Tracing the dividing lines of Chinese sentiment toward Japan

One of the photos at the Chinese People's Anti-Japanese Aggression War Memorial Hall in Beijing shows Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping shaking hands.
PHOTO: Nikkei Asian Review

BEIJING - Last fall, at the Unit 731 Museum in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, a young man approached me and asked, "Are you Japanese?" He said he was a 19-year-old university student and had come to the museum by himself. He told me he had never met a Japanese person before.

The museum stands on a site where the infamous Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army conducted biological warfare experiments on humans. On display are a number of photographs and relics testifying to the brutality that went on there. My guard was therefore up when the man approached, and I braced myself for a grilling over Japan's past.

Contrary to my expectations, however, he started talking about his love for Godzilla. "You must know Godzilla," he gushed. "Japanese special effects and animated films are wonderful."

Mixed signals

The number of Chinese tourists visiting Japan has surged in recent years, and their penchant to spend has been a boon for department stores and sightseeing areas alike. At the same time, many Japanese vividly recall the events of September 2012, when massive anti-Japan demonstrations erupted across China after the Japanese government nationalised a group of islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by China. These seemingly contradictory behaviours have left many Japanese feeling perplexed.

Ma Licheng, a former editorial writer for the People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper, has a theory about these mixed signals. He says how a Chinese person views Japan is mainly determined by his or her social standing. He cites three broad categories: people with lower levels of education; highly educated elites who have travelled overseas; and urban middle-class people who like Japanese products and anime. One thing all three groups have in common is exposure to the Communist Party's patriotic propaganda.

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