Toru Hanai/Files/Reuters
Toru Hanai/Files/Reuters

Who is East Asia’s Voldemort?

In a clash of narratives, China’s rise meets Japan’s conservatives

March 26, 2014 7:00AM ET

What does Harry Potter have to do with East Asian geopolitics? On Jan. 1, Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom, penned an op-ed for The Telegraph in which he tied Japan to Voldemort, the villain in the “Harry Potter” series. He criticized Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which is controversial because it memorializes war criminals alongside Japan’s war dead.

“If militarism is like the haunting Voldemort of Japan,” Liu wrote, “the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is a kind of horcrux, representing the darkest parts of that nation’s soul … Regrettably, what Abe did has raised the spectre of militarism rising again in Japan.”

Not to be outdone, Japan’s ambassador to the U.K., Keiichi Hayashi, responded on Jan. 5 with a piece titled “China risks becoming Asia’s Voldemort,” calling attention to China’s rapidly increasing military capabilities and escalation of territorial disputes. Why are top diplomats from the world’s second- and third-largest economies calling each other Voldemort?

Public opinion polls in China and Japan reveal a striking degree of hostility between the two countries. In a recent WIN/Gallup International poll, about 40 percent of Japanese said China was the country that posed the “greatest threat to peace in the world today.” In the same poll, 30 percent of Chinese answered that Japan was the greatest threat, and another 50 percent named the United States, Japan’s only formal ally. Many analogies have been drawn between current geopolitical conditions in East Asia and historical episodes that ended in catastrophe. Abe came under criticism at the Davos World Economic Forum in January for comparing China’s and Japan’s predicament to that of Germany and the U.K. in 1914, when close economic ties could not prevent the outbreak of World War I. The Chinese government and press favor a different analogy, seeing echoes of Japan’s World War II militarism in the statements and actions of Japanese leaders.

A more apt historical analogy, however, might be to mid-19th-century France and Prussia. At the time, France was a waning power, and Prussia was rising. France had been the aggressor in the most recent major conflict, the Napoleonic Wars. Despite his country’s decline, Napoleon III sought to reinvigorate his countrymen by invoking symbols of bygone glory — espousing popular sovereignty and nationalism; emphasizing the connection to his more famous uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte; and establishing the second French Empire. In turn, Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck sought to take advantage of the situation by portraying Napoleon III as the principal threat to regional stability, diplomatically isolating France.

Japan’s conservatives do themselves and the global community a disservice by clumsily feeding a narrative that sees Japan as the primary destabilizing force in East Asia.

The recent tit-for-tat between China and Japan bears a striking resemblance to Franco-Prussian competition. China is very clearly the rising geopolitical and economic power in Asia. China’s economy overtook Japan’s in 2010, and Japanese military spending peaked more than a decade ago, while China’s has surged. This has led to anxiety not only in Japan but also among China’s other neighbors, such as the Philippines and Vietnam. 

But there is a competing historical narrative that identifies a revanchist Japan as the principal threat to East Asian peace and security. Abe and his colleagues, much like Napoleon III, have clumsily played into this narrative by associating themselves with a historical revisionism that minimizes Japan’s atrocities and aggression during World War II. Apart from being the first prime minister since 2006 to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, Abe has come under fire for appointing outspoken revisionists to the board of NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting station, which has prided itself on impartiality. Perhaps the most embarrassing gaffe thus far has come from Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who remarked last year that Japan ought to amend its constitution by learning from the methods of the Nazis, who eviscerated the Weimar constitution “before anyone else noticed.”

China’s rise is a serious issue that must be managed constructively. Everyone will benefit if China integrates peacefully into the existing world order. Japan has plenty of international support in calling for greater transparency and respect for international laws and norms from Beijing. However, Japan’s conservatives are doing themselves and the rest of the global community a tremendous disservice by feeding a parallel narrative that sees Japan as the primary destabilizing force in East Asia. By doing so, they are giving China the diplomatic upper hand. More important, Japanese conservatives are undermining their national interest by antagonizing the populations of China and South Korea, countries crucial to Japan’s long-term economic prosperity and geopolitical security.

The rising tide of nationalism and historical revisionism in Japan has roots in the country’s long economic stagnation, the passing of time since the end of World War II and the failure of the Democratic Party of Japan, a left-leaning party that ruled the country from 2009 to 2012. The party’s amity toward its Asian neighbors went largely unreciprocated, giving ammunition to conservatives who claim Japan bears no cost for its revisionism, since relations with China and South Korea will remain poor anyway. Japan’s neighbors should do more to acknowledge and encourage positive gestures, such as Abe’s recent statement that he will uphold the 1993 apology regarding wartime comfort women and his decision to discard Japan’s stockpile of sensitive nuclear material generated by its civilian nuclear program.

It is understandable that the Japanese elite and public want to be proud of their country, and the ranks of Japanese who were directly involved in World War II atrocities are rapidly dwindling. But Abe and his colleagues are misguided in seeking to reinvigorate their country by revising history. Japan still has a vibrant economy with tremendous potential in cutting-edge technologies in fields such as robotics, energy efficiency and biotechnology. A more effective strategy would be to rally the country not around the ghosts of the past but around dreams of the future.

Phillip Lipscy is an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, where he is the Thomas Rohlen Center fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies’ Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. He is an expert on international relations and political economy, with a focus on East Asia. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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