Just as Japan and China mark the 40th anniversary of the 1972 normalization of diplomatic ties amid ever-deepening economic relations, public sentiments toward each country appear to have fallen to the lowest point in decades. News over the past several weeks have been awash with reports of massive daily protests on Chinese streets and a diplomatic stalemate over the Senkaku Islands dispute.

The mass media in both countries have a major role to play in dispelling the lingering mistrust and perception gap between the two nations and charting out the future course of bilateral relations from a broad perspective, according to journalists and media experts from Japan and China who took part in a recent symposium in Tokyo.

They were speaking at the event organized Aug. 29 under the theme, “40 years of the Japan-China relationship as seen from media reports.” The symposium was jointly organized by the Keizai Koho Center and the Center for East Asia Media Studies at Hokkaido University’s Research Faculty of Media and Communication.

Japan and China are in a “strange” relationship, said Mitsunaga Tabata, a former TBS reporter who covered the negotiations in Beijing for the normalization of ties 40 years ago.

Japan’s trade with China topped $340 billion last year, making the country China’s third-largest trading partner after the European Union and the United States. Given Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP) is only about a third of that of the U.S., this shows how close the economic relationship is between Japan and China, where the number of mutual visitors has hit 5 million each year, said Tabata, also a former Kanagawa University professor.

“Despite such a close relationship, public sentiments in both countries toward each other are extremely bad,” he said.

A joint survey by the Genron NPO in Japan and China Daily in June shows that 84 percent of Japanese polled have bad feelings toward China, whereas the ratio of Chinese who harbor negative feelings toward Japan reached 64.5 percent, Tabata pointed out. Similar surveys conducted by the Foreign Ministry show that since 2003 the number of people with negative feelings toward China have outnumbered those with positive feelings, he said.

Tabata said the root of the bad feelings toward each other, which in turn contribute to mutual distrust, may be found in the way the negotiations were concluded on Sept. 29, 1972 for the Japan-China Joint Statement, which normalized diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Beijing.

The Japanese media at that time, while celebrating the historic event and touting the prospect of friendly ties to come, may have failed to properly report on the seeds of discord that were set aside to make way for the agreement, he said.

The nature of the 1972 statement as a peace accord between former warring parties was watered down as Japanese diplomats tried to maintain consistency with the treaty that Tokyo signed in 1952 with the Republic of China’s government in Taiwan, and top leaders of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing grudgingly agreed to much of the Japanese demands in this respect, Tabata said.

Tabata said the Chinese discontent with Japan’s handling of the war-related issues, as reflected in the 1972 statement, lingered on as a source of distrust that comes to the surface whenever issues such as Yasukuni Shrine or Japan’s history textbooks happen. This, in turn, has fueled a frustration on the part of Japan that China keeps harping back to the issue of wartime aggression despite repeated apologies from Tokyo, he said.

Recurring disputes over war-related and territorial issues, violent demonstrations and open diplomatic fights lead many people to see today’s Japan-China relations as being in an “extraordinary” state, but “in a way, the bilateral relations have become more normal than before,” said Akira Fujino, a professor at Hokkaido University’s Center for East Asia Media Studies.

“Friendly ties” was the buzzword among political and business leaders as well as the mass media when the two countries normalized relations 40 years ago, but it was impossible for Chinese people and the media at that time to openly challenge the government’s decision, said Fujino, who formerly covered China issues as a reporter with the Yomiuri Shimbun.

Now, after more than three decades of economic reforms, China has to a degree become “a normal country” and, under such circumstances, it is only natural that Japan-China relations experience some turbulence, Fujino said. The problem, he added, is that many people fail to come to grips with such changes in bilateral relations.

Fujino noted that in Japan, many people have not yet caught up with the change in the East Asian paradigm that they have for so long taken for granted — in which Japan maintained supremacy over China for more than a century. This, he said, has led them to have a distorted perception of China without looking at the realities of the country.

China, for its part, seems to be finding it hard to see itself from an objective viewpoint amid the nation’s rapid ascent to power, and is unable to come up with a long-term strategy on what to do with the relations with Japan, Fujino said.

What is lacking among today’s political leaders in both Japan and China, he said, is the ability to make bold decisions based on a grand vision for the relations between the two countries. Top leaders who took part in the 1972 talks, including Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, had the leadership to set aside minor differences for the sake of common objectives, he said.

And this is also a problem with the mass media, Fujino said, adding that Japanese and Chinese media reports on each other seem to follow the same pattern without coming up with a long-term vision for bilateral relations.

Fujino said that the mass media in both Japan and China today fail to play the role of balancing popular sentiments when it comes to the coverage of news on each other. They tend to report on the basis of a very narrow image and stereotype toward the other country, he pointed out.

For example, it is widely believed in Japan that freedom of speech in China is still tightly controlled by the Communist Party, but in fact liberalization has rapidly progressed today to the extent that the government needs to put a brake by tightening control again, Fujino said. This is where media coverage in Japan, which tends to play up news when controls are tightened, creates a distorted image of what’s happening in China, he added.

On the other hand, the Chinese media, as they faced the brunt of the market economy, have shown populist trends by focusing on news and commentaries that play to the readers or viewers, and air radical views when disputes with Japanese arise, Fujino said.

Fujino said the Japanese media needs to do a lot more to report on the changing and diversifying China today from a variety of perspectives. And the very same problem, he said, exists with the Chinese media.

This is not just a problem for the mass media, Fujino said, noting that greater efforts need to be made in education in both countries to correctly teach about each other. Chinese has become one of the most popular second languages for students at Japanese universities, but programs for teaching the students about China itself are still far from sufficient, he pointed out.

Liu Jie, a professor at Waseda University’s Faculty of Social Sciences, said there is a widening gap in perception in Japan and China toward each other.

Forty years ago, both Chinese and Japanese people considered the last war between the two countries as an important starting point when they thought about building future relations, Liu said.

But Japanese people in the generation born after the 1972 normalization view the past war as a basis for thinking about the ties with China, he said. However, their Chinese counterparts continue to link the past war and the present relationship with Japan, he added.

Today, the Japanese people’s perception of China is heavily influenced by what gets reported about today’s China, Liu said. Therefore, the issues that shape the image of China held by average Japanese are the nation’s military buildup, environmental pollution, corruption by local officials, its pursuit of natural resources, he said.

A typical example, Liu said, is the 2010 collision of a Chinese fishing boat with Japan’s Coast Guard vessel near the Senkaku Islands. That was a fishing boat, but that boat was largely taken in Japan to be a symbol of China’s military power or its diplomatic policy, he observed.

The corresponding generation in China, he said, grew up just as the country went through the modernization process, and one of their major goals in life is the pursuit of wealth. At the same time, they care strongly about their nation’s modern history of being invaded by others, having received history education based on patriotism, Liu noted.

These differences between the younger generations in Japan and China, he said, are apparently behind the perception gap toward each other.

Liu theorized that China’s perception toward Japan has gone through different stages since the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. Until the 1972 normalization of ties, the Chinese leaders basically tried to separate the “Japanese people” from “Japanese militarism.” Friendly ties became the keyword for some time after the normalization, until the history textbook and Yasukuni disputes emerged in the 1980s, when the leaders again began referring to Japan’s “militarism” on the belief that some people in Japan still refuse to acknowledge that the country had staged a war of aggression against China, he said.

Then during the 5½-year administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a new perception kicked in that Japan as a whole was turning to the right, Liu said. It is against this background that strong anti-Japanese sentiments emerge and protest rallies are held whenever disputes happen with Japan, he added.

What is needed today, Liu said, is for the Chinese people to have an alternative viewpoint so as to correctly understand Japan’s realities.

“You cannot just rely on one viewpoint, but you need an alternative viewpoint — as seen from the other side. China needs to establish an accurate perception of Japan based on full understanding of the postwar economic relations or the cultural or other ties accumulated in the years since the end of the war. This is the challenge we face today,” Liu said.

Li Yuchuan, Tokyo bureau chief for the Beijing Daily, recalled how, when anti-Japanese sentiments flared up during the Koizumi years in the early 2000s, the mass media on both sides characterized the bilateral relations as “politically chilly but economically hot” — meaning that business ties remain strong despite the diplomatic rows over the prime minister’s Yasukuni visits and other issues.

This time, however, Li said he is concerned that the rising anti-Japanese sentiments in China could harm the economic ties as well. A decade ago, China’s GDP was only a fourth of Japan’s, and China needed Japan as its top trading partner and very important export destination, but today Japan’s importance for China’s economic interests has declined as domestic consumption expanded and economic ties with the U.S. and Europe increased, he said.

Furthermore, Japanese companies a decade ago ran their Chinese plants as production bases, but today their Chinese operations are increasingly targeted at the Chinese market — a situation where they could be more vulnerable to turbulence in popular sentiments, Li noted.

Li urged Japanese companies to pay more attention to their own brand management in the Chinese market, where competition with their rivals from around the world “is much more fierce than you imagine” in Japan.

Negative exposure about Japanese firms by the Chinese media, who act under market principles to survive the tough domestic competition, to seize on the strong anti-Japanese sentiments should be considered as a serious risk, he said.