- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy. , Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
If one wanted to find a real-life political parallel to J. K. Rowling’s villainous Lord Voldemort, there are a few obvious choices: Hitler, who shared with Voldemort an obsession with racial purity; Stalin, who, like the malevolent Heir of Slytherin, relied on vast, shadowy intelligence networks to protect his power; and maybe even Putin, who — apart from an abundance of nose — bears a striking physical resemblance to the Dark Lord.
But few Harry Potter fans/keen political observers would put Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe high on the list of Voldemort stand-ins.
Except this guy: the Chinese ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, who on Thursday likened Japan’s growing militarism (and, by extension, Abe, himself) to the most nefarious villain in the miscreant-rich canon of young adult fiction:
"In the Harry Potter story, the dark wizard Voldemort dies hard because the seven horcruxes, which contain parts of his soul, have been destroyed," Liu wrote in an op-ed for the Telegraph. "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."
To be fair, Liu’s colorful literary references may be little more than an effort to characterize China-Japan relations in terms that Brits can easily grasp — what better way than to invoke the work of Britain’s "most influential woman" (who, incidentally, beat out Victoria Beckham and Queen Elizabeth II for that honor).
Still, it’s a heavy metaphor. But, for the sake of argument, let’s look at the parallels. If Japan’s militarism is really Voldemort, then its heyday was during World War II, when Japan invaded northeast China and cut a wide swathe of destruction, the memory of which still stings the Chinese public consciousness. Japan’s subsequent defeat could be likened to Voldemort’s: While He Who Must Not Be Named all but disappeared after the bloody First Wizarding War, Japan’s post-war constitution renounced militarism, ending the threat of Japanese military aggression.
Liu’s argument that the Yasukuni shrine (which commemorates 14 Class A war criminals, among other war dead) is a horcrux "representing the darkest parts of that nation’s soul" is pretty on-point. In Rowling’s books, Voldemort’s quest for horcruxes is an effort to reclaim and rebuild his former self, in all of its wicked glory. But while Abe has long had nationalist leanings, it’s a leap to say that his Dec. 26 visit to the shrine symbolizes his government’s evil revival of Japan’s militaristic past.
How far can this metaphor go? Are the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islands the Deathly Hallows — making the wizard who possesses them immortal and invincible? Does that make Shintaro Ishihara, the right-wing former mayor of Tokyo who tried to nationalize islands, a Death Eater? Are Japan’s revisionist history textbooks, which whitewash its role in war atrocities, not unlike the propaganda produced by the Ministry of Magic under Dolores Umbridge? And is Japan’s constitutional prohibition on its military engaging in offensive operations similar to Voldemort needing to obtain a body, before he could regain his former power? (Abe’s pushing for that constitutional revision, but it hasn’t happened yet — which means that, in the wizarding world, we’ve barely reached book four.)
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Liu characterizes Abe’s political aims as a battle "between good and evil." But is he referring to the evil that lies within all of us? Or, to paraphrase Harry’s own words, that "neither [Japan nor China] can live while the other survives, and one of [them] is about to leave for good."
Wait, does that make China Harry Potter?