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Chinese social media reshape image of Japan

by Mihoko Matsubara and Yang Yi

Special To The Japan Times

While Chinese mass media tend to focus on negative images of Japan, social media have begun to provide more diversified perspectives since the 3/11 Great Tohoku Earthquake. Social media have allowed Chinese to get to know Japan in a more comprehensive manner.

Micro-blogging has created new possibilities to enhance Chinese understanding of Japan and improve impressions of that country.

Traditionally, Chinese people received negative information filtered by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), ranging from anti-Japanese dramas based on World War II textbooks emphasizing the Japanese invasions to hawkish news reports about territorial disputes.

Not surprisingly, anti-Japanese sentiment often bubbled to the surface after incidents involving Japan, such as when protests erupted after a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japanese Coast Guard vessels in September 2010.

This incident pushed up the number of Chinese who have negative views of Japan from 55.9 percent in 2010 to 65.9 percent a year later, according to a joint opinion poll by the China Daily and the Genron nonprofit organization, a Japanese think tank based in Tokyo. This data paints a dark impression of current Sino-Japan relations. At the same time, the number of Chinese students and professors who have a negative image went down from 34.0 percent last year to 32.2 percent, mainly due to the Internet.

Social media is a major tool for younger Chinese to interact, get information and shape their views instantly — all far from the tight censorship of the CCP. The Chinese micro-blogging service, Weibo (Chinese equivalent of Twitter), has more than 200 million registered users. Japan is always one of the most popular topics — not only because of historical and territorial issues but also because of its advanced technology and economy.

Still, 80 percent of Chinese postings on the Internet were anti-Japanese before the 3/11 earthquake. On the other hand, 90 percent of Internet postings are now more pro-Japanese, says Kiyoyuki Seguchi, a research fellow at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, a Tokyo-based think tank.

Seguchi attributes the change to extensive coverage by Chinese TV programs of the earthquake. China Central Television (CCTV), a major state TV broadcaster in China, reported on the earthquake almost 24/7 for one week after March 11. Chinese audiences were impressed by the stoicism and high morale of the Japanese during the difficult times.

Nevertheless, 80 percent of the general public relies on TV for information sources on Japan, according to the joint Japan-China opinion poll, and the public has more negative views of Japan since the quake, due mainly to the territorial disputes caused by the fishing boat incident.

It indicates that the traditional mass media was not powerful enough to turn the sympathy to override the unfavorable impression of the territorial dispute. In contrast, social media was able to diversify the perceptions of younger Chinese, who received nationalistic education. It played two significant roles after the earthquake.

First, social media served as a swift aggregator and provider of diversified grassroot news about ordinary Japanese. Many micro-bloggers posted photos with news summaries.

For example, micro-blogs widely circulated a story about how Japanese remained calm after the earthquake and quietly waited in train stations without rioting. This story was tweeted over 70,000 times. Traditional media does not have such strong circulation power.

Second, social media sparked online discussions based on a wide variety of information and made netizens analyze Japan more comprehensively than ever before. Exchanges of opinions made some of them realize how their previous views of Japan were skewed. The 3/11 disaster created opportunities for people to see Japan through something other than the prism of historical and territorial issues.

It was quite unusual that a majority of Chinese bloggers criticized those who taunted Japan after this disaster. Even though some described what they saw as well-deserved “karma” in the face of Japanese atrocities during World War II, most of netizens perceived such malicious comments as disgraceful. Some even commented that they wanted to apologize on behalf of China. This had never happened after previous major quakes.

Of course, this does not mean that younger Chinese have completely changed their views of Japan. There are still tensions caused by historical and territorial issues. Social media can amplify nationalism as seen in the 2005 anti-Japanese protest movements.

Significantly, though, post-3/11 social media trends show that Chinese attitudes toward Japan have become multidimensional rather than monolithic.

Micro-blogs have enabled the voices of ordinary people to be heard and analyzed. Chinese people know more about Japan through online interactions and no longer focus only on the bitter history and territorial issues.

Japanese netizens should contribute to this positive development by sharing information and insights on themselves and their country. Social media will help them spread their words, even if there can be some harsh backlashes.

Such grassroots-level interactions would be the first step forward toward truly improving the bilateral relationship in the long run.

Mihoko Matsubara and Yang Yi are resident research fellows at the Pacific Forum CSIS, Hawaii. Mihoko@pacforum.org Yang@pacforum.org.