Diaoyu Islands

Timely reminder of the ills of nationalism

Amy Lai reflects on comments by Japanese authors opposing nationalism

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 9:58am

A group of Japanese, led by Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo Oe, has issued a statement criticising their government's handling of territorial disputes and urging it to stop its battles with Taiwan and China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and with South Korea over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands.

Issued late last month, the statement said Japan annexed Dokdo and the Diaoyus when South Korea and China were too weak to assert diplomatic claims. While the annexation of Dokdo marked the beginning of Japan's colonisation of Korea, the attempted nationalisation of the Diaoyus led to the latest flare-up between Japan and China. The group asked Tokyo to acknowledge the historical issues at play, have a peaceful dialogue with China, and resolve the matter in a friendly and co-operative manner.

Award-winning author Haruki Murakami has also weighed in, comparing the peril of nationalism to politicians and polemicists offering a "cheap liquor" to their people, making them act hysterically but leaving them with nothing but a hangover the next morning. Fearing that the dispute could threaten the bonds of humanity the two countries have forged, he warned against retaliation.

Murakami may have made the remarks out of self-interest, after learning that some Chinese stores had taken his books off their shelves in retaliation against Japan. But, in fact, bonds of humanity and cultural understanding, as well as the Sino-Japanese conflicts, are recurring motifs in his works.

In one interview, he mentioned the extensive research on 1930s China that he conducted as a visiting scholar at Princeton. He also recalled his father's horrific experiences as a soldier fighting in China during the second world war. In doing so, he criticised the Japanese for playing the role of "victim" by blaming other nations for their own mistake.

His novel The Wind-up Bird Chronicle unveils his hope for his countrymen to learn about Japan's aggression towards China. In a more recent novel, After Dark, he even uses the character of a Chinese prostitute to touch upon the taboo subject of "comfort women".

Indeed, Japanese writers have long criticised their nation for its aggressive foreign policies. The late Ayako Miura, in a letter published in 1982, responded to a young mother's question concerning Japan's invasion of China. Miura described a "real patriot" as one who refuses to go to war and dares to risk his life to point out the misdeeds of his nation. Those who blindly follow the dictates of authority do not love their nation as much as they love themselves. She refused to visit China because she felt deeply ashamed of what Japan did in the second world war, adding that she would "kneel and kowtow her way" to China as a gesture of apology if she had to pay such a visit.

These Japanese authors' remarks speak to the potentially active role that writers can play in their nation's governance. In his 1821 The Defence of Poetry, British romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed poets are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world", indicating that by virtue of their ability to comprehend a higher beauty and truth, poets are founders of civil society. Indeed, writers may well provide valuable insights not readily available to decision-makers in politics: all they need is the freedom to speak.

China need not look to Japanese writers to learn about the evil of nationalism and the good that shared humanity would bring a nation. It need only correct its own biased understanding of harmony, review its censorship laws and stop glossing over different opinions in the name of harmony. As a saying in Confucius' Analects goes: "The gentleman is harmonious but not uniform. The little man is uniform but not harmonious."

True harmony (he) in Confucianism, in contrast with uniformity (tong), not only allows for differences of opinion but demands it. By heeding the voices of dissidents, writers and others, China can attain a truly harmonious society and formulate sound policies.

Amy Lai, a lawyer who was educated in Cambridge and Boston, has written extensively on literature, culture and law