Storytelling, Cultural Spheres and the Senkaku Dilemma

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Storytelling, Cultural Spheres and the Senkaku Dilemma

To what extent could a shared cultural sphere overcome bitter disputes and heal wounds from East Asia’s past?

Storytelling, Cultural Spheres and the Senkaku Dilemma

Haruki Murakami

Credit: REUTERS/Petr Josek

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.

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.

This flourishing may seem unprecedented, but cultural ambassadors have roamed East Asia since ancient times. After all, almost every aspect of traditional Japanese culture, from literature and painting to architecture and Zen, was imported from China, which has always been at the center (Middle Kingdom) of the East Asian universe.

By the late 19th century, the tables had turned. Prior to WWII, Chinese were venturing to the newly Westernized and industrialized – and significantly, militarized – Japan to sample the offerings of the modern world. “The Chinese writer Lu Xun went to Japan to study as did a lot of other Chinese authors, playwrights and artists in the 1920s and 1930s,” Rebecca Catching, art critic and curator of OV Gallery in Shanghai, told The Diplomat.

“There used to be a more meaningful dialogue between China and Japan,” Catching continued. In Shanghai “there was a book store called Uchiyama Shoten that was run by a Japanese guy, and was a place where Japanese and Chinese authors exchanged ideas. In fact before 1949 there were lots of Japanese teachers in Chinese art schools throughout China.”

According to Chen Hangfeng, a Chinese artist who undertook a residency in Sapporo called S-AIR in 2012, the need for traditional arts exchange persists, albeit ironically. “China has lost so much of its traditional culture that Chinese now need to learn from Japan,” Chen told The Diplomat. “Just take a simple example: Kyoto. Japan’s ancient capital is a perfect example for Chinese to learn about what Tang Dynasty architecture looked like.”

Pan-Asia Present

Tradition aside, within the region’s cultural sphere today there is a gradual blurring of national lines. Many of the fresh literary and artistic offerings occupy a liminal zone, an ambiguous world where East is not really East and West is not strictly Western.

This cultural limbo is prime Murakami turf – a reality the author is keenly aware of. In many ways, the Japanese literary superstar is the quintessential post-modern East Asian cultural figure. His appeal transcends politics and manages to forge connections where diplomacy has failed.

“Haruki once told me that he’d become a kind of ‘cultural ambassador’ for Japan overseas,” Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica, contributing editor to literary journal Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan (in which Murakami has been interviewed), and a lecturer at the University of Tokyo, told The Diplomat. “Many non-Japanese have no idea what a Japanese person might be like…He feels responsible for giving his country and people a public face.”

What is the secret of Murakami’s appeal; in Asia specifically? And what clues do the reasons for his popularity offer about the region’s commonalities? A whole lot in Kelts’ view.

“It’s tough for me to explain this without slipping into Orientalist stereotypes, of course,” Kelts says, “but that ability to embrace mystery and happenstance without needing the touchstone of logic for guidance seems to me a big part of his broader appeal in Asia.” In Murakami’s novels, Kelts explains there is “a patient, almost quiet state of musing and wonder, unhurried by plot.” He refers to this as an “Asian sense of time and pacing… [which is] slower, more attuned to subtler shifts in nature and seasons.”

Referencing the short story Super-Frog Saves Tokyo from a collection of tales titled After the Quake, Kelts adds: “There is a tendency in the West to try to logically deconstruct stories. In Haruki’s work, a talking frog just is what it is. He shows up unannounced at a salaryman’s apartment and asks him to save Tokyo from an impending earthquake. We can speculate that the amphibian is closer to the ground and thus more sensitive to vibrations. But nothing in the story itself points to that analysis or bothers to proffer it.”

Talking frogs are the tip of Murakami’s fictional iceberg, which also features chattering cats, psychic prostitutes, dancing gnomes and a preponderance of characters who spend a significant amount of time underground engaged in quests that are simultaneously mundane and mythic. But beyond these fanciful characteristics lies something more concrete that also resonates across contemporary Asia: a sense of rootlessness.

“He captures so well the loneliness of urban anomie, and the longing to find something stable in urban life, whether a lover from one’s distant past who reemerges (as in many of his love stories), or something stable within,” Kelts adds. “As the Asian region urbanizes at a rapid pace, the young and lonely are proliferating and finding in Murakami an empathetic voice.”

Shogo Oketani, who authored J-Boys, Kazuo’s World, Tokyo 1965, a coming of age novel set during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and co-authored Jet Black and the Ninja Wind with Lowitz, agreed with this sentiment. “In Murakami’s early works, he wrote about people who lived in a world of ‘non-nationality,” Oketani told The Diplomat. “His characters lived in 1960s and 1970s Japan, but the setting was not really Japanese. It looked more like the suburbs of 1950s America, symbolizing prosperity and an easygoing life. Readers liked reading about his character’s love affairs and melancholy in a kind of ‘nation-less’ world.

Beyond the Headlines    

Murakami’s novels and some of the region’s cinematic auteurs may capture the life and times of rudderless youths in Asia’s megacities. But in the real world even those who have been won over by pop culture are susceptible to saber rattling. It is not uncommon to hear hip, literate young Chinese in Shanghai or Beijing say they are Murakami devotees or like Harajuku’s fashion trends in one breath, and then denounce the Japanese government in the next.

“My overall impression is that there is a trend where Chinese people can be fond of Japanese culture, but dislike Japanese people, usually for historical reasons,” Tom Mangione, an American writer and musician based in Shanghai where he co-founded the bilingual poetry event United Verses, told The Diplomat. “I have an outspoken co-worker in her late 30s who articulates this sentiment quite a bit. Any time the topic of Japanese food comes up, she always makes it a point to say how much she loves Japanese food, but doesn’t like Japanese people.”

For this very reason, many doubt whether the geographically and politically ambiguous brand of pop culture that is so prevalent in East Asia today is sufficient to address the wounds of the past. There is no shortage of alternative voices doing just that. Rather than criticizing their neighbors, many of these intrepid artists are exploring their own country’s dark pasts, shining a light for others to see, defying media-driven stereotypes in the process.

Commenting on the complex nature of the issues being worked through by Japan, Korea and China, literary critic Kato added: “These three countries’ governments have severe problems domestically. In China, there are issues surrounding the freedom of the people. National unification looms in South/North Korea. And in Japan, an immature political sense and issues from the post-war period are seemingly never ending.”

“As a result,” he continued, “these three governments have reasons to divert people’s attention from important domestic problems to issues like the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute or other border problems.”

Oketani adds: “The important thing is to reject the temptation of nationalism and to look back on our own history objectively. If we look at our own countries’ history truthfully, we will not be taken in by the dishonesty of politicians.”

This is not an easy holding pattern to break, notes Senno Takumasa, a literature professor at Waseda University. “The Japanese, Chinese and Korean governments cannot back down from each other at this point,” Senno told The Diplomat. “Because mass media does not report on peoples’ real thoughts in the ‘opponent’ countries, we fail to notice that many people actually hold more cool-headed opinions [than mass media often suggests].”

The remedy, Senno says, is “to begin forming genuine mutual understanding.” Not content to theorize, Senno is personally engaged in such a project, working with friends in China, South Korea and Taiwan. “I am in the midst of preparing a book that will introduce citizens’ opinions on these topics from these countries. I hope plans such as this will serve as a first step in the right direction.”

Seeing beyond the spectacle of the mainstream media’s narrative is a challenge not unique to East Asia: South Asia is plagued with similarly heavy historical baggage.

Recently Stewart of Manoa Journal edited a collection of Hindi, Urdu and Bengali writings focused on the India-Pakistan Partition of 1947, during which “horrific things were done and the repercussions and failure of reconciliation plague us today. Yet, the excellent contemporary writers we published…exposed the humanity of individuals on all sides in the conflicts, and readers could understand that we cannot in good conscience demonize an entire people.”

“I tried to highlight stories of reconciliation and compassion not at all in a didactic or ‘feel good’ way, since any stories of this sort must vividly describe the root causes and events that have led to contentiousness and lasting hatred.”

Lowitz edited a similarly themed issue of Manoa Journal special wartime issue titled Silence to Light: Japan and the Shadows of War, published in 2001. She recalled an experience similar to Stewart’s, editing a series of harrowing “war-related narratives, essays and fiction revealing personal, heart-wrenching testimonials from both victims and ‘perpetrators’ in the Pacific war. Some fiction that came out of Japan was more honest than the ‘truth’ purported by many politicians.”

In a similar vein, Stewart pointed to literary exchanges between Taiwan and the PRC, “especially among poets, which have changed at least on a small scale the antagonistic atmosphere between those countries. It’s very difficult, but it happens when this bridge is built, no matter how soft.”

“Reconciliation among Japan, Korea, and China is much more difficult, needless to say,” Stewart continued. “But exchanges of stories through excellent translations, an uncensored flow of books and films, and international events where articulate people of goodwill come together and re-imagine a way toward peace—these things are happening and will make a difference.”

A Fragile Bridge

The growth of a regional pop culture and scattered efforts to bring artists together to address the region’s past are heartening developments. But do these efforts add up to a truly shared ‘cultural sphere’?

In light of his own experiences in the art worlds of China and Japan, Shanghai-based artist Chen Hangfeng told The Diplomat, “I don’t think there are enough exchanges to constitute a borderless East Asian culture sphere. There are barriers with language, insufficient funding (both governmental and private) and problems with finding the right people to organize and promote such exchanges.”

In agreement with Chen, Catching added: “The problem is that China, South Korea and Japan are relatively closed. Due to their historical dislikes there is no government money flowing between them in the arts.” By comparison, she notes, “there is a big exchange between China and the West, but this is often funded by the West.”

The limited exchange taking place has been hampered further by the ongoing islands spat. “There are plenty of collaborations between Japanese, American, South Korean and Chinese creatives that are happening and being proposed,” Kelts said. “Sadly, recent political tensions in Asia have interfered with many of them. One prominent anime producer told me the Senkaku conflict set the industry back years in its efforts to co-produce films and series with Chinese animation studios.”

Kenta Torimoto – a Japanese cultural producer, curator and director of the Shanghai-based art management organization Office 339 – agreed with Kelts. Torimoto summed up the reason for the dearth of collaboration among East Asian creatives in two words: “political games.” Nonetheless, Torimoto has managed to bring a number of Japanese artists to China and Chinese artists to Japan. In 2012, he put together the China-Japan joint exhibition Micro Garden in Hangzhou.

There are other similar efforts to connect Asian artists, such as the Asian Creatives Daikanyama project, which aims to bring together artists from around Asia to collaborate and blaze new paths. Although these efforts are relatively limited in scope, there is little doubt that a larger cultural sphere may one day emerge. As the region inevitably becomes increasingly intertwined, there is little choice but to address the deeper issues that plague the region.

“Basically, I think a relationship between countries is the same as a relationship between men,” said Shi Xiaowei, head of the Japanese Language Department at China’s Sanda University, who translated Murakami’s novels 1Q84 and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and the Years of his Pilgrimage, as well as Japanese author Hiromi Kawakami’s book Briefcase. “But when you dislike your neighbor you may move away. A country cannot move away when it dislikes its neighboring country. Being friends is the only way.”

Shi continued: “We need to have cross-cultural exchange. Culture might not eliminate the dispute, but at least it would not create dispute or make it worse. Shelve the dispute. Let time and the next generation bring us a wiser solution.”

To get from A to B – from the tense present to a more harmonious future – East Asia must continue building a bridge, however tenuous it may be.

“Bridges are only made through connection,” Lowitz says. “Connection is made by reaching out, and being reached out to. The more familiar a country or culture is to us, the less ‘foreign’ it seems, and the easier it is to find similarities that help us to feel interconnected.”

Kelts adds a caveat. “The thing about bridges that are soft is that they are precious, but can easily be broken.”