Untamable Tigers: A Review of ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain’ by Michael Booth

For the majority of 2020, China dominated mainstream media. News stories about the COVID-19 pandemic, quarantines, travel bans, and subsequent blame placed for the outbreak of the disease led the nightly news and filled our social media timelines. China’s economy was growing at a blistering pace, but the export of a deadly contagion was not expected by many. Neighboring countries like North and South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan quickly implemented their own quarantines and placed restrictions on Chinese products, resulting in seismic disruptions in the global supply chain. Distrust between the nations reached an all-time high. This distrust, however, was not a novel feeling. There has been animosity and suspicion between China, the Koreas, and Japan for generations. The history is long, complicated, and would take too many articles to completely deconstruct.

Despite the historical density, Michael Booth’s book, ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain‘ chronicles his personal journey of trying to understand these animosities. He travels between the nations, visiting historic landmarks, and gains a grassroots interpretation of a volatile geopolitical landscape. Apart from other history books, Booth doesn’t constantly throw specific dates or statistics at the reader. Instead he takes a tourist approach at the complex relationships, asking basic questions that many should ask themselves: Why have the three countries economies changed so drastically? What are the implications of a united Korean peninsula? Why are some offended by the Yasukuni shrine, but others revere its significance? Should we be worried if Japan is able to militarize again? Will China extinguish democratic sovereignty in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Taiwan? Booth’s opening phrase, taken from a Chinese proverb, ‘Two tigers cannot share the same mountain’ is a succinct opening to this international dilemma.

The Tree pruning incident of 1976 at the Joint Security Area within the Demilitarized Zone separating North Korea and South Korea. In this incident, two UNC guard officers were hacked to death by a gang of more than thirty North Korean Security Guards. Some of the North Korean Guards got axes that workmen were using to prune the tree and used them on the UNC Guards which resulted in the deaths of the two US Army Officers. Booth referenced this incident in ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain’ as an example of the constant tension between the two Koreas. (Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives)

Booth travels by taxi, train, ferry, and car through various points of interest on his journey through the three nations. Writers, journalists, and academic scholars are his primary interviewees, but he has the occasional interaction with someone off the street that expands the grassroots feeling. He spends times interacting with expatriate communities in each country, where they deliver their interpretation of preceding histories and what it means for relationships between their birth and host countries. Major tension stems from the turn of the 20th century when Western colonial powers were waning in the Far East, resulting in a political power vacuum. Japan filled this void quickly by defeating the Russian Empire in 1905, which expanded their control over Korea, and placed the Chinese in precarious situations. In the late 1930s, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria resulted in massive loss of human life and arguably started World War II (Booth doesn’t believe it began on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland; it started in the Far East with Japan and I agree with him). The atrocities of World War II are, for many of Booth’s interviewees, the foundation for modern-day geopolitical animosity and grudges between people. War crimes, biological warfare, the atomic bomb; everything changed the balance of power when the war ended.

Booth does a phenomenal job explaining the complex dichotomies in direct terms. Not necessarily boiling them down because the details are incredibly important, but by showing how everyday people understand how their countries have changed over the past 70 years. He interviews a Chinese man who built his own museum dedicated to Unit 731, a weapons research department that performed lethal human experimentation on military and civilian prisoners. He states that many Chinese people today consume one of two stories; the official state version taught in school, or the heavily dramatized versions in popular entertainment. This disparity is not only limited to China because of its strict state control of the media, but is found in South Korea and Japan as well. Booth argues that accurate historical education is imperative to understanding the struggles between the Asian nations. That narrative can be distorted however, and that’s a real fear to Booth.

Apologies are another major trend in ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain’. This is especially common in the section on South Korea and Japan. For most of its history, Korea was subjugated by Japan or the Mongols. Japan is seen as the major perpetrator, especially during World War II. Comfort women and forced conscription into the Japanese Imperial Army were sticking points for the Koreans, who have been demanding official apologies from the Japanese government. While there have been public statements addressing the issue, Japan has somewhat skirted the issue or alleviate the Korean activists right up to the cusp of an apology. Older South Koreans understood the sacrifices their generations made, but Booth notes that not many of the newer generation understand that history though. Younger South Koreans put their energy into cosmetics, internet cafes, smartphones, and visiting Haesindang Park (the ‘Penis Park’; yes, that’s an actual place. Google it at your own peril). Booth highlights the importance of apologies in each section because as modern nations begin issuing official apologies for past grievances or war crimes, some are still encounter difficulties reconciling their history because the people remained divided. This is was the most poignant lesson that Booth recounts because we as U.S. citizens have our own historical demons with the subjugation and massacring of Native Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Yasukuni Shine in Tokyo. An official Shinto shrine that remains a lightning rod for controversy in the post-WWII world.

Yasukuni Shine is another point of contention between the three nations. In a nutshell. this Shinto shrine serves as a war memorial for all deceased Japanese servicemembers. In these names are those convicted of war crimes, including fourteen Class A war criminals convicted of ordering or carrying out atrocities. Japanese prime ministers have visited the shrine over the decades, which Korea and China have deemed offensive and controversies have even affected the Emperor of Japan’s actions. No emperor has visited the shrine since 1975, but this doesn’t prevent members of Japanese far-right political parties who advocate for Japan’s re-militarization. A portion of Japanese people still deny that any war crimes were committed during World War II and this leaves many Koreans and Chinese frustrated and unable to pursue future reconciliation. Throughout his interviews in Japan, Booth’s introspection kept returning to the importance of historical education. How could these nations rebuild their prestige and standing with one another if their younger generations denied what their ancestors did?

Overall, ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain‘ was a compelling and enlightening read. Booth’s combination of the grassroots history with the broader historical narrative really demonstrates how the course of history affects individual people. Some people will continue to have a burning hatred for another nation, while another embraces another cultural more than their own. All of it boils down to a well-rounded, properly informed education according to Booth. I couldn’t agree more. The ideology of one generation is undoubtedly shaped by another. If proper historical dialogue is replaced by negation and denialism, what can we expect to achieve in terms of global cooperation and cultural understanding? I take the grim view that tensions in the Far East will continue to simmer unless there’s a concerted effort for the nations to face their sordid histories and find a path to reconciliation. Otherwise, the three tigers will keeping circling one another until they all decide to pounce and see which emerges the sole survivor.

Yokohama Chinatown: one of many enclaves of expatriate communities in Japan. Some Chinese and Koreans extol Japanese social and economic virtues, but others are still unable to let go of the historical bad blood between their home countries.

Sakoku: The Isolation of Japan

Global commerce powered the economies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The mechanized march of the Industrial Revolution re-defined how societies managed and engaged with local economies. Europe was at the forefront of this development and international trade grew exponentially. New markets in the Americas, Africa, and Asia fueled much of these revamped industries. Save for one nation who for over two hundred years enforced a harsh government policy of isolation and discouraged foreign intervention. When this practice ended however, the evolution from feudal society to mechanized constitutional monarchy was the fastest in human history. The home of the Divine Emperor: Japan.

Foreign relations in Japanese history have a eclectic pattern. Adjacent neighbors like China, the Ryukyu Islands, and Korea had significant impact on Japanese culture, religion, and social class system. These connections stretch back a thousand years with the introduction of Confucianism and development of the Japanese language based on the framework of the Chinese language. In 1543, a group of Portuguese sailors and merchants were the first Europeans to set foot in Japan and were responsible for the introduction of firearms. The following sixty years saw a frantic amount of European trade, piracy, and Christian missionary work. Catholic missions actively proselytized in Kyushu, attracting thousands of converts a year. The rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1600 promptly halted foreign influence following their emergence as the supreme military leaders of Japan. Christianity and European contacts were seen as subversive threats to the shogunate’s stability. With the end of the Sengoku Period (Age of Warring-States) and the dawn of the Edo Period, the new imperial government took measures to solidify domestic control and one policy was ‘sakoku’. Defined in Japanese as ‘closed country’, sakoku outlined isolationist policies dictating who could leave or enter the Japanese islands and control where they operated.

No Japanese ship … nor any native of Japan, shall presume to go out of the country; whoever acts contrary to this, shall die, and the ship with the crew and goods aboard shall be sequestered until further orders. All persons who return from abroad shall be put to death. Whoever discovers a Christian priest shall have a reward of 400 to 500 sheets of silver and for every Christian in proportion. All Namban (Portuguese and Spanish) who propagate the doctrine of the Catholics, or bear this scandalous name, shall be imprisoned in the Onra, or common jail of the town. The whole race of the Portuguese with their mothers, nurses and whatever belongs to them, shall be banished to Macao. Whoever presumes to bring a letter from abroad, or to return after he hath been banished, shall die with his family; also whoever presumes to intercede for him, shall be put to death. No nobleman nor any soldier shall be suffered to purchase anything from the foreigner.

Selected Text from the Seclusion Edict of 1636

Commerce was the principle focus. Four main ports of entry were designated to regulate the frequency and national origin of foreign merchants visiting Japan. Officially, the Dutch East India Company was the only European entity authorized to conduct business inside Japan. This greatly benefitted the Dutch as it secured a monopoly on all Japanese exports delivered to Europe. Nagasaki was the busiest port as both Dutch and Chinese vessels conducted trade. As a result Nagasaki became a more cosmopolitan city that offered goods from foreign nations and was the main exposure of Japanese culture to the Dutch. Trade goods weren’t the only items that exchanged hands during ‘sakoku’ but information on foreign nations were also commonplace. The Japanese government built a rudimentary picture of other European and Asian nations through Dutch and Korean merchants and diplomats.

A depiction of a party in the house of the Dutch chief of Dejima. Long-standing customs called for inviting Japanese interpreters and civil servants from Nagasaki to parties (Image courtesy of Geheugen van Nederland, circa 1805)

Historical debate over why this isolationist policy was enforced for the duration of the shogunate continues today. The traditional argument states that outside influences such as Westernization and Catholic missionary work undermined the authority of the central government. Civil unrest such as the Shimbara Rebellion (1637-1638) are cited to support these claims. Armed religious groups were a significant threat during the Sengoku period as Buddhist monks formed militias that battled local lords. Tokugawa officials applied similar logic to Christians who they feared would instigate rebellions like the Shimbara. Christianity and Western influence were therefore identified as one in the same according to the government and European nations like the Spanish and Portuguese were routinely targeted and expelled from Japan. Catholic groups formed underground societies called Kakure Kirishitan during the Edo period as a result. This helped preserve Christianity in Japan and in 1871 under the Meiji Restoration, religious freedom legislation was passed to all groups.

Catholic priests formed the first Christian missions in Japan in the late 16th century. As persecution against Christians exploded in the Edo Period, many Jesuit priests were martyred and crucified in Japan (Image courtesy of the Society of Jesus)

Isolationism was not the ultimate aim of ‘sakoku’ however as historians later claim. By controlling foreign imports and contact with outside nations, the Tokugawa government exercised greater control over the local lords (daimyos) and increased their own domestic power. By limiting international commerce to strictly monitored ports, the Shogun controlled what came into the country and into the hands of daimyos. This practice greatly diminished the daimyos’ power as they previously relied on trade with the Chinese mainland to generate income during the Sengoku period. Without this vital link, no daimyo could become powerful enough to challenge the Shogun. Combined with this rationale was forcing the daimyos to rotate their residence at the Edo capital for a year in a practice called ‘sankin-kotai’. By alternating residences in the capital with the Shogun, the daimyos could be monitored and were placed under further control of the Shogun.

Eventually, challenges to ‘sakoku’ were brought up throughout the Edo period as Japanese nobility and European powers attempted to curtail or abolish the edict and introduce full integration of foreign contacts. The Japanese did keep themselves informed of world affairs through their Dutch mediators, but European businesses were still forbidden from operating inside Japan. A spree of Russian, British, French, and U.S. ships visited different islands requesting permission to trade or establish embassies, but they were all denied. World events like the Napoleonic and Opium Wars did result in minimal alterations to the policy (such as allowing ships to dock and resupply, but not trade). The watershed moment however occurred on July 8, 1853 with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and the four warships (Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and the Susquehanna). Perry’s arrival and subsequent demand for opening trade between Japan and the United States was the first step in dismantling ‘sakoku’ and opened the path for other nations. One year later, the Convention of Kanagawa and the signing of the ‘Treaty of Peace and Amity’ paved the way for economic relations and end of Japanese isolationism. What can’t be ignored though is that as European nations finally established relations with Japan, highly unequal trade treaties and economic agreements resulted from this gunboat diplomacy. Terms and conditions like these remained a sticking point for the Japanese who feared encroaching imperialist conditions on their homeland. An industrialized West and rapidly changing domestic settings finally forced the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and signaled the beginning of the Meiji Restoration.

Commodore Perry’s second fleet. Caption reads ‘Susquehanna, Saratoga, Saint Mary’s, Supply, Plymouth, Perry, Mississippi, Princeton-View of the vessels composing the Japanese squadron’. The mission of the second expedition was to sign the ‘Treaty of Peace and Amity’ which opened up trade and diplomatic relations with the U.S., circa 1854