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The success of a Japanese animation film recently released in China reflects a thaw in relations between the two nations as Beijing opens up to cultural exchanges, according to a Japan-based expert on the communist country.

The 3-D animated movie “Stand By Me Doraemon,” which features the popular robotic cat and its schoolboy companion Nobita, topped the box office in China for the week ending May 31, raking in 240 million yuan (¥4.8 billion), according to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The film, released on May 28, also broke the single-day earnings record for animated films after taking in 88 million yuan (¥1.76 billion) on May 31. The record was previously held by the 2011 U.S. movie “Kung Fu Panda 2,” according to media reports.

The release of the first Japanese movie to the general public in China since July 2012 was part of the latest efforts from Beijing to promote exchanges in the private sector, said Noriyuki Kawamura, a Nagoya University of Foreign Studies professor who is an expert on the bilateral relations.

“Exchanges in various fields have moved forward in light of the Japan-China summits” between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November and April, Kawamura said.

He added that the release of the movie was in line with a policy promoted by Xi, who recently told a Japanese delegation of more than 3,000 people that the foundation of their bilateral relations lies in civilian cultural exchanges.

In China, the government strictly controls the screening of foreign films. The last Japanese film to be released at commercial theaters had been an “Ultraman” superhero movie in July 2012.

Japan-China ties have deteriorated partly due to a dispute over the ownership of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, most of which Tokyo purchased the islands from a Japanese family in September 2012. China also asserts its sovereignty over the uninhabited islets, calling them Diaoyu.

Kawamura said the popularity of the film would help improve public sentiment in China toward Japan, which had deteriorated due to the islands dispute.

“So many people went to the theater to watch the Doraemon film and so many people said they were moved by the movie,” Kawamura said, adding the Chinese image toward Japan would likely improve thanks to the film, which he said was an example of “soft power.”

He said the success of the film could be attributed partly to the memories it brought to many in the Chinese audience who were familiar with the animation series that began airing in China in 1991.

“There are many Chinese children who love Japanese animation,” Kawamura said. “After the 1980s, Japanese animations gradually made inroads into China. Those who were born after the 1990s are familiar with them.”

However, he warned it was not a panacea to fixing every bilateral issue between Japan and China.

Improved public sentiment in both countries through strengthened cultural exchanges could move the politics forward though, since the leaders cannot ignore public opinion, he said.

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