back under Japanese control in 1972.

In August, anti-Japanese protests broke out in a number of Chinese cities after a group of Japanese nationalists landed on the disputed islands and waved Japanese flags.

The most recent protests were set off by Japan's announcement Tuesday that it had purchased the islands from private Japanese owners. China responded by sending several surveillance ships into the disputed waters. And by Saturday, protests spread throughout China and violence broke out in a number of places, according to the Associated Press.

When thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, hundreds reportedly tried to storm a police barricade, hurling rocks, bottles, eggs and traffic cones. Elsewhere in China, protesters set fire to Japanese factories, sabotaged assembly lines and looted department stores.

In response, the Japanese Embassy issued a statement imploring the Chinese government to "ensure the safety of Japanese citizens and businesses."

Contact Steve Johnson at sjohnson@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5043. Follow him at Twitter.com/steveatmercnews