The Three Tigers, One Mountain title is a twist on an old Chinese saying that “two tigers cannot share the same mountain,” while the subtitle, A Journey Through the Bitter History and Current Conflicts of China, Korea, and Japan, gives an accurate description of the contents. This pairing of the poetic and the prosaic is an example of the writing craft and clever choices on display in Michael Booth’s new book. Three Tigers, One Mountain is current affairs and popular history for the general reader done to a winning formula. An earlier combination of humor, travel, culture, and history applied to a region resulted in the bestselling The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia (2014).
Booth doesn’t know East Asia quite as well as he does Scandinavia (he lives in Denmark with his wife and two boys) but has written extensively about Japan, with two food-related books to his credit: Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know About Cooking (2009) and The Meaning of Rice: A Culinary Tour of Japan (2017). For China and Korea he did extensive reading and had numerous interviews with experts, including some of the authors of the books he read. The interviewees did a great job of disabusing Booth of the idea of seeing the region through the lens of Confucianism, which is a common mistake made by outsiders.
Three Tigers, One Mountain is a travelogue examining the relations past and present between Japan, South Korea, and China – visited in that order – in search of an answer to an important question: Why is there so much animosity between China, Korea and Japan, especially when they share so much culturally, from religion, architecture, philosophy all the way down to the everyday of chopsticks and noodles?
In the introduction, Booth makes the obvious comparison of how Germany and its neighbors have moved on from World War II. Why not Japan and its East Asian neighbors? Personally, I think the Germany case is the exceptional one here. And Europe and East Asia are different anyway. We’re comparing war versus war plus colonization, and then there were two major military conflicts in the region after WWII (namely the continuation of the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War). Another major difference is that China and North Korea are not normal countries, but rather dictatorships born out of the ashes of WWII and ensuing civil wars, with their legitimacy to rule stemming from these victories.
Booth looks into all the historical resentments and current disputes with a non-polemic eye; he presents various viewpoints and leaves readers to decide for themselves. However, his sympathies lie with the Japanese and I agree with his assessment. As he asserts, Japan has not been blameless but has done a lot to right past wrongs. And it doesn’t hurt their case that it is such a lovely country to visit. Booth’s travels in Japan are a reminder that although the country often makes the news with headlines bemoaning economic stagnation, what you find on the ground there tells another story:
If you travel in Japan, you will experience a country which functions better than almost any other in the world on almost every level, from its low crime rates and exemplary public transport to extremely high levels of civic responsibility, not to mention the best service culture you will ever enjoy.
And temples to visit. Of the “ugly-beautiful city” of Kyoto, he says despite visiting it a dozen or so times, it continues to catch him unawares.
The first occasion I came here, I had an idea I would somehow step off the bullet train into seventeenth-century feudal Japan but instead found myself marooned in the hostile concrete wasteland around the station. On another occasion I stayed in a hotel in the far north of the city, tumbleweed-miles from anywhere. Often I have walked for hours along soulless six-lane roads lined with anonymous office buildings and Starbucks coffee shops, keenly aware that richly textured time-warp backstreets were somewhere near. And I always overstuff my itinerary with UNESCO World Heritage sites – Kyoto has seventeen of them (Holland has ten) – and get shrine-blind by the end of the first day. My latest mistake: I arrive as cherry blossom season begins.
This is fantastic travel writing. It’s funny, perceptive, relatable, and packed with memorable phrasing; I think I’ll steal “tumbleweed-miles” and “shrine-blind.”
There are times when Booth overstates points – whether humorous (“eagles the size of hang-gliders”) or factual (describing the First Sino-Japanese War as “not much more than a skirmish” which it definitely wasn’t), but this is par for the course for this type of popular book. I was happy that Booth didn’t go with the easy laughs of “weird Japan” beloved by some writers. We are spared “love hotels” and “maid cafes,” and don’t attend any fertility-related festivals where inebriates in loin cloths carry around huge logs representing giant willies.
Just when you though it was safe, though, in Korea we visit a “Penis Park.” (“Its real name is Haesindang Park, but what else do you call a rambling wooded cliff-top garden which is absolutely rammed with gigantic sculptures of the male member?). This segment is not overdone and is a light break from some of the darker territory covered in the book. We have plenty of war atrocities going back to the sixteenth century.
For many readers the section on the Imjin Wars – two Japanese invasions of Korea in the 1590s – will be something of a revelation. “Over a million Koreans, almost a third of the population, are believed to have died during the fighting,” – so, in actual numbers not as deadly as the Korean War of 1950-53 but proportionally more devastating. The memory of the conflict is kept alive, in part from the celebration of the exploits of Admiral Yi, one of history’s greatest naval strategists.
The Second World War features prominently in Three Tigers, One Mountain because Japanese atrocities still rankle with Koreans and Chinese. Booth quotes Andrew Salmon, a British historian and journalist whom he meets in Seoul, in saying, “the South Koreans have cherry-picked all the worst possible details and invented others from the colonial era” (1910–1945). Anti-Japanese rhetoric – especially on sensitive issues such as comfort women – are used by Korean politicians; unlike many issues, these cut across lines: left and right, pro- and anti-American. Academics also find it a useful subject: funding for research, theses, and books is easily procured.
Occasionally though Korean academics do speak out. In her 2013 book Comfort Women of the Empire Sejong University literature professor Park Yu-ha presented evidence that some of the Korean comfort women were indeed willing employees of the comfort stations, and that the stations were in some cases run by Korean men. It was a more nuanced picture, not in the category of historical denial by any means, but Park was taken to court for defamation by nine former comfort women.
Booth shows courage and balance in writing about the comfort women issue. Here as elsewhere the easy way would be to go with a black-and-white denouncement of the Japanese. He chooses not to: “Clearly, the Japanese have apologised, officially, several times, and paid compensation.” The noise from the Japanese ultra-nationalists should not be given undue weight: “In a nation of 127 million people, there will always be deluded fringe voices”
In China the government has also encouraged anti-Japanese sentiment. The CCP response to the protests of 1989 was a massive and sustained campaign of “patriotic education.” This review is getting lengthy, however, so I’ll not go into the China section of the book.
Booth didn’t get to North Korea. Visiting would have been largely pointless he says: “I would not have been able to talk to anyone interesting and would not have learned anything new.” He mentions the moral aspect, but admits that wasn’t as discouraging as the cost. Even for successful writers like Booth, making a living from writing is hard. Travelogues are expensive books to write and I suspect a trip to North Korea would have been a poor return on investment.
The author did, however, visit a fourth East Asian country. He ends his journey with a brief trip to Taiwan, and I guess he was overeager to find something compelling to finish with because he makes a fatal mistake. He latches onto a comment from a Taiwanese person he meets – that the Taiwanese hate Koreans – and mistakenly thinks he has uncovered some worthwhile insight.
In the introduction he teases “I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it turns out that the Taiwanese absolutely loathe the Koreans.” Why would the Taiwanese “absolutely loath” the Koreans? Well, they don’t. Later, in the Taiwan section of the book, he quotes a couple of Taiwanese agreeing with his assessment but I suspect this was just politeness to a guest. The reasons he gives for this supposed animosity are weak (for example, Seoul’s long-forgotten switch of diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1992) and easily dismissed, but this is a minor aspect of the narrative and I don’t want to distract from the meat of the book.
Three Tigers, One Mountain is an excellent introduction to the region, an effortless yet informative read with a perfect balance of travel descriptions, background information, and dialogues. The humor is well done and the author comes across as likeable and open-minded. I really love the pan East Asian coverage, which is all too rare. I hope the book sells well and its success encourages other writers to follow suit.
Three Tigers, One Mountain: A Journey Through the Bitter History and Current Conflicts of China, Korea, and Japan is published by Jonathan Cape and is available at various bookstores and from online retailers such as Amazon.com.