Vitriolic spats have marred the relationship between Japan and China whenever matters such as Japan’s wartime past and territorial issues come to a head.
Now acrimonious bickering over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea has put the bilateral relationship under stress unseen since diplomatic ties were normalized in 1972.
Despite the deeply ingrained prejudice on both sides, some Japanese are doing their best to promote better mutual understanding between the two peoples.
Writer Akiko Aoki is one such person. She wants Japanese to learn what China is really like by reading a recently published book by a widely popular Chinese author, which she spent a year translating into Japanese.
The Japanese title is “Shanghai: Katatsumuri no Ie” (“Snail House”) by Liu Liu. It is a comedy depicting the roller-coaster life of a young couple striving to leave their tiny “snail shell” of a house to buy a bigger home during a time of soaring real estate prices. A TV adaptation became a smash hit in China in 2009.
“The asset-inflated economic bubble, corrupt bureaucrats, the gaping gulf between the poor and rich, materialism, infidelity, sex. . . . The book offers an unembellished portrayal of the realities facing Chinese society,” Aoki said.
She first visited China in the early 1990s to study Chinese in Beijing for two years. She went to China because she was depressed about Japan, which was at the time mired in a prolonged recession after the downfall of the bubble economy around 1990.
She says she was fascinated by Chinese people. Back then, “all Chinese lived modestly and tended to be laid back. I came to really love the Chinese and China,” she said. “But now Chinese are leading too busy a life.”
She was galvanized into action in the early 2000s, at around the time when Japan-China relations soured due to visits by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, as well as convicted Class-A war criminals.
She hosted a radio show in the southern city of Guangzhou to introduce Japanese youth culture to local listeners in an effort to let them know what the Japanese are really like.
She has lived in China for a total of 12 years and published several books in Japan about contemporary China in hopes of bringing the people of the two nations closer.
She continues to promote Japanese culture to Chinese youth as a popular radio celebrity, now in Beijing.
As someone who has worked so hard to improve bilateral ties, Aoki has been shattered by the ongoing row over the Senkaku Islands, which has escalated into a fierce war of words and caused rioting in some parts of China.
Aoki said bad blood is brewing between Japanese and Chinese at a time when they still remain ignorant about each other.
“I want Japanese to read Liu Liu’s book especially at a time like this,” she said.
Planting the flag
A former internal affairs minister sees developing the Senkaku Islands as key to protecting Japan’s hold over them.
Kazuhiro Haraguchi, a lawmaker from the Democratic Party of Japan who set up a nonpartisan parliamentary group working to protect Japanese sovereignty and national interests, also said in a recent interview that he believes tensions between Japan and China over the Senkakus should be eased by focusing on mutual economic interests.
“The first thing to do is to promote (development of) the remote islands of Okinawa Prefecture,” Haraguchi said. “We will be able to strengthen our effective control over the Senkaku Islands” by fostering development in such areas, including the city of Ishigaki, which administers the Senkakus.
Haraguchi underlined the “need to boost the economic bases” for the remote islets and played down suggestions of setting up port facilities or a lighthouse.
“Simply building facilities will not strengthen the country’s sovereignty and protection of territories in the truest sense,” he said.
Haraguchi, along with other Diet members, inspected the Senkakus in October 2010 from the air following a clash between a Chinese trawler and Japan Coast Guard cutters near the Senkakus the previous month.
The incident sent relations between Tokyo and Beijing into a tailspin.
In the wake of the latest tensions, sparked by Chinese anger over the nationalization in September of the islets, he said, “I would like to tell China that it will not be in its interests to make its territorial ambitions obvious.”