Andrew B Liu’s Tea War comes with a promising title and an equally promising concept. What better window into macro-economic evolution of east and south Asia than the development of iconic beverage of the region, “the most consumed beverage around the world today” aside from water? And war it was, between the centuries-old Chinese and nascent Indian exports of a quintessentially Asian commodity.
In a 1975 review of Marius Jansen’s Japan and China: From War to Peace, 1894-1972, Chalmers Johnson wrote, “One of the long-standing defects of Western scholarship on eastern Asia is its compartmentalization. China and Japan are usually studied in isolation from each other.” An accomplished scholar of both countries’ histories by then, Johnson knew of what he spoke, and praised Jansen’s exception to the academic rule. Were he still alive and reviewing, Johnson would surely similarly praise China and Japan: Facing History, the most recent work by another eminent scholar of east Asia, the soon-to-be-90 Ezra Vogel.
Toward the end of his life, Algernon Blackwood famously reminisced that “I used to tell strange, wild, improbable tales…” The tale of the friendship between Lu Xun and Uchiyama Kanzō would have met Blackwood’s standard—a look at Shanghai during those times, now nearly 100 years ago, suggests why.
Oba Yozo, the central character and anti-hero of Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku, is as familiar to Japanese readers as Holden Caulfield is to English readers. The Catcher in the Rye still sells a million copies per year, in dozens of languages, while in Japanese only a few novels, notably Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro, routinely outsell Ningen Shikkaku. Catcher, however, pales beside Ningen as a literary achievement.
If you go into most bookshops in the States for example, there’s a cottage industry of books on the US and China, the US and the Middle East, you go to the UK, there’s a sort of similar cottage industry of books on the UK and France, and France and Germany. But there’s very little on Japan and China, and this is a highly consequential relationship—the world’s second and third biggest economies, Asia’s two superpowers, and with a really difficult, emotional, scarred history …
Most of us in our 20s or above remember where we were on 1 January 2000, when the planet welcomed the new year, decade, century and millennium. (Pedants however never tire of pointing out that the correct date should have been one year later.) Lijia Zhang’s Lotus begins with the title character facing a rather grim start to the year—on that January day, Lotus is arrested for suspicion of prostitution as she’s sitting shore side in Shenzhen, contemplating the turns of her 23 years of life.
Back in the 1980s, books about Japan became bestsellers worldwide, with the ascent of Japan from the ignominy and abject destruction of 1945 to the position of the #2 economy on the planet, with the #1 spot not far off in the breathless predictions of some at the time.