Harry Potter and the Disputed Yasukuni Shrine Visit
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Harry Potter and the Disputed Yasukuni Shrine Visit

China and Japan’s ‘Voldemort’ spat is no laughing matter, writes Michele Penna

A NEW threat has emerged in East Asia: two dark wizards, both in the form of evil lord Voldermort, are menacing the world order, armed with magic wands and tons of military equipment. Each is motivated by surging nationalism and a good dose of historical revisionism. And this time, there is no Harry Potter in sight to fix the problem.

This would be a sober assessment if two articles recently written by Chinese and Japanese senior diplomats were to be taken literally. While the accuracy of their metaphors should be doubted, the increasing divergences between the world’s second and third largest economies are far from humorous.

On January 1, the Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, wrote an article in The Daily Telegraph which began as follows: “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.”

Mr Liu’s knowledge of the celebrated work of JK Rowling went well beyond the main characters, hinting at black magic’s inner workings and soul-saving artifacts. Keiichi Hayashi, the Japanese Ambassador in London, must have felt challenged to show his own expertise of political literature. His reply was published on January 5, again in the Telegraph.

“There are two paths open to China,” he stated. “One is to seek dialogue, and abide by the rule of law. The other is to play the role of Voldemort in the region by letting loose the evil of an arms race and escalation of tensions, although Japan will not escalate the situation from its side.”

Both pieces – which would be comical in another context – are part of a shouting match which began on December 26, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine is a controversial site where the bodies of convicted war criminals from WWII are buried alongside thousands of soldiers. It was the first time that Mr Abe visited the shrine since he became PM, and all diplomatic hell was let loose: even the United States, who shares an alliance with Japan, voiced its criticism.

Such an inflammatory action was likely to generate much more than just a couple of articles. And it did: on January 7, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying bashed the Japanese Ambassador for his “ignorant, unreasonable and arrogant” remarks.

On January 8 the verbal confrontation moved to the United Nations, where China’s UN envoy Liu Jieyi  told the press that “it all boils down to whether the leader of a country should stand on the side of maintaining the principles and purposes of the charter of the United Nations or to side with war criminals.” According to Mr Liu, “the international community should remain vigilant and issue a warning … that Abe must correct his erroneous outlook of history, he must correct his mistakes and he must not slip further down the wrong path.” His Japanese counterpart, Motohide Yoshikawa, retorted in a statement on the same day: “Prime Minister Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine to pay his respects and pray for the souls of the war dead and renew the pledge that Japan shall never again wage war. It was nothing more and nothing less.”

On January 12, more provocative remarks were made, this time over aid to Africa. Abe’s Spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi told the BBC that “countries like Japan, Britain and France cannot provide African leaders with beautiful houses or beautiful ministerial buildings”, a thinly veiled reference to Beijing’s expenditures on African leaders.

The row over the Yasukuni Shrine visit is only the latest quarrel in a long series of verbal outbursts which reflect deep disagreements between the two countries. The most obvious of them is the dispute over tiny, desolate islets in the East China Sea, around which much of the recent animosity has revolved. The islands – known in Chinese as Diaoyu and in Japanese as Senkaku – are claimed by both countries as their own and have been at the center of much brinkmanship.

The latest episode in a saga which has been going on for almost two years took place in November, when China unilaterally established an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. A visibly hostile Abe told national carriers not to respect it, while a commentary on Xinhua, China’s national news agency blamed the whole problem on Tokyo. “For the record, it is believed that anyone with only half a brain knows that it is Japan who intentionally set the region on fire in the first place,” wrote an author.

Since the territorial dispute came to the forefront in 2012, the verbal fight has grown in intensity at each twist and turn. The difference this time around is that words have reached the level of abuse. A new entry has been added to the usual array of ‘militarism, revisionism, imperialism, aggressiveness, wrongdoings, arrogance, lack of respect, ignorance’: being a ‘Voldemort’. And what does it exactly mean? According to the very person who invented the character, JK Rowling, Lord Voldemort is a ‘raging psychopath, devoid of the normal human responses to other people’s suffering’ and ‘incredibly power hungry.’ While the remarks first made by Mr Liu and then repeated by Mr  Hayashi can be understood as a reference to popular culture, the term still offers an indication of how tensions in East Asia are growing. For, while both China and Japan claim that they are only interested in peace, who would trust a power hungry, inhuman psychopath living next door?