East Asia is one of the world’s most dynamic regions, driven by the trio of China, Japan and South Korea. With significant economic, historic and cultural links, one would think these countries get along quite well. The reality is the complete opposite in that these countries strongly dislike, if not hate, each other. Three Tigers, One Mountain – A Journey Through the Bitter History and Current Conflicts of China, Korea, and Japan explores this confounding issue as author Michael Booth visited all three countries to find out the reasons for their grievances and why these continue to linger in modern times. There are several rivalries at play – Japan-Korea, Japan-China, and to a lesser extent, China-Korea.
There is also the bonus of a fourth nation Taiwan, which as most know is claimed by China as its territory. However, it’s not China-Taiwan tensions which are the main focus, but a one-sided Taiwan-Korea feud which is probably the most trivial and least hateful of the region’s rivalries.
Booth first travels across Japan, where he visits Yokohama’s Chinatown and Koreatown, then talks to far-right nationalists, academics and Korean-Japanese. Booth also visits the Yasakuni Shrine, which enshrines Japan’s war dead and is controversial due to it holding the remains of 14 Japanese Class-A war criminals, high-ranking military officers who were found guilty of crimes against humanity during World War II. More specifically, it’s that Japanese leaders often visit the shrine which angers China and South Korea.
A major reason for this anger is Japan’s atrocious actions during the 20th century, including World War II, and its seeming inability to fully apologize for these. For South Korea, it stems from a humiliating and tragic colonization under Japan during the early 20th century that lasted until 1945, when Japan was defeated by the US and its allies. Even before that, Japan also tried to invade South Korea in the 17th century, but was driven back.
Booth thinks that the US is at fault for the region’s rivalries since the arrival of US Commodore Matthew Perry’s fleet of “Black Ships” in 1853 forced Japan to open up to the West, enabling it to pick up both technology and ideas that led it to replicate European colonization. Japan thus went on to create its own empire in the region, defeating China in war and thus take Taiwan, as well as invading and annexing Korea.
Booth then takes the ferry from Nagasaki to Busan, South Korea’s second-biggest city. From there, he visits the DMZ, Gwangju, Incheon, and of course, Seoul. South Korea of course is still officially at war with its reclusive northern neighbor, but sometimes it acts as if its main threat is Japan. The roots of this go back hundreds of years ago to the late 16th century when Japan invaded Korea twice, causing the deaths of a million Koreans. However, the country also has its own 20th century authoritarian past to deal with, which Booth also looks into, as well as the ensuing economic rise and current global cultural supremacy (K-pop, movies, TV dramas). Interestingly, Booth seems to have provided a more comprehensive look at South Korea rather than just focus on sources of regional tensions as he did with Japan and China.
The third country is China, where Booth goes to major cities along the country’s eastern half such as Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, and Harpin. The latter two are major sites of Japanese atrocities in World War II, with Harpin being where the Japan military’s Unit 731 conducted testing of biological weapons on live Chinese prisoners, while Nanjing is where the Japanese massacred at least hundreds of thousands of Chinese.
Booth, who is British, then changes his mind and thinks that British culpability in starting the 19th century Opium War with Qing China is the main factor for East Asia’s tensions. He also visits Hong Kong, where a local academic shuts down his guilt over the UK’s role in the Opium War, reasoning that China was already declining under the Qing. Not to mention that opium was being consumed elsewhere in the world, including back in the UK.
Finally, Booth goes to Taiwan. Some people might be surprised, but Taiwan harbors a sort of grudge with Korea. Personally, I am not too clear about why this exists, as queries to local friends yielded unclear answers. The people Booth talks to mention Taiwan’s superiority complex towards Korea, owing to the two’s contrasting colonial experience under Japan. Not only was Taiwan colonized earlier by Japan, in 1895, but its experience was much less bloody than Korea, which, unlike Taiwan, has a history as a state for over a thousand years. It is also a one-sided rivalry since the South Koreans don’t really care much about Taiwan.
Despite Booth’s usual forte writing about travel and food, he produces a worthy effort in tackling what is an extremely heavy and complex topic. He has a good grasp of the historical dynamics and conflicts, and lets his interview subjects speak without imposing his own views on them. However, his theory that East Asia’s mutual dislike is the fault of the US, and then the UK (which he later drops), is erroneous and seems like an expression of over-earnest Western guilt.
Booth concludes that domestic politics, as well as domestic propaganda, is a major reason for the continuing animosity between these countries, and that some sort of common understanding of history needs to be arrived at. It’s a fair point though not very realistic. This is a region that has long been mutually suspicious and fought wars with each other, long before the US arrived on the scene. It won’t be surprising if these countries will continue to dislike each other for the near future.
Erroneous guilt aside, Three Tigers, One Mountain is a fascinating, somber and well-written account of the historical and political tensions and interactions of East Asia.