Every Sunday afternoon, rain or shine, a group gathers at a park in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district, where Japanese studying Chinese and Chinese living in Japan can engage in lively conversation.
The gathering is a Chinese-language circle called Hanyu Jiao, which translates as “Chinese chat session.” The topics range from Chinese politics, economy, TV and tourism to cultural differences with Japan.
The circle has evolved to be more than just a language circle. It has become an important platform for building bridges.
The Sunday Chinese Corner was launched by a publisher. Duan Yuezhong is editor-in-chief of Duan Press Co., a publishing house in Japan that specializes in books on Japan-China relations, many of which are by Chinese authors and translated into Japanese.
Duan, 58, says Japan and China have been building closer ties. More Japanese have started studying Chinese and want to know what is happening in the Chinese community, he said.
“When I was in China, there were many such platforms as English chat sessions and French chat sessions to assist language learners. Why not establish a Chinese chat session in Japan to help Japanese study Chinese?” said Duan. He came to Japan in 1991 to join his wife, who was studying here.
In August 2007, the former reporter for the state-run China Youth Daily set up the first Chinese chat session in Tokyo to help Japanese study the Chinese language and promote grass roots communication between the two countries.
Since then, participants have included government officials, company workers, university professors and young students. The weekly gatherings take place in Nishi Ikebukuro Park, close to a new Chinatown that has emerged in recent years.
The chat session is free of charge and lasts from 2 to 5 p.m. People can come and go as they please. Participants start out by introducing themselves, both in Japanese and Chinese. They then divide into small groups where they can speak freely. Gatherings vary in size, from 10 to more than 100 participants.
Kazuhiko Sugimoto, 70, a longtime participant of the event, once worked in a bank in Beijing. He said he had no chance to speak Chinese after returning to Japan.
He learned of the Chinese chat session from Duan. “Joining the Chinese chat session allows me to speak Chinese again and I can get the latest news in China from the participants,” Sugimoto said at the 435th event, where 36 people were in attendance.
One participant, 59-year-old Mitsuru Iguchi, became interested in Chinese after listening to the songs of late Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng. Iguchi was visiting from Osaka.
He took part in the event many times before moving to Osaka, where a similar but smaller Chinese circle meets.
He said few people take part in Osaka’s Chinese chat session. “It makes me miss Tokyo,” he said.
After introducing himself, he urged other participants to send their friends in Osaka to the Chinese circle there.
Through the activity, not only can Japanese learn Chinese, but young Chinese who have just arrived in Japan can also get a chance to talk with Japanese people.
Yoshikazu Ishino, 56, a teacher at Kyoshin Language Academy, a Japanese language school, took seven foreign students — six from China and one from Bangladesh — to the chat session.
“Our students usually study Japanese at classes and libraries. It would be a shame to send students who can’t speak to or listen to Japanese people to universities and into society,” he said.
One of his students, Hu Ziyun, 22, from Guangzhou, southern China, said joining the circle gave him more opportunities to communicate with Japanese to find out what they are thinking.
“Most Japanese citizens are friendly; they oppose war,” Hu said, adding that this differs from what he sometimes saw on Chinese television.
Participants sing Chinese songs and eat Chinese food. Some gradually become friends and even couples.
But the language circle was not always this harmonious. The number of attendees dropped sharply after tensions rose in 2012 over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, the participants said.
Although the current bilateral political situation is not as bad as several years ago, the two countries still face difficulties in making tangible progress on repairing relations often damaged by territorial and wartime issues.
Duan believes face-to-face exchanges at a grass roots level are essential.
“Most of the two countries’ people usually pick up information about each other from the media,” which leads to distrust because it does not reflect the reality, he said.
He hopes to expand the number of Chinese language circles from the current 10 to 100 across Japan.
The worse the bilateral relations, “the more efforts we should make,” he said.
He believes even if only one person gains better understanding, the project will have been worthwhile.
“Where there are Chinese, there can be Chinese chat sessions.”