Books – or lack thereof – are the latest manifestation of anti-Japanese sentiment in China. The escalating dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands has provoked some Beijing bookshops to remove Japanese books from their shelves.
The most prominent book to be made to disappear is Haruki Murakami’s recent novel 1Q84, a critically acclaimed worldwide bestseller. Rather ironically, given the circumstances, the title echoes Orwell’s 1984 – in Japanese, ‘Q’ and ‘9’ are homonyms.
Orwell has an uncanny knack of turning up at the choicest moments. Remember the glitch in July 2009 when Amazon deleted 1984 from everyone’s Kindles? People were startled by the realisation that Amazon could remove a book from their own personal libraries with such ease. It was the sort of thing that would happen in 1984, and it was just too perfect that Orwell’s was the book which Amazon removed. The clear reference to Orwell’s title in Murakami’s 1Q84 only highlights the deeply troubling nature of the happenings in Beijing.
This removal of 1Q84 and other books by Japanese authors and about Japan is more than just a boycott of Japanese goods, it is denying Chinese people a fundamental means of understanding Japanese culture. Surely the writers of Japan and the readers of China should be permitted to engage with each other – should they so desire – without interference. A country’s political actions might speak louder than the words of its writers, but to silence the latter is utterly wrong. Given the notoriously restricted press in China, removing these books has an especially severe effect on the written depiction of Japan in China.
It has certainly made me tremendously grateful to be living in a country which lets bookshops sell whatever the hell they want. Books about our political enemies are welcomed not banned. So great is the demand for books about Hitler –albeit an historical enemy – that they are almost guaranteed to be bestsellers. Teenagers are encouraged to read All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque so that they can see how terrible the First World War was for the Germans, not just the Allies. To take a more recent example, not long after British troops entered Afghanistan, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner became a phenomenal hit. We live in a country where we are encouraged to learn about and try to understand our opponents, not refuse to engage with them.
‘Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster,’ wrote Sun Tzu in his famous book The Art of War. If China really is gearing up for confrontation against Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands then they should heed this advice from their historical countryman. Taking Japanese books off the shelves will foster nothing better than ignorance.
Emily Rhodes blogs at Emily Books and tweets @EmilyBooksBlog