When is an island not an island?

I’m no expert on Chinese-Japanese relations, not by a long shot. But my research for My Shanghai has prompted me to try and understand the issues underlying the serious disputes over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. China claims them as the Diaoyu, Japan claims them as the Senkaku. The potential mineral assets and fishing hauls don’t seem to account for the more than 300 times Japan has scrambled fighter jets against Chinese aircraft in the past year, nor the car-smashing protests that have sprung up all over China.

Islands in the storm: Senkaku or Diaoyu
(photo credit http://www.guardian.co.uk)

An article by Ian Buruma in the May 11 Review section of the Wall Street Journal lays out the historical, political and cultural dynamics of it all especially well, I think. What strikes me is how symbolic these rocks are, and how fragile. One of them, known as Red Back North Island by the Chinese and North Islet by the Japanese, is said to be only 50 yards wide, the size of an Olympic swimming pool. So it’s not about the rocks.

Before World War II, Shanghai itself was like an island in China, carved out as a treaty port at the end of the Opium Wars in the mid-1800s — still Chinese territory (unlike Hong Kong), but ruled by foreigners, mainly British, Americans and French. This is the environment Virginia grew up in, an international city inside China.

Bill MCutcheon also grew up in Shanghai. He’s the guy who won her heart in Lunghwa camp and married her as soon as he could after the war. Bill worked for the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, and his first posting after the war was Hong Kong. The second was Tokyo.

Virginia will be the first to tell you that even as the “incidents” between the Chinese and Japanese tore up the outskirts of Shanghai in the ’30s, even as the Japanese marched in to occupy the city after Pearl Harbor, even as she and her mother and many loved ones were forced into camps for the duration of the war, she carries no resentment.

“Fortunately there’d been a few years between being in Shanghai and having been in Hong Kong next, and then back to Japan,” she told me. “And the years had sort of healed a lot of people.”

Virginia made up her mind to embrace the arts in Japan. Her home today is filled with Asian art, both Chinese and Japanese, and she still practices ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. Can a focus on the arts bring two cultures back together in today’s world? Buruma writes, “For much of its history, Japan looked up to China as the center of civilization.” And, “Before the Japanese invaded their country in the 1930s, many Chinese viewed Japan as a model of modernity.”

As I sit quietly at my desk on a Friday afternoon, I’ve just googled to find a picture I could use here. And up comes a headline on ndtv.com: “China ships have entered disputed-islands waters off the Senkaku Islands: Japan.” Another incident?

My Shanghai is not about the Senkakus or the Daioyus. For us, the history helps to give a little more context to one woman’s life, her personal story, and her claim on the waters around her. And it’s not too much to hope that some healing can be found in the waters of the East China Sea.

phw

© 2013 First Straw Films

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