At around the time major Beijing bookstores were pulling Haruki Murakami’s best-seller “1Q84″ from shelves in late September as the row with China over the Senkaku Islands was escalating, some 100,000 orders for a Chinese journal specializing in Japanese society and culture poured into the Internet shopping portal Amazon China.
Titled Zhiri, which means knowing Japan, the journal takes up nonpolitical issues in Japan that can serve as a “mirror” for China. Its aim is not only to let readers know about Japan, but also to inspire them to reflect on issues and problems faced by China.
The journal’s instantaneous rise to popularity showed that despite public displays of anti-Japan sentiment, the desire to know about Japan has in fact been growing quietly within the society.
Throughout the massive anti-Japan protests, and as Chinese authorities attempted to tighten their countermeasures against Japan and went as far as restricting channels of speech, a wave of intellectual curiosity toward Japan arose among young people and intellectuals.
Questions emerged such as how its neighbor achieved its economic growth and what kind of country Japan is, according to Mao Danqing, the Japan-based Chinese writer who runs the journal.
Since arriving in Japan in 1987 as a student at Mie University, Mao said he has constantly been contemplating the same question: “What is Japan?”
Firmly believing that “knowing Japan is really in the best interest of the Chinese people,” the 47-year-old Kobe International University professor launched Zhiri in January 2011 and has since published six issues.
Each issue, which usually sells an average of 60,000 copies, carries a unique theme, such as uniforms, museums or cats, all based on his ideas. The journal does not take up political matters like those related to the latest dispute over the Senkaku Islands.
When he first came to Japan, Mao had been guaranteed a position at the Institute of Philosophy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Chinese Communist Party’s highest academic research organization in the fields of philosophy and social sciences, after his studies.
But two years into his stay, shocked by the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989, Mao decided to remain in Japan for the long term.
Asked why he decided to avoid political issues in the journal, Mao said, “An individual trying to clash head on against the state will only end up being completely crushed.
“For Zhiri to specialize in ‘culture’ is a kind of antithesis (toward China’s political regime),” he added.
The latest, sixth issue of the journal features Japan’s rail system.
As a Japan-focused magazine “created by Chinese for the sake of Chinese readers,” research for its articles and interviews are done by the journal’s Chinese staff. For the sixth issue, for example, they interviewed officials working on conventional rail lines as well as shinkansen operators.
What Mao had in mind when he decided on the railway theme was the deadly crash of a high-speed train in China’s Zhejiang Province in July last year.
The Chinese authorities’ disposal of wreckage following the fatal collision has sparked allegations of a coverup.
“By having readers learn about Japan’s railway systems, I hope they will think about the problems in China that lie in the backdrop of the accident,” Mao said.
Instead of directly criticizing the accident and the causes behind it, the journal leads readers on the path toward contemplating issues in China by using Japan as a “mirror.”
Some of the massive anti-Japanese protests in September turned into violent riots that targeted factories and supermarkets operated by Japanese firms, and even Japanese-brand vehicles and their owners.
“If (those Chinese people) had known about what Japan really is, I am sure such violent acts would not have taken place,” Mao said.
Deepening the Chinese public’s understanding and knowledge of Japan is crucial. “I believe this is a calling for (Chinese) people like me who are longtime residents of Japan,” he added.