Despite unabated political tension, cultural exchanges between China and Japan have increased in recent months. These ties are expected to help ease diplomatic strain
A 3,000-member Japanese delegation of tourism industry representatives, local officials and lawmakers travelled to seven Chinese cities and provinces from May 20–26, 2015, to both sightsee and promote Japanese tourism. According to statistics from the Japan National Tourism Organisation, Chinese tourists made more visits to Japan during the first four months of 2015 than South Koreans, formerly Japan’s largest source of overseas tourists.
While encouraging international tourism is a direct way to develop China-Japan relations, an indirect element is also in play. Two days after the Japanese delegation returned home, the Japanese animated film Stand by Me Doraemon, a family film featuring a robot cat who has been a popular cartoon character in China for decades, premiered on the Chinese mainland. It has been nearly three years since a Japanese film has played on mainland screens, while 20-30 Western films hit Chinese cinemas every year.
Observers of China-Japan relations are looking beyond the perspective of business interests or cultural ties, and at the strong political context of such exchanges. The Japanese delegation was proposed and led by Toshihiro Nikai, chairman of the General Council of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s ruling party’s top decision-making body. He delivered a personal letter from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Chinese President Xi Jinping at the May 23 ChinaJapan Friendship Exchange Meeting in Beijing, which also served as a reception held for the delegation. In a speech at the meeting, Xi stressed: “China-Japan friendship is rooted in the two countries’ citizens, and the future of China-Japan relations is held in the hands of the people of these two countries.”
Since the two neighbours’ disputes over the Diaoyu islands (known as the Senkaku in Japan) have intensified since late 2010, and Japan’s official historic view of its World War II legacy has begun to shift right, formal bilateral meetings at the top level have occured only briefly on the sidelines of international events such as the G20 or APEC summits. The last bilateral state visit took place seven years ago, in 2008. So far there is no expectation for another. Worse still, Chinese and Japanese media polls have consistently shown that a majority of people from both countries hold unfavourable attitudes toward the other. Increasing nationalism on both sides has been making diplomatic efforts harder. In this context, when both countries’ political leaders are encouraging both business and personal exchanges, analysts can breathe a little easier.
There is big market potential for both sides to tap into the other’s tourism and cultural industries. Annual visits by Chinese tourists to Japan remain fewer than those made by Japanese tourists to China, but that number is rising quickly. According to Japan’s Kyodo News, Japan’s Ministry of Finance recently reported that in 2014, overseas tourists spent more money in Japan than Japanese tourists spent abroad, creating the country’s first tourism trade surplus in 55 years, with partial credit due to an influx of Chinese travellers. The affluent Chinese middle class also favour Japanese brands, ranging from heated toilet seats and electric rice cookers to medicine, paper napkins and even cherry blossoms. Relaxed visa policies and a weaker yen, resulting from Abe’s monetary policy, have also been thought to help boost visitor numbers.
Visits by Japanese tourists to China, however, peaked in 2007. During a speech at Tsinghua University on May 22, Nikai expressed concerns over this decline. He hoped that tourism between the two countries would be like an effective two-way exchange. During the delegation’s trip, their local Chinese hosts promoted tourist attractions, such as traditional Chinese medical practices in Beijing, UNESCO World Heritage sites in Shanxi Province and winter resorts in China’s northeast.
Cooperation to bolster tourism from other countries is also on the agenda. At their annual meeting in April, tourism ministers from China, Japan and South Korea agreed to jointly launch a “Visit East Asia” campaign in order to attract visitors from the rest of the world.
Sato Chitose, a Japanese journalist who lived in China between 2010 and 2012 and now a lecturer in Chinese society at a university in Hokkaido, Japan, told ChinaReport that Japan’s tourism boom led to higher employment for university graduates, which in turn increased positive attitudes toward China among ordinary Japanese for whom economic recovery is a priority. Considering the size of China’s population, she added, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Japan still has a lot of room to grow. According to the China Tourism Administration, visits between China and Japan were only half of those between China and South Korea in 2014.
The film industry is also slowly drawing the countries closer together. Stand by Me Doraemon grossed US$40 million during its first four days of release in China, much higher than George Clooney vehicle Tomorrowland. Many Chinese cinemas, not wanting to miss out on potential profits, immediately replaced showings of Tomorrowland with the Japanese film. Relevant industries in both China and Japan all benefited, from film producers to popcorn vendors.
On June 5, 2015, the Japanese government announced a new action plan to double the revenue earned from overseas tourists in 2014 by the year 2020. Since 2013, Abe has repeatedly called for greater effort to push the Cool Japan campaign, which was launched in 2002 to promote Japan’s cultural products around the world. In this effort China is regarded as a major market, and has yet to catch up with Japan in terms of international tourism and cultural attractions, but is stepping up its efforts. In early 2015, the China National Tourism Administration announced a three-year “toilet revolution” to address the biggest complaint from domestic and foreign tourists. In addition, various measures that facilitate the export of cultural products, such as TV programmes, films, books and handicrafts, have been adopted since 2012. Several manga and animation festivals which have taken place or have been scheduled to be held in China this year have invited Japanese producers and celebrities to participate.
Business and Pleasure
If the purpose of promoting social bonds between China and Japan was just to boost business, the results may have fallen a way short of expectations. Since at least the late 1990s, Sino-Japanese relations could be summed up as “politically cold but economically warm.” Although Japan’s declining investment in China since 2011 and diminishing bilateral trade have been attributed to political tensions during this period, Chinese and Japanese trade officials and agencies have also cited other factors, including foreign exchange fluctuations, increasing market competition and China’s rising production costs. A good business partnership does not automatically translate into positive political attitudes. There is justified concern that if the political tension continues to build, it will substantially undermine long-term economic cooperation.
Therefore, something that stretches beyond people’s wallets and into people’s hearts is valued much more by analysts in the recent efforts to lower diplomatic temperatures. Most Chinese Stand By Me Doraemon filmgoers were born in the late 1970s and 1980s, and they look back fondly at childhood memories of watching the Japanese cartoon after school. As adults, they went to cinemas to celebrate their own nostalgia and enjoy International Children’s Day (June 1) with their kids. Their parents, meanwhile, reminisced as Komaki Kurihara, a Japanese film star popular in China in the 1980s, who sang folk songs with a Japanese girl and a Chinese boy at the 2015 Children’s Day gala staged by China’s State broadcaster CCTV.
Mr Wang has been a frequent visitor to Japan ever since he retired from his job as a librarian in Beijing a few years ago. He enjoys taking photos of scenery. Japan has impressed him with its cleanliness, the courtesy of its people toward tourists, and its well-preserved historic sites. Wang travelled alone a few times rather than in a tour group, though he does not speak any Japanese. “If I lost my way and used a map to ask Japanese passersby on the street, they always showed me the way in detail through gestures or even by noting down the directions,” he told ChinaReport.
The aim of Nikai’s recent delegation is not just to balance out the tourism trade. Delegation member Ms Suzuki, an owner of an onsen (hot spring) hotel in Mount Fuji’s Shizuoka Prefecture, told ChinaReport that she was interested in Japan’s traditional cultural connection with China, and would tell her staff and friends about her observations of China in comparison with Japanese media reports. Nikai has organised four large delegations since 2000 to boost understanding between the two peoples.
Exchanges targeting everyday citizens have indeed been made a part of bilateral diplomacy. In 2008, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed the robot cat Doraemon as an “anime ambassador.” Earlier this year, the China National Tourism Administration came up with the idea of “tourism diplomacy.” To achieve this, Chinese tourists may be blacklisted for misconduct, such as making trouble in aircraft or misusing toilets. Those travelling overseas will be scrutinised particularly closely. Such records may affect their future travel plans or even their credit rating.
Exchanges of visits by private delegations, including students, tourists and people from all walks of life, have been sponsored several times since 1984, when 3,000 young Japanese came to China at the invitation of late Communist Party of China General Secretary Hu Yaobang. Before China and Japan established diplomatic ties in 1972, international table tennis tournaments hosted in both countries, as well as frequent visits by national teams, were an important channel for politicians on both sides to send gestures of goodwill. In 1971, with the great efforts of the Japan Table Tennis Association, China participated in the World Table Tennis Championships after missing the previous three. It was during this event in Nagoya, Japan, that an American player accidentally boarded a bus intended for Chinese players, which led to China inviting the US team to Beijing and launched what is known as “ping-pong diplomacy.” Breaking the ice between China and the US immediately ignited the renewal of long stagnant official diplomatic ties between China and Japan.
Professor Liu Jiangyong, a prominent scholar of China-Japan relations at Tsinghua University, said interpersonal exchanges played a “special” role both before and after China and Japan normalised diplomatic ties, according to the China News Service. He described everyday exchanges as the “foundation of improving China-Japan relations, and complementary to official exchanges. After all, all things are done by people.”
Japanese lecturer Sato noted that the current scale of individual interaction was far from sufficient, and suggested, for example, that Japan improve communication with Chinese students living in Japan. “In China’s west, many people have never seen a Japanese person,” she added. In addition, China is much larger and has a more diverse population than Japan. “This could result in a misunderstanding among ordinary Japanese that most Chinese hate Japan, which in turn has reinforced negative attitudes among Japanese toward China,” she noted, stressing that all of this demonstrates the importance of communication between the two countries.
Actually, even on social media, where dramatic language is used more frequently than in real life, opinions on an issue frequently shift as relevant information emerges. Violence against Japanese companies or products in 2012 was widely criticised on the Chinese Internet, and the perceived Japanese pursuit of self-discipline, elegance, orderly environments and the preservation of historic heritage are widely appreciated by Chinese netizens. At the same time, web users are hawkish when it comes to Japan’s expanding military and its emerging political right wing.
In the meantime, Chinese and Japanese analysts and media are pragmatic when it comes to how far personal interactions can go to help thaw political tensions. Firstly, as Professor Liu pointed out, individual exchanges make only an incremental difference, and have little immediate impact. Secondly, few expect warmer interpersonal contact between Chinese and Japanese people to result in major changes in the stances of policymakers on key bilateral political issues. Both Chinese and Japanese media reported President Xi Jinping’s condemnation of war crimes committed by the Japanese military during its World War II occupation of much of China, warning that China will not tolerate “any attempt to distort or euphemise the history of Japanese militaristic aggression,” remarks made in Xi’s speech at the official reception for the Nikai delegation.
At a May 20 debate in the Diet, Japan’s parliament, Abe refused to answer whether or not he accepted the Potsdam Declaration signed by the US, Great Britain and China in July 1945, which claimed Japan “embark[ed]on world conquest” and demanded “stern justice be meted out to all war criminals.” On June 1, he said Japan had “accepted” the document, which, he added, reflected the will of the Allied nations at that time. According to Japan’s Asahi Shimbun news agency, Abe has expressed similar views in Diet discussions or interviews in the past few years, saying that accepting the document was just Japan’s way to end the war after it was devastated by atomic bombs, and the sentencing of war criminals at the Tokyo Trials was the prerogative of Allied nations.
Abe’s recent remarks were made at Diet debates on the legislative package proposed by his cabinet to allow Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to conduct overseas logistical missions in support of allies under attack, making the use of force permissible if certain conditions are met. This is a major change to existing laws, which restrict SDF operations to the country’s sovereign territory. The change has aroused concern in China, South Korea and Japan itself over whether it is “war legislation.” On this issue, even Nikai, whose China-friendly policy is widely recognised, would disappoint Beijing. At a Japanese House of Representatives session on June 4, all three appointed constitutional scholars, including the one invited by the ruling LDP, said that the package was against Japan’s constitution. On June 6, according to Kyodo News, Nikai responded in a televised interview that his party just picked an “inappropriate scholar” and those views were meant as nothing more than a reference for a decision that had already been taken by his party.
Private exchanges, either with or without business interests, are only partially subject to fluctuations in the political sphere. This is why they can help when things go wrong politically, and also why they can only work effectively when the political will to apply them in a positive way is strong enough. This is illustrated by multiple high-level meetings that took place both immediately before and after Nikai’s delegation departed.