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Shrimps, Cheese, and Knives: What Do Nations Really Fight for?

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Shrimps, Cheese, and Knives: What Do Nations Really Fight for?

The ‘Dokdo shrimp’ controversy is not the first argument of its kind – in Asia or elsewhere.

Shrimps, Cheese, and Knives: What Do Nations Really Fight for?
Credit: Flickr/ francois schnell

“How leaky are the borders of man-made states!” the late Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner Wisława Szymborska once wrote. And leaky they are indeed. Recently a diplomatically insensitive shrimp somehow sneaked its way through the disputed waters that flow in between Japan and South Korea and found itself served on a table right in front of U.S. President Donald Trump when he was dining in Seoul.

The dinner took place on November 7 and was a part of the president’s official visit to the Republic of Korea. The shrimp was officially described as “Dokdo shrimp” on the menu and this caused unease in Japan, which also claims the Dokdo Islands (known as the Takeshima in Japanese). The foodie explanation may be that the shrimps from the Dokdo waters are a rare delicacy but the sharp diplomatic blade hidden in the aquatic animal’s soft meat could not have been lost on anybody. Donald Trump arrived in South Korea straight from Japan and he was not only served a meal from disputed territories but that dinner in his honor was attended by the octogenarian Lee Yong-soo, one of the so-called “comfort women” – Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II. Once again, South Korea asserted its moral right to remind the world of the earlier wrongdoings of Japan.

The Dokdo shrimp controversy’will possibly vanish from the headlines as quickly as the shrimp vanished from the table (or so I assume) but this is not the first case when seemingly lighter things became sparks in diplomatic conflagrations. This happens in Asia and elsewhere.

The two countries perhaps best known across Asia for fighting over objects and traditions are Indonesia and Malaysia. The two have already sparred over batik (the traditional cloth dyeing technique), the kris/keris knife, the wayang kulit (a shadow puppet theater tradition), and more. In each case both nations claimed the objects – and, more importantly, the traditions linked to them – as their own. Between Thailand and Malaysia, in turn, a struggle to claim the tradition of foot volleyball was perhaps averted by naming it internationally sepak takraw, which is a rare case of a linguistic compromise: one word in the name of this sport is from the Thai language, the other from the Malay. Within India, in 2015 two states – Odisha and Bengal – confronted each other by laying a claim to a famous sweet, called roshogolla in West Bengal and pahala in Odisha. Outside Asia, both Poland and Slovakia raced to claim that the smoked cheese called oštiepok in Slovakian and oscypek in Polish was a part of their national cuisine.

The Dokdo shrimp is of course different in most ways. Japan and South Korea do not really have a beef over a shrimp. The dispute is about the islands – two small, rocky islets in the middle of the sea, but still important for both nations – and not about the animals that inhabit the waters around them. But the larger similarity is about crossing political borders. The many traditions disputed between Malaysia and Indonesia are disputed precisely because they are shared: in a broader and historical sense, they belong to the Malay cultural world, which is older than the post-colonial borders of the modern states of Malaysia and Indonesia. One can of course often pinpoint the more or less exact region in which a particular tradition was born but these traditions and objects were in currency in the territories that are now both western Indonesia and Malaysia. The game now called sepak takraw was popular across Southeast Asia, wherever its true origins may lie. Roshogolla/pahala is now similarly popular in many regions of India, and particularly so in West Bengal and Odisha. It is also considered as a part of the national cuisine of Bangladesh, a state which had been originally a part of Bengal. And the oštiepok/oscypek smoked cheese is both Polish and Slovakian because it is traditionally connected with the highlander cuisine of the Tatra mountains, which straddle the borders of the two modern states. You can thus look for the exact place of origin, you can identify the object with a country according to its present borders – or you can refer to a broader cultural zone. Thus, the kris/keris knife belongs to the Malay cultural zone and the oštiepok/oscypek cheese to the Tatra highlander cultural zone. And these zones did not function in isolation from the other cultures around them, nor can they often claim copyrights on their traditions.

The point is: over a longer time and wider space, political borders are always either artificial or easily transgressed when it comes to non-political traditions. Plants, animals, food, sports, or things may be a part of a national heritage but they seldom belong to one nation only. A sweetmeat will quickly find its lovers in other regions. The sepak takraw ball is now as Thai as it is Malay, just like it constantly flies between the two halves of the court during the game. And the poor shrimp has no idea that it frequents the waters that some call the East Sea while others call it the Sea of Japan, in the area that some call the Dokdo Islands while others call it Takeshima. We may call it the Dokdo shrimp if it makes sense but the point is not to consider it as belonging to one nation more then to any other. While it is important to nourish national heritage, we should not allow some to lay exquisite claim to things that should be accessible to us all.

I assume the best way to finish this text is the way I have started it: with quoting Wisława Szymborka’s poem. This time, however, I will include its longer portions:

How leaky are the borders of man-made states! […]
how many mountain pebbles roll onto foreign turf
in provocative leaps! […]

Need I cite each and every bird as it flies,
or alights, as now, on the lowered gate?
Even if it be a sparrow—its tail is abroad,
thought its beak is still home. As if that weren’t enough—it keeps fidgeting!

Out of countless insects I will single out the ant,
who, between the guard’s left and right boots,
feels unobliged to answer questions of origin and destination. […]

Only what’s human can be truly alien.
The rest is mixed forest, undermining moles, and wind.