For Japan and China, a Dispute Worthy of Voldemort

Yasukuni Shrine Wikipedia Fg2

The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on a rainy day. Photo by Wikipedia user Fg2

I had a nice post prepared for today that was going to deal with a controversial issue in the religious world, but I have decided to put it aside and instead address a controversy that is currently brewing in the world of international relations.  One might even say it takes place in the fantasy world.

Let me first state a well known fact: China and Japan do not get along.  Subjects of disagreement between them include the fact that one is Communist and the other is a Western-style democracy, one is a major U.S. ally and the other more of a U.S. competitor, both are economic powers going after some of the same markets, a controversial chain of islands is claimed by both of them, they each have capable and expanding military forces, and one of them has a bunch of cute pandas while the other does not. (Ok, that last one isn’t really a source of tension.) Yet, all of these factors tend to take a backseat to a list of historical grievances that have proved to be infinitely hard to forget.

The Japanese occupation of large sections of China both before and during World War II was often brutal and has severely damaged relations between the two countries up to the present day. (The same can be said of Japan and the two Koreas.) One source of particular complaint over the past few decades has been the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial site in Tokyo dedicated to Japanese war heroes, some of whom also happened to be war criminals.  Any time a Japanese politician visits the site, it elicits condemnation from nearby neighbors.

Thus it was that when current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the shrine last month, it raised more than a few eyebrows.  While the PM told the media, “I prayed to pay respect for the war dead who sacrificed their precious lives and hoped that they rest in peace,” and insisted, “It is not my intention to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people,” this was not enough to pacify his critics.

Senkaku Island Patrol Flickr Al Jazeera English

A Japanese boat patrols the waters around the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, which are claimed by both China and Japan. Flickr photo by Al-Jazeera English

At this point, I must stress that the continual war of words between Japan and an increasingly militarized China would not have been enough to convince me to drop my previously planned article were it not for what happened next…and what happened next was epic.

On New Year’s Day 2014, China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Ziaoming, published an op-ed in the pages of Britain’s Daily Telegraph in an attempt to convince the British people of how wrong-headed Abe’s actions were and how much sympathy ought to be given to China.  In theory, it was a good idea, especially since China tends to be viewed as a bogeyman by the West and any chance to be on the right side of a controversial issue is worth seizing.  However, I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for the creative manner in which the ambassador started off his article.

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.

Seriously, the Chinese ambassador just used a Harry Potter reference to slam his Japanese counterparts?!  Well, now I’ve seen everything.

Prior to starting this website, I worked in the Washington, D.C. press office of a foreign country.  One of my tasks there was, on occasion, to help with submitting op-ed articles on behalf of government officials.  That gives me a bit of insight into how these articles are typically drafted.  I suspect that somebody in the Chinese embassy thought it would be clever to try to connect with their British audience by making a reference to a popular work of British literature.  Unfortunately, the effort fails upon closer examination, and had I been one of their editors, I would have recommended that they cut it entirely.

First, while analogies can certainly be helpful, using them as a starting point risks confusing the reader by making them work to figure out what the op-ed is actually attempting to prove.  Second, holy spoiler alert, Batman!  I know that at this point, anyone who has not read the final Potter book or seen the movie probably deserves to have the end spoiled, but even so, it seems a bit rude to the handful of people who still do not know how the books end.

Third, what exactly does it mean to “die hard”?  If this phrase is in any way related to the never-ending series of Bruce Willis movies, then it seems perfectly reasonable to conclude that Voldemort will inexplicably walk away from any kind of fiery crash or explosion he faces.  Perhaps the ambassador meant that while sometimes death is easy, Voldemort’s was either really painful, or really tricky to pull off, or just especially hard to take.  Either way, I am beginning to feel that English is not the first language of whoever wrote this.

Neoseeker Voldemort Screenshot

This single screenshot from the move “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1”, shows the character Voldemort looking characteristically evil. It was provided by the site and is of a lower resolution than the original image. It is intended for commentary purposes only.

Fourth and finally, despite having a good knowledge of the Harry Potter saga (though admittedly I am nowhere near the level of some devoted fans), it is difficult for me to understand how the example chosen by Mr. Liu actually applies to the situation at hand.  True enough, Harry was only able to finally kill Voldemort (unless you interpret He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s demise as self-inflicted) after the horcruxes, each of which contained a portion of the Dark Lord’s soul, were destroyed.  How does this apply to the situation between China and Japan?

“If militarism is like the haunting Voldemort of Japan, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is a kind of horcrux,” the Chinese ambassador tells us.  I assume this means that Japanese militarism is a villain that is out to get the nation of Japan, though the concern throughout the rest of the article seems to be more about Japan’s actions toward other countries.  Using Mr. Liu’s logic, we can conclude that destroying the Yasukuni Shrine will allow militarism in Japan to be utterly defeated…or will it?

How can we be sure that Yasukuni is the only horcrux?  After all, didn’t Voldemort split his soul into seven (or eight) pieces?  I thank the Chinese ambassador for bringing this issue to my attention, and I plan to set out destroying the rest of the horcruxes posthaste.  Maybe one is hidden inside Mount Fuji?  Was the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear reactor actually an attempt to do away with one of the horcruxes?  I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought that Hello Kitty looks a little bit possessed. (Only joking!  Please no pro-Hello Kitty hate mail!)

Yes, this analogy gets a bit ridiculous when you carry it through to its logical end.  The only thing that would make it more weird would be if the Japanese ambassador decided to fire back with his own op-ed that turns the Voldemort analogy around and uses it against China.  But surely Japan would simply choose to ignore the article and not risk escalating the situation, right?


This photo of a prop from the Harry Potter movies was taken by yours truly.


Wrong!  Yesterday, in the same paper that Liu Ziaoming chose to print his article, the Japanese ambassador to the UK responded in kind with an op-ed of his own.  The headline: “China risks becoming Asia’s Voldemort”.  I realize that the Japanese embassy did not choose it, but you have to admit, it is a catchy title.

For the most part, Ambassador Keiichi Hayashi avoided any references to fantasy literature in making his case that increased Chinese militarism is the real threat facing Asia and that Prime Minister Abe’s visit was nothing out of the ordinary.  Perhaps he could have dispensed with several paragraphs and simply told the Chinese, “You’re acting like babies – get over it!”  He made it to the last few sentences without a single Harry Potter analogy, but then, it seems, he could no longer help himself.

There are two paths open to China.  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.

China’s military build-up, Hayashi argues, is fueled by a Voldemort-like desire for power and domination, while any such actions on the part of Japan are only defensive measures meant to guard against the growing evil in Beijing.  “We’re not Voldemort: you are!” seems to be the message the Japanese ambassador meant to send.  Still, all of this begs the question, why are these two countries comparing each other to a fictional character in the first place?

I knew the Harry Potter series was a worldwide sensation, but this war of words between the Chinese and Japanese ambassadors has brought it home to me as perhaps nothing else could.  Why settle for comparing your political opponent to Hitler when you can compare him to Voldemort?

I would love to ask Voldemort for his opinion on this series of events, but even though that is impossible, I think I can reasonably guess that he would be none too happy about being dragged into Muggle political affairs.  Perhaps he would conclude that these two men must have both been hit by Confundus Charms.  Poor Voldy!  The utter humiliation of it all!

On a more serious note, it is clear that the historical grievances between these two countries have become more unforgivable than one of Voldemort’s curses, while some of the arguments put forth by Tokyo and Beijing appear more cynically self-serving than one of Gilderoy Lockhart’s biographies.  No Rememberalls are needed for these diplomats, though perhaps they could all do with a touch of Veritaserum.  Yes, that feels like enough Potter references.  Mischief managed!