Storytelling, Cultural Spheres and the Senkaku Dilemma
Haruki Murakami
Image Credit: REUTERS/Petr Josek

Storytelling, Cultural Spheres and the Senkaku Dilemma


In September 2012, internationally acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami penned a heartfelt op-ed in the Asahi Shimbun. His purpose was twofold: to praise the strides made in East Asia towards developing a regional shared cultural sphere on the one hand, and to express regret at hearing that books by Japanese authors were being pulled from shelves in China on the other.

He started with the good, writing: “‘The East Asian cultural sphere’ is steadily maturing into a rich, stable market. This is because the environment has improved markedly in recent years. Although some individual problems remain, a large number of people today have access to and enjoy music, literature, movies and TV programs at equivalent value and without restriction within the market. It is a splendid achievement indeed.”

Splendid though this development may be, historical trauma and politics of the day remain a barrier that seems to continually prevent East Asia’s various artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers from creating a truly shared cultural space. Any headway made in easing tensions and lowering barriers within the region always seems to be offset by the sudden appearance of Chinese ships or the next official visit to Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine. Most recently, ambassadors from China, South Korea and even North Korea chastised Japan at the UN in late January for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s year-end visit to the contentious shrine.

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Further stoking the flames, Abe-appointed NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) governor Naoki Hyakuta flat-out denied recently that the Nanjing Massacre even took place.

Murakami likened the nationalist sentiment that is predictably whipped up in the wake of such events to “getting drunk on cheap alcohol.” “Cheap alcohol can get a lot of people drunk and their blood boiling with only a few glasses,” he wrote. “They talk louder, behave boorishly and repeat an argument whose logic is oversimplified. After raising a noisy clamor, however, they only find themselves left with a terrible headache the following morning.”

Could a shared East Asian cultural sphere, even in a small way, help the region sober up and recover from this historical hangover? While cultural and artistic exchange may not be a panacea, ample case has been made by many that the arts help bind us emotionally to those whom we may otherwise disagree with, even fear – “the other” – by putting us in touch with their shared humanity. American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, for one, has written eloquently on this in her book Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice. With the current state of affairs in the region, there is little more pressing than healing old wounds.

“I would stress that reconciliation among nations, individuals, and tribes of all kinds, is the most important effort we need to undertake today,” Frank Stewart, editor of Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing and author of four books of poetry, told The Diplomat. “Essential to this effort is that people everywhere need to hear stories about our human, universal capacity for forgiveness, self-examination, and compassion; and stories of people who have fought against resentment, hatred, and anger which has lasted for decades and even centuries.”

There is a growing chorus of East Asian voices who are gradually bridging the region’s psychological chasm. Some of these voices – the Murakamis of the region – are forming the backbone of a distinctly East Asian form of pop culture, while other less headline-grabbing artists are exorcising the region’s demons in more direct yet quieter ways. With any luck, their creative work may, at least in a small way, bring about a larger shift in consciousness. While there are no guaranteed outcomes, their efforts are certainly forming a bridge. Or, as Murakami called it: “a path for souls to travel.”

Pan-Asia Past

Murakami has a point. In spite of the ongoing islands row, East Asia has undoubtedly made progress towards developing at least the semblance of a shared cultural space, with Japan, South Korea and China each trumpeting and honing its own national brand. Rewinding the clock puts things in perspective, and reveals economics as the force that propelled the region’s cultural sphere into the modern age.

Norihiro Kato, a literary critic and professor at Waseda University, quantifies this by pointing out that in 1980 Japan’s nominal GDP was about 17 times of South Korea’s and about 3.6 times that of China. “At that time, Japan was at the top and isolated within East Asia,” he told The Diplomat. “But in 2013, China’s nominal GDP was about 1.8 times larger than Japan’s and about 7.5 times larger than that of South Korea.”

Kato continued, “This fact signifies that these three countries have ‘gotten into line’ for the first time since the end of WWII. We have had similar conditions surrounding European countries before the formation of the EU, EC, or even the ECC in the 1960s.”

Particularly for Japan, the first East Asian nation to enter the limelight, the cultural impact of this transformation was dramatic. “In the earlier part of the last century, Japan was entirely foreign to most Western countries. Chopsticks? Raw fish? Unthinkable,” Leza Lowitz, an editor, co-translator of contemporary Japanese women’s poetry, pacifist poetry, and co-author of prizewinning Young Adult novel Jet Black and the Ninja Wind, about a half-Japanese girl’s quest to save indigenous lands, told The Diplomat. “Now, many elements of Japanese culture and cuisine have become part of the Western experience – sushi can be found on many tables even in Middle America, while manga and anime are popular worldwide.”

If sushi is found on Midwestern menus and Hayao Miyazaki‘s masterful anime are loved by legions of fans from Australia to France, rest assured that closer to home South Koreans and Chinese are dipping slabs of raw fish in soy sauce as fervently as they follow their anime series of choice.

Increasingly, currents carry culture the opposite direction as well. Take the raging Korea wave (“Hallyu”) that washed through Japan and China – and the rest of Asia – in recent years. In 2004, just as the Hallyu wave began to crash on Japanese shores, so many women were smitten by Korean actor “Yon-sama” (Bae Yong-Joon) that it prompted then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to quip, “Bae Yong-Joon is more popular than I am in Japan.” The Hallyu wave seems to have culminated in Psy‘s wacky horse-dance YouTube sensation, Gangnam Style. The tune set the all-time record for YouTube views, approaching 1.9 billion at the time of writing.

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