Japanese ambassador Keiichi Hayashi and Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming, both envoys to the United Kingdom, had an interesting yet fiery diplomatic exchange early this year. What makes this correspondence interesting is its reference to Harry Potter’s arch-nemesis, Lord Voldemort. “If militarism is like the haunting Voldemort of Japan, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is a kind of horcrux, representing the darkest parts of that nation’s soul,” wrote Ambassador Liu in British newspaper Daily Telegraph. Ambassador Liu criticized Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine as the shrine is what Liu considers a hallmark of Japan’s war atrocities and militarist past. As a response to his Chinese counterpart, Ambassador Hayashi fired back with the Harry Potter reference still in place: “East Asia is now at a crossroads. There are two paths open to China. One is to seek dialogue, and abide by the rule of law. The other is to play the role of Voldemort in the region by letting loose the evil of an arms race and escalation of tensions, although Japan will not escalate the situation from its side.” The relations between China and Japan has long been marred by animosity and clashes in various issues have become more apparent in recent times. But allow me to ask: what does the Dark Lord have to do with the tension anyway and why was he dragged in this war of words? Has You-Know-Who being invoked in this diplomatic communication brought this rivalry to a whole new level?

Who is Lord Voldemort?

Lord Voldemort, known during his Hogwarts days as Tom Riddle, is introduced in the novel series as the cruel and merciless wizard who murdered James and Lily Potter, parents of the story’s protagonist, Harry Potter. Consumed by his unquenchable thirst for power and ravenous lust to kill the Boy who Lived, Lord Voldemort rose to be as one of the most powerful and most feared wizards of his time. Such is the fear to him that the mere utterance of his name causes fright to anyone who overhears it. This is why he is indirectly referred to in the wizarding world as “You-Know-Who,” “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” and the “Dark Lord,” among others. When he was still a student at Hogwarts, he managed to gain knowledge of horcruxes through the assistance of his professor, Horace Slughorn. The horcruxes serve as repositories where those who wish to prolong their life store fragments of their souls in a bid to achieve immortality. The obsession of Lord Voldemort to absolute supremacy, along with his megalomaniac tendencies, has resulted eventually to his demise in the Battle of Hogwarts.

Why the Lord Voldemort reference is a big deal

First, we should know that as an established precept of international law, anything which is spoken of or done by any ambassador or diplomat in his or her capacity as the representative of the State, thus a State organ, is considered an act of the State. Article 4 (1) of the 2001 Draft Articles of the International Law Commission on Responsibilities of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts provides that “the conduct of any State organ shall be considered as an act of the State under international law, whether the organ exercises legislative, executive, judicial or any other functions, whatever position it holds in the organization of the State, and whatever its character as organ of the central Government or of a territorial unit of the State.” This being the case, we can say that this diplomatic tit-for-tat is a collective reflection of how two Asian countries feel about each other.

Let me go back to the question I posed earlier: Has You-Know-Who being invoked in this diplomatic communication brought this rivalry to a whole new level? Logically, there are two views on this. For one, we can dismiss the Harry Potter series as just an impressively-written fictional children’s story and liken China and Japan as two bickering children who are yet to grow up. We can even laud their wit as to how they made use of popular culture reference when they described each other’s political sentiments in paper. For another, we can view the idea of analogizing Lord Voldemort to a particular State as a remark which goes beyond the ingenious application of political rhetoric, a remark which carries with it a serious implication. While it is true that the war of words does not involve tanks, drones, and cannonballs, let us remember that in politics, words have potency as language is a vital component of political sphere. Words can either preserve life or spell strife; they can either mend relations of countries or break them much apart than before. If there is a parcel of truth which we can learn from political rhetoric, it is that words do not die easily. Each word will surely find a way to make an impact, regardless of what impact this might be or when this might come. Any form of political communication, may it be verbal or non-verbal, is a precursor to something bigger.

So China being branded as Lord Voldemort personified can create an effective picture of China through the Japanese lens. Likewise, the controversial Yasukuni Shrine being likened to a horcrux can conjure up an image of China’s acrimony to Japan. China and Japan, two of the richest in economies not just in East Asia but in the entire world, have long suffered this hostile relation and it is not without reason. Japan and China are currently embroiled in a dispute as both lay claim to a group of islands situated in the East China Sea called Senkaku Islands in Japan and Daioyu Islands in China. Until now, China’s memories of Japanese hostility before and during the Second World War remain to be etched in the country’s historical annals. Japan, on the other hand, condemns China’s claims of sovereignty over disputed territories and fervent refusal to submit to the rule of law, qualities which could arguably resemble the infamous Dark Lord.

The reference of both agents of State to popular culture, Harry Potter being a worldwide phenomenal and commercial success (both in books and motion picture), is something new and unexpected. Through the aid of a reference to children’s literature, we understand with such vividness and clarity that China and Japan’s feud, deeply-rooted as it is, has this jarring possibility to go beyond the printed media.