The biggest problem between Japan and China is their lack of mutual understanding — due largely to prejudice and ignorance, said Akiko Aoki, a former host for China Radio International, the sole Chinese national radio station broadcasting programs overseas.

“My conclusion after my five-year stay in Beijing is that Japanese know nothing about the Chinese, and the Chinese know nothing about Japan,” Aoki told The Japan Times in an interview.

This has often led to misunderstandings, she said, such as when Japan Airlines offended Chinese passengers in January 2001 by giving them sandwiches as they waited for their flight to take off during bad weather, not realizing Chinese rarely eat cold meals.

The two nations had completely different takes on the recent incident at the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang, China, in which a family of five North Korean asylum seekers who managed to enter the premises were taken out by Chinese police. Japan claims the police effectively trespassed on its territory, while China claims they acted with Japan’s consent.

The problem is that Japanese tend to believe the Chinese think like them, simply because they look similar and both languages use kanji, Aoki figured.

This notion prompted Aoki to use her radio program to air chats with another host about life in Japan, ranging from food and fashion to other trends and activities, hoping such information would foster better understanding.

She also broadcast the latest popular Japanese music. Before her program came along, the Japanese music that was aired usually consisted of dated “enka” ballads such as “Kitaguni no Haru” (“Spring in Northern Japan”), Aoki said.

She said Chinese listeners — whom her program targeted despite being on a foreigner-oriented station — started to enjoy Japanese pop music, including the male groups Glay and L’Arc en Ciel, and the young diva Hikaru Utada. Her efforts seemed to gradually be paying off.

But Aoki was stunned by the power of pop culture when she began receiving dozens of letters from Chinese fans, asking her to give them Japanese names.

She gave one young female listener the name “Rika” — the kanji for “ri” meaning “a pear” and for “ka” meaning “fragrance.” “Aki” (“Asian hope”) was the name she gave the 5-year-old daughter of a listener who was studying Japanese. “Who could believe pop culture could have such a strong impact?” Aoki asked.

“Some people say pop culture is too shallow to be used as a way to deepen mutual understanding. But I want to stress that anything is fine for openers. Anything would be fine if the Chinese and Japanese can understand each other and get along together.

“We have a pop culture, and it has proved popular with the Chinese, so we should make further use of it,” she said.

Aoki also pointed out that Japanese know little about modern Chinese life. The typical image they have is based on Chinese movies set in farm villages in the 1970s and 1980s.

Aoki, who speaks Chinese, had traveled to more than 40 countries and was working as a writer when she began to look into the differences between the Chinese and Japanese.

“To me, China was the most exciting country because it was so different,” she recalled.

The differences, as well as the nation’s energy, prompted her to study in Beijing for two years from 1995. China was well along on its rapid transformation into a capitalist economy, led by the late leader Deng Xiaoping. Japan was and still is mired in a recession. Aoki said that this stagnation seemed to sap her energy.

But her enthusiasm for China when she was a student in Beijing gradually waned after she started to work and live there. She came to believe Chinese and Japanese shared perhaps more differences than similarities. She now plans to write a book on how to get along with Chinese people.

Fans of Japanese culture remain a minority in China, Aoki said, where negative feelings are stubbornly rooted.

But she also sees reason for optimism. “The Chinese used to say that mutual understanding with Japan would be impossible until all people who suffered in the war have died off and 80 years have passed. But the new generation has told us the pace of change is not so slow.”

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