The Jewish myths of Asia

Sionisme sous pression

TOKYO — A Chinese bestseller titled The Currency War describes how Jews are planning to rule the world by manipulating the international financial system. The book is reportedly read in the highest government circles. If so, this does not bode well for the international financial system, which relies on well-informed Chinese to help it recover from the current crisis.
Such conspiracy theories are not rare in Asia. Japanese readers have shown a healthy appetite over the years for books such as To Watch Jews is to See the World Clearly, The Next Ten Years: How to Get an Inside View of the Jewish Protocols, and I'd Like to Apologize to the Japanese: A Jewish Elder's Confession (written by a Japanese author, of course, under the name of Mordecai Mose). All these books are variations of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Russian forgery first published in 1903, which the Japanese came across after defeating the czar's army in 1905.
The Chinese picked up many modern Western ideas from the Japanese. Perhaps that is how Jewish conspiracy theories were passed on as well. But Southeast Asians are not immune to this kind of nonsense, either. Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad has said that “the Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.” And a recent article in a leading Philippine business magazine explained how Jews had always controlled the countries they lived in, including the United States today.
In the case of Mr. Mahathir, a twisted kind of Muslim solidarity is probably at work. But unlike European or Russian anti-Semitism, the Asian variety has no religious roots. No Chinese or Japanese has blamed Jews for killing their holy men or believed that their children's blood ended up in Passover matzo. In fact, few Chinese, Japanese, Malaysians or Filipinos have ever seen a Jew, unless they have spent time abroad.
So what explains the remarkable appeal of Jewish conspiracy theories in Asia? The answer must be partly political. Conspiracy theories thrive in relatively closed societies, where free access to news is limited and freedom of inquiry curtailed. Japan is no longer such a closed society; yet, even people with a short history of democracy are prone to believe they are victims of unseen forces. Precisely because Jews are relatively unknown, therefore mysterious, and in some way associated with the West, they become an obvious fixture of anti-Western paranoia.
Such paranoia is widespread in Asia, where almost every country was at the mercy of Western powers for several hundred years. Japan was never formally colonized, but it, too, felt the West's dominance, at least since the 1850s, when American ships laden with heavy guns forced the country to open its borders on Western terms.
The common conflation of the U.S. with Jews goes back to the late 19th century, when European reactionaries loathed America for being a rootless society based only on financial greed. This perfectly matched the stereotype of the “rootless cosmopolitan” Jewish moneygrubber. Hence the idea that Jews run America.
One of the great ironies of colonial history is the way in which colonized people adopted some of the very prejudices that justified colonial rule. Anti-Semitism arrived with a whole package of European race theories that have persisted in Asia well after they fell out of fashion in the West.
In some ways, Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia have shared some of the hostility suffered by Jews in the West. Excluded from many occupations, they, too, survived by clannishness and trade. They, too, have been persecuted for not being “sons of the soil.” And they, too, are thought to have superhuman powers when it comes to making money. So when things go wrong, the Chinese are blamed, not just for being greedy capitalists, but also, like the Jews, for being Communists, since both capitalism and communism are associated with rootlessness and cosmopolitanism.
As well as being feared, the Chinese are admired for being cleverer than everybody else. The same mixture of fear and awe is often evident in people's views of the U.S., and, indeed, of the Jews. Japanese anti-Semitism is a particularly interesting case.
Japan was able to defeat Russia in 1905 only after a Jewish banker in New York, Jacob Schiff, helped Japan by floating bonds. So The Protocols of the Elders of Zion confirmed what the Japanese already suspected: Jews really did pull the strings of global finance. But instead of wishing to attack them, the Japanese, being a practical people, decided they would be better off cultivating those clever, powerful Jews as friends.
As a result, during the Second World War, even as the Germans were asking their Japanese allies to round up Jews and hand them over, dinners were held in Japanese-occupied Manchuria to celebrate Japanese-Jewish friendship. Jewish refugees in Shanghai, though never comfortable, at least remained alive under Japanese protection. This was good for the Jews of Shanghai. But the very ideas that helped them to survive continue to muddle the thinking of people who really ought to know better by now.
Ian Buruma is a Professor of human rights at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. His latest book is The China Lover.
En complément
The China Lover, By Ian Buruma
A Japanese diva on the set of history

Victoria James Friday, 5 December 2008

Reading Ian Buruma's novel is like your first visit to a sushi shop with a knowledgeable friend. Everything is unfamiliar, some of it unpalatable, but your companion ensures you finish sated, delighted and feeling that bit more knowledgeable yourself. Buruma is – with respect to veteran critic Donald Ritchie – our foremost cultural analyst of Japan. His list of non-fiction publications is as long as an izakaya menu, and just as varied. His study of postwar Germany and Japan, Wages of Guilt, is perhaps the finest analysis yet of how trauma shapes a nation's psyche.
Into The China Lover, Buruma has poured his decades of thinking about Japan. It should be a sure-fire recipe for indigestion, but, miraculously, it isn't. The novel is not exactly straightforward, though. It is one woman's story, told by a trio of men. Or is it the story of a country, told through the three phases of a woman's life? Is it about history, cinema, or their common denominator: illusion?
The story traces the real-life career of a Manchurian-born Japanese movie star, known variously as Ri Koran, Shirley Yamaguchi and Yoshiko Yamaguchi. Her three incarnations act before very different backdrops: the colonial experiment of "New Asia" in the 1930s and 1940s, the post-war MacArthur administration, culminating in the student protests of 1960; and the armed resistance of the Japanese Red Army in Palestine in the 1970s.
But Yamaguchi merely guest-stars in her own biopic, for each section is narrated by a different man: a China-loving mentor, a restless American expat, and a pornographer-turned-terrorist. These voices occasionally sound too alike – like Buruma himself, intelligent and analytical. But their worlds rise up vividly: Shinkyo, the elegant capital of the puppet-state of Manchukuo, and post-war Tokyo, rising from its rubble. For a book so obsessed with cinema, The China Lover would make an episodic film. Scenes flash before us, while a Who's Who of famous faces appears in cameo (Truman Capote, Pu Yi, the Last Emperor) or off-stage (Charlie Chaplin, Yasser Arafat).
The China Lover is a clever book, and knows it. Motifs are woven through each section: a slap delivered by one character to another at a pivotal moment, the recurrent metaphor of the frog in the well. Though mannered, these touches give the story a certain ritualistic dignity, like the characteristic gestures of classic kabuki roles.
This is a book so deliberately Japanese it could only have been written by a Westerner. But Buruma has picked an extraordinary story and told it wonderfully well – as when he artfully, off-handedly, lets slip the fate of each narrator in the succeeding story-arc. At the heart of it, yet never quite centre-stage in her own story, is the captivating figure of Yamaguchi. Her impression lingers, an after-image on your retina after the movie has finished and the lights are still down.


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Professor of human rights at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. His latest book is "The China Lover".

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