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.