Why are China and Japan accusing each other of being Voldemort?

Tension between the Asian powerhouses grew in 2013. Now, Chinese and Japanese diplomats are comparing each other's country to the Harry Potter villain.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture
Actor Ralph Fiennes played the deeply evil Lord Voldemort in the movie "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1." In real life, China and Japan are now referencing the Harry Potter character to express their dismay at each other's actions.

“You’re evil.” “No, you’re evil."

This, at its crudest, is how the most recent war of words between China and Japan is being played out.

The battleground, somewhat surprisingly, is Britain and the op-ed section of the conservative broadsheet, the Daily Telegraph.

In an ill-tempered exchange between the Chinese and Japanese ambassadors to London, both invoked another British institution – Harry Potter – to embellish attacks on the other country’s contribution to tensions in the Asia-Pacific, not least over ownership of a small cluster of islands in the East China Sea.

For China’s envoy, Lui Xiaoming, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s year-end visit to Yasukuni Shrine – where Japan’s war dead are honored – was evidence that dark forces were at play at the heart of the administration in Tokyo.

“In the Harry Potter story, the dark wizard Voldemort dies hard because the seven horcruxes, which contain parts of his soul, have been destroyed,” he wrote.  “If militarism is like the haunting Voldemort of Japan, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is a kind of horcrux, representing the darkest parts of that nation’s soul.”

Mr. Liu went on to accuse Abe of putting Japan back on the path of prewar-style militarism, citing his plans to raise military spending, his eagerness to reform the postwar pacifist Constitution, and his apparent lack of remorse for his country's wartime conduct.

It took Japan just a few days to respond in kind, again in the pages of the Daily Telegraph. "East Asia is now at a crossroads," Japan’s envoy to London, Keiichi Hayashi, wrote. "There are two paths open to China. One is to seek dialogue, and abide by the rule of law. The other is to play the role of Voldemort in the region by letting loose the evil of an arms race and escalation of tensions, although Japan will not escalate the situation from its side.”

The vituperative commentaries put growing tension between China and Japan on full display. Over the past year, Japan decried China's unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone while China bristled at Japan's new military plans

While it's not normal for diplomats to engage in Harry Potter references, the choice of metaphor shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The Harry Potter genre is hugely popular in China, where demand reportedly sparked a lucrative market in bootleg versions. In 2007, movie executives rewarded Potter-mad Japan for its ability to generate sales by choosing Tokyo for the world premiere of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

For the region’s sake, one can only hope that representatives of the countries’ diplomatic corps rediscover their sense of Muggle propriety, so that their next exchange will be more temperate.

After all, the author of the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling, once described Voldemort as a “raging psychopath, devoid of the normal human responses to other people’s suffering." As other commentators have pointed out, for two men schooled in the art of diplomacy to invoke such dark imagery about a neighbor – and an important trading partner, to boot – is unseemly at best.

The Liu-Hayashi bout makes it hard to imagine that 2014 will bring China and Japan any closer. A summit between their leaders is a similarly distant prospect: as things stand, a score-settling game of Quidditch would be less fanciful.

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