Japan-China relations: hot civil activities despite cold politics

/ 12:20 AM June 09, 2016

Late in April, Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in China. It was the first time in four and a half years that the foreign ministers of the two countries held talks on an occasion other than an official international meeting. While it is said that their talks lasted for four and a half hours, it only served to remind Japan how high the hurdles are in the two countries’ bilateral relations, rather than offer hope for their improvement. It is conceivable that obstacles—varying views on territorial issues, differences in the mutual sense of history, and the concerns and irritations of China over Japan’s security policy in recent years—lie between the countries. But I am afraid that many Japanese, apart from feeling emotionally separated from China—find it hard to see why China appears to be in such a bad mood.

With this general sense of the Japanese, it is difficult to understand why it is being said that the problem lies in Japan’s attitude of not accepting China’s development. This has often been said since last year by Foreign Minister Wang, who used to be widely popular in Japan as China’s ambassador, and his requests (four) at the April meeting were so coercive. Japan’s government does not disseminate the so-called “China economic recession theory,” and I am concerned that Mr. Wang’s requests may sound like a high-handed approach of “just listen quietly to China and obey what China says,” after all.


When Koizumi Junichiro was Japan’s prime minister in the early 2000s, the bilateral relations were described as “cold politics and hot economics”: The relations were chilled by his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine even as Japanese companies advanced into China one after another. For the last 12 years or so since then, cold politics has been ongoing, including occasional extremely cold storms, although some warm air blew from time to time. And the economics? The decision of Japanese companies to move their production sites to China has run its course; new investments have not been particularly active in the last few years, partly due to rising costs such as personnel expenses in China. The economics also appear to be cooler than in the past, albeit better than the politics.

But we need to pay attention to qualitative changes in the economic exchanges between the two countries. The challenge facing the Japanese industry has changed in the past two decades from how to deal with deflation (the pursuit of lower prices) to how to make up for the shrinking domestic market due to the aging population and the declining birthrate. What Japanese companies expect from economic relations with China has also changed from cheap labor to the purchasing power of Chinese consumers—in other words, a flow from workshops to the market. (You can rephrase the Chinese market with Chinese money.) Although the market gives the impression that it is limited to China, money can easily cross borders. There are also other ways of spending money, such as sightseeing and shopping in Japan, and shopping for Japanese goods on the internet. The target of Chinese shopping extends as far as real estate and companies in Japan—items that cannot be brought back home. Contrary to China’s strategy of opening the country to foreigners, Japanese companies have shifted their strategy from zou chu qu (expanding overseas) to yin jin lai (inviting foreign money at home).


While the number of Chinese tourists in Japan grew at a sluggish pace after bilateral relations became tense, it doubled in 2014 and 2015 to reach 5 million in 2015, ranking first among foreign tourists for the first time. It is no longer unusual to see Chinese people in Japan, buying products in department stores, electronics retail stores, drug stores and so on, and visiting popular tourist spots. Bakugai (explosive shopping spree) won the grand prize in the buzzwords contest last year. And business undertaken by Japanese companies in China has changed its form from building factories there to waiting for people and money that emerge from China.

Japan-China interactions were limited to activities in China by a handful of Japanese businessmen in the past, but these are now set to expand significantly in Japan. While the number of Japanese and their families living in China is only a little more than 100,000, the number and the regional and social expansion of Japanese with whom 5 million Chinese tourists will be directly and indirectly in contact are incomparable.

It is true that the expansion of interactions, as well as the behavior of tourists, gives rise to cultural friction vis-à-vis Japanese customs. But I feel that the view of the Japanese with regard to Chinese tourists is much friendlier than expected. I wonder whether this is because the Japanese are delighted or honored to see the Chinese, who they once considered to be anti-Japanese, taking the trouble to come to Japan and holding positive feelings toward the Japanese as a result of their sightseeing, shopping, and coming in contact with Japanese daily life. That’s in addition to their expectations in terms of the economic impact. And I have a dim hope in my heart that the increasing number of Chinese who are actually in contact with Japanese society may help temper the moody tone of strained political relations.

Quite a number of Japanese also vaguely feel that the reaction of the Chinese people to the Kumamoto earthquakes observed on the internet is more empathetic than at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake five years ago, regardless of the level of their donations. I wonder whether this is because the Chinese who have actually experienced Japanese society are taking a warm interest in Japan.

I strongly hope that warm civil exchanges will gradually temper the political tension that has hardened like ice.

Kazuo Yukawa is professor at the Institute of Asian Studies, Asia University.

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