Disputes between nations over territory is nothing new. It’s the stuff of ancient wars, tribal conflicts, and modern diplomatic headaches. Kashmir is a high profile example, as is the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, to say nothing of Israel/Palestine. Part of those conflicts are actually horizontal, where the spaces in which people live, work, and negotiate their culture make up the basis for the fights. Other parts are political, where the symbolic importance of the territory takes over, even trumping the strategic considerations or resources.
The Pacific islands that the Chinese call the Diaoyus, and that Japan calls the Senkakus, are the source of a very interesting cultural battle that has spanned a couple of generations now. “There’s oil in them thar hills” and so a fight has persisted over the claim to the small islands populated by crabs and sea birds. There are several such conflicts between China and Japan, as well as between South Korea and Japan, and Russia and Japan. Lots of symbolic value is placed on these conflicts in the general populations of the nations in question. In Tokyo, for example, one might observe ominous black trucks outfitted with megaphones and sign placards that announce the demand that the Sakhalin and Kuril Islands be returned to Japan. These are far right wing nationalists that find their business entangled with organized crime. Tough, uncompromising, racist, and loud.
China’s rise has prompted new waves of anti-Japanese protesting, and sometimes violence, to the extent that pictures fairly frequently make the evening news in Japan. This morning, as I was enjoying coffee and the Huffington Post, I came across a story that shows how anti-Japanese fever makes its way into the culture of everyday people in China. It’s a perfect example of Alfred Korzybski’s famous aphorism “the map is not the territory” because…well…it’s about actual maps and territory.
One of the hottest items currently sold in Chinese bookstores are maps of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands claiming them as Chinese territory. The notion that people would be so swollen by their nationalist fever to purchase such maps en masse is testimony to the power of symbols in culture. First, those islands bear little importance to anyone in either nation in any practical way. Yes, there are resources that could be exploited and so they have market value, but for two economies of such large scale it’s unlikely that whatever’s there would make any noticeable difference in the everyday person’s lifestyle. Second, it’s not like the islands are going to suddenly host portions of either nation’s population, since they’re just craggy outcrops in the middle of nowhere. This whole thing is about politics, nationalism, and the resurgence of ancient regional pissing matches.
For people to be so invested in the idea of the dispute is comical, were it not so aggressive and violent. I can’t speak to the extent to which the population of China is wrapped up in this symbolic exercise. I know the Sakhalin dispute in Japan is a concern, but only a fringe minority drive black trucks through Tokyo after all. I won’t take sides in the present dispute except to say that rising nationalism is always worrisome, especially when it occurs in parts of the world with large populations.
So, remind yourselves China, when you think about buying a map to show your fever for the cause, it’s not the territory. It’s not the islands, and it’s not the power dynamic between nations that can only be resolved by mutual understanding and compromise. It’s just a picture on a piece of paper.