Polarised Views on the Grounds Straining Sino-Japanese Relations

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Polarised views

The mood at my sister’s household these days  is strained and becomes more so with each new bout of tension between  China and Japan. She’s Chinese and her husband is Japanese and, despite  15 years of marriage, they haven’t been able to get beyond their  different perspectives on this issue, a situation that in some way  mirrors the distrust between the two Asian powers they come from.

Each new incident – from the Japanese  cabinet’s agreement on July 1 to lift the constitutional ban preventing  Japanese troops from engaging in overseas combat, to the festering  territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China  Sea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s official visit to the Yasukuni  Shrine – has given the couple, and the countries they hail from, a lot  to argue about.

Their fights usually revolve around a  crucial issue – China’s persistent demand for an apology from Japan.  “Why are you Chinese so persistent about Japan apologising for the war?  Haven’t we apologised enough? Why can’t you move on?” my brother-in-law  will snap at my sister, insisting that China has ruined the  Sino-Japanese relationship. “Japan may have apologised, but it’s never  sincere. And the Japanese need to consider how the Chinese feel,” she’ll  counter.

The arguments go nowhere because neither one  really listens to the other. Lately, they’ve resorted more frequently  to passive-aggressive silence as they stew in their respective dismay at  the other’s “lack of understanding”.
The quarrels underscore what’s going wrong  between the two peoples – a huge perception gap over history, with  neither side willing to give ground or consider that the other side may  have a point. Sadly, that gap is widening, fuelling mutual animosity  that undercuts the bilateral relationship, at a time of slower economic  growth when Asia could really benefit from stability.

Many on the Japanese side have relatively  little understanding of their own history. Despite all that’s been  written about Japan’s military aggression in Asia, the topic is hardly  mentioned in high school textbooks, shaping the thinking of generation  after generation. Several years ago, while working at a Japanese radio  station in Tokyo, a Japanese producer in his mid-30s asked me rather  abruptly one afternoon why many Malaysians, citing Japan’s military  past, refused to meet him on a reporting trip to Kuala Lumpur. “What  happened?” he asked, genuinely mystified, admitting later that he didn’t  know that Japan occupied much of the region during the second world war  to the displeasure and resentment of its neighbours.

Many Chinese are equally uninformed. A young  Chinese man I met recently in Beijing said until he visited Japan a  year ago, he thought all Japanese were short, ugly and creepy, based on  TV war dramas that are a mainstay of state-run networks. Japan is  actually clean, polite and civilised and offers a lot that China can  learn from, he added. He further noted that Japanese often see  themselves more as victims of the war than aggressors, a recasting  linked to the US atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Many Chinese are heavily influenced by state  propaganda. In some social circles, hate for the Japanese is considered  acceptable, even good. “To be patriotic is to be anti-Japanese” is a  current that runs through much of the traffic on Weibo and various  Chinese blogs.

Such unthinking patriotism is dangerous, as  even some demonstrators realise. In a series of reports on Chinese views  towards the Japanese, published on the news website of Phoenix  Television media group, a would-be anti-Japanese demonstrator, Han  Chongguang, said he decided against protesting after watching another  protest run amok. His eyes were opened, he said, in Xian in September  2012, when several Chinese owners of Japanese cars were assaulted and  saw their vehicles destroyed. One victim, Li Jianli, sustained such  severe head and spinal injuries that he will never walk again. When  anti-Japanese demonstrators lose their rationality and beat other  Chinese, he concluded, something is seriously wrong.

Given the depth of distrust, the mutual  animosity may worsen before it gets better. The Genron NPO, a private,  independent think tank that conducts a joint China-Japan public opinion  poll every year, notes that as bilateral diplomatic ties deteriorate,  people’s views on both sides become more polarised. Last year, over 90  per cent of both Chinese and Japanese recorded negative impressions of  each other, an all-time high in the survey’s nine-year history. A major  culprit in both cases is the domestic media, because the vast majority  of Japanese and Chinese never visit each other’s country or gain much  first-hand experience.

In considering people’s impressions, the  survey found that many Japanese tend to focus on the China of today,  mentioning Chinese food and air pollution, while most Chinese focused on  the Japan of yesterday, with a focus on the war, citing “the Nanking  Massacre”, and the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute.
Every nation has its myths, blind spots and  different perspectives on history. But if Japan and China hope to  resolve the current diplomatic impasse and blunt the risk of military  conflict, the two sides must narrow this perception gap by dispelling  their prejudices and shedding their one-sided views of history.
This is probably best done through  non-governmental channels and exchanges, including more tourism, so the  two peoples can foster more open, objective perspectives of each another  and their shared history.

Karen Ma is the author of Excess Baggage,  a semi-autobiographical novel based on her family’s experience living  in Japan as Chinese immigrants during the 1990s

A Youngest ‘Daughter’ Remembers Famines, Shame And Hope

by Karen Ma

An Autobiography

by Hong Ying

Paperback, 278 pages

More on this book:

Hong Ying’s autobiography, Daughter of the River, is doubly astonishing. First, it’s an account of the Cultural Revolution that’s not written by an intellectual. There’s a certain genre of Chinese memoir that looks at upheaval under Mao through an elite lens, and I have to admit, I’ve been growing tired of those books. But Hong Ying comes from a very different background indeed.

I saw her speak at a literary festival in Jaipur, India in 2011, where she told the audience how she grew up along the Yangtze River in the slums of Chongqing — China’s largest and most crowded city — and survived the great famines and Mao’s failed political campaigns as a bastard child in abject poverty. I bought her memoir immediately. Her speech had touched me — but her book blew me away.

Using prose that’s often gut-wrenching and unflinchingly frank, she opened my mind to a stark world of porters, garbage-pickers and day-laborers fighting for crumbs in their squalid riverside quarters. She vividly describes some of the most cataclysmic years of natural and man-made disasters under Mao.

And this is the second extraordinary thing about Hong Ying’s memoir: its unapologetic honesty. There’s not a shred of pretension, nor any effort to sugarcoat the truth — whether it’s focused on the author’s life or China’s history. Her straightforwardness is remarkable, because in China there’s still a strong unwritten code that you don’t air dirty laundry in public — whether it’s your family’s or the nation’s.

And there’s plenty of dirty laundry in this memoir. Little Six, as Hong Ying is called in the family, is the youngest of six children. Growing up, she suspects something is amiss, that she doesn’t belong somehow. Her older siblings all seem to hate her and are constantly finding fault with her. There’s also an older man who seems to be following her everywhere from a distance.

On her 18th birthday, she’s let in on the secret — she’s the illegitimate child of her mother and a lover, the older man. She also learns about the hardship and the destitution that shaped her parent’s lives, particularly during the great famine that struck shortly before she was born. She absorbs the shame her mother brought on the family, but never manages a proper reconciliation with her natural father, because he dies while she’s still young.

The book is a journey through a young woman’s coming of age and an inquiry into her past. The images of unrelenting hunger, grinding poverty and desperate daily struggles are some of the most powerful and devastating I’ve read about China’s recent past. But Daughter of the River also rises above the subjective to look at the inequality, injustice and sacrifice of Mao’s visionary society. During the famines, there was surplus food sitting in government warehouses earmarked for the cities, Hong Ying points out, even as millions of people in rural areas starved to death.

When I’m in China, I often feel that that people from the older generation — including members of my family — want to avoid speaking about the famines and the Cultural Revolution years. It’s an amazing case of collective amnesia, given how these nightmares had haunted the world’s most populous nation for almost three decades. Hong Ying’s courage in breaking this code of silence has given voice to millions of working-class people who either perished in the maw of this twisted history or continue to suffer in silence, largely forgotten.

Daughter of the River is not always an easy book to read. Many of the people depicted aren’t easy to empathize with, and the extreme deprivation can be discomforting to read about with an iPhone beside you and a flat-screen TV in front of you.

But it’s not all dark; this is ultimately a book about hope and the resilience of human nature, as we watch Hong Ying rise out of destitution and family shame to become an accomplished writer. And even in the depictions of suffering, there’s great power. In this book, I found a new understanding of poverty’s toll not just on the body, but on the psyche, on the family and on a nation.

Karen Ma’s latest book is Excess Baggage, a novel.


Shinjuku’s Kabukicho

This is the famous Kabukicho in Shinjuku, well known for being the seedier side of Tokyo. This is where you can find shady cinemas, pachinko parlors, questionable snack bars, and at one point, a “no-pan cafe” where waitresses pretty much wore no panties while serving customers coffees and teas. Kabukicho makes several appearances in my novel Excess Baggage as well. So check it out.





Japan’s Mama-san Bars

Why do Mama-san type of snack bars thrive in Japan? Because the over-worked Japanese salaried men have been fed the myth that the only way they can climb the Japanese corporate ladder is to work 14-hour days. In the process, they alienate their wives, who begin to see them as nothing more than a meal ticket. So what do the men do when they’re having a bad day? They visit Mama san snack bars just so they can speak to someone who will “listen” to them, or keep them “happy” so they can forget about their lousy days. Meanwhile, the Mama-san, the female owner cum manager, is none too happy to exploit the situation, charging a phenomenal price for a glass of whisky or some very basic food. One of my characters in Excess Baggage gets a quick lesson about this “babysitting” service for Japanese men when she finds herself working for one of these snack bars.



8586059836_3d5abda238_bTokyo’s Jimbocho has a Chinese connection

One of the most interesting neighborhoods of Tokyo I find is Jimbocho. Not only is it famous as Japan’s “book capital,” (it’s home to some 170 bookstores in an area of just a quarter kilometer, many of which second-hand bookstores) it is also home to two famous specialty bookstores on all things China. One of these bookstores is called Uchiyama Shoten, or in Chinese, Neishan Shudian. Founder Kanzo Uchiyama, who lived in China during the 1930s, started his bookstore in Shanghai and was a good friend of Chinese literary giant Lu Xun. The Shanghai bookstore also served as an important venue for cultural exchanges between many Chinese and foreigners from the cultural and literary circles. Read more about this unique bookstore in my new novel, Excess Baggage.