East Asia is a graveyard for the sort of visionary diplomatic ambition that gave birth to the European Union. As in Europe, there are well-established states linked by a common cultural heritage – in this case the great Confucian tradition – and a history of many cruel wars. As in Europe, too, commerce has forged new bonds. The explosion of trade between Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China over the last thirty years, not to mention investment in each other’s economies, has been extraordinary. These countries now do more business between them than the European nations do with one another. But for all the tedious international summitry that goes on, usually poorly noticed over here, no grand diplomatic superstructure is emerging.
As Michael Booth shows in this entertaining travel book, the reason is quite straightforward: they don’t seem to like each other much. Maybe it’s because ‘two tigers cannot share the same mountain’, as the Chinese proverb puts it. Or is it because there are more sinister forces at work, such as the machinations of ultra-nationalist politicians and right-wing militias, or meddling by the USA and other outside powers?
The author, who lives in Denmark, took the measure of our Scandinavian neighbours in his popular 2014 book The Almost Nearly Perfect People. He now becomes our genial host on a tour of Japan (where he is something of a celebrity, having intrigued readers with the insights of