“In the Harry Potter story, the dark wizard Voldemort dies hard because the seven horcruxes, which contain parts of his soul, have been destroyed. If militarism is like the haunting Voldemort of Japan, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is a kind of horcrux, representing the darkest parts of that nation’s soul”, so explained the ten-year old Chinese overseas student who, asked by a worldly British roommate in his boarding house on what all the fuss was about in Asia, resorted to Harry Potter metaphors, reassured that the reference would surely make it immediately palpable. And the British pupil responded, “oh, that’s funny…so who’s Harry Potter then?”
It was, in fact, the opening paragraph of a new-year’s-day diatribe on the Daily Telegraph composed by Liu Xiaoming, the 54-year-old Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom. The Japanese ambassador was swift and decisive in producing a riposte which came in the shape of “No we are not Voldemorte; you are”—the eternally formidable counter technique of direct negation. During Newsnight with Paxman, the two ambassadors continued to orally use the metaphor, apparently convinced that the best way to explain a historical international relations spat in the Northeast Asian region to a British audience was through a story about wizards. Then, as it has already been duly questioned, who is to play the part of Neville Longbottom? Liu has taken political vilifying to a next level from Bush Jr.’s “those evil doers.”
You can call this the symptoms of a nation with a victim complex, the result of years of ‘humiliation’. Some sinologists do slam this as an act of stereotyping, a sort of neo-Orientalism to borrow the words of Callahan, if you like. And sometimes, I do think analyses of Chinese foreign policy, especially from US conservative foreign policy circles, tend to imprison themselves into taking everything China does and thinks as being rooted in its hundred years of humiliation. It has the effect of producing this uncompromising portrayal of a China boiling with complexes, brimming at the top with ambition, prepared to restore its middle kingdom status, all a bit too easily. But, when it comes to China’s relationship with Japan, the victim complex can be felt very strongly. The victim is desperate to have his victim status confirmed and reconfirmed by the perpetrator, until he sees it fit to get over it.
In China’s condemnations, we can sense a feeling of betrayal. And it is made ever so powerful by the self-serving notion that China likes to entertain for itself; Japan was a student of China, a sort of mini version of its great Confucian civilization, a mere tributary, and was supposed to be forever grateful. But that student eventually grew larger, and overtook the teacher. Feelings of unseen humiliation, worse than the one supposedly inflicted by Western encroachment, ensues.
Then there is the CCP, whose legitimacy in large part comes from defeating the Japanese (though of course, it was the KMT forces under Chiang Kai Shek, that single-handedly defeated the Japanese with minimal aid from the West). Thus, by birthright, the CCP still draws legitimacy from taking the anti-Japan position. An identity that is predisposed to be anti-Japanese is compounded by an actual dispute, which though concerns a mere island and its surrounding resources, reflects a much larger power play. China’s expansion of ADIZ proves the point. Unfortunately, Abe’s ongoing provocations only flares up more popular nationalist sentiments in China. And these sentiments are not without reasonable basis.
Abe continues to pay homage to the Yaskuni Shrine, which among the other war dead, contains 14 war criminals. Then, he goes to America to compare it to presidential pilgrimages to the Arlington National Cemetery. (He probably knows the argument cannot be made, and the political cost, at least abroad, severe; there must be some other motif.) His mayors speculate about whether comfort women were actually coerced into sex slavery. Textbook controversies are still ongoing. Lastly, and the most atrocious of course, Abe was photographed with a thumb up on board a jet fighter marked with the peculiar number 731. The number has a peculiar ring in Northeast Asia. It is of the Japanese brigade in Manchuria that conducted biological experiments on Chinese, some dead and mostly alive. (To put this into a more palpable context, the act would have the same ring as if Merkel had stood below Anne Frank’s hideout cupboard grinning with a thumb up). Such stunts make it exceedingly difficult for victims to move on. Forgive but not forget is a step too far in this sort of climate.
However, the horcrux in question—the Yaskuni Shrine—and its relationship with the Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe, and the Japanese public still remain, however, an interesting topic for discussion. Why does Abe engage in an act he knows is tantamount to poking open its neighbours’ old wounds, thereby not only irritating an already tensed up region, but also arguably jeopardizing Japan’s own security? Why does he engage in an act that is not certain to guarantee domestic political gains? (The verdict on Yaskuni Shrine in Japan is at best mixed, and even the Japanese emperor himself—who still occupies a symbolic position of higher significance than the British crown—has disapproved the decision to enshrine war criminals in 1978, has not visited since). Just some food for thought.