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Beijing unsure if new Japan PM is soft but is wary of Japanese culture corrupting Chinese youth

Chinese state media has struck a conciliatory tone on Fumio Kishida in the hope of better relations. But a lot depends on the new Japan PM's stance on Taiwan.

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China toned down the anti-Japan rhetoric ahead of Japan’s new Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, taking office.

Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to Kishida on Monday. Premier Li Keqiang congratulated him as well.

Chinese state media closely watched Fumio Kishida’s entry into the Prime Minister’s Office for any sign of departure from the previous Yoshihide Suga government.

China “is willing to work together with Japan’s new governing team … to deepen pragmatic cooperation in various areas and promote the healthy and stable development of Sino-Japanese relations,” said Hua Chunying at the daily press briefing.


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Chinese concerns

The official history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) places a great emphasis on defeating the Japanese imperial forces leading to the creation of “new China”. But since the war years, the Chinese youth have come to appreciate the Japanese culture, which is at odds with the CCP’s official history.

China’s relations with Japan are influenced by the complex history of World War II. According to a 2017 poll, 75% of people in China held negative views of Japan – the highest in the world. But there was a 15-percentage point decline since 2014. This shift reflects the underlying appreciation of Japanese media and culture among Chinese youth.

Two-dimensional world or erciyuan is the term used in China for Japan-influenced media and culture. Erciyuan culture includes everything from manga to anime to video games. The “second dimension” in erciyuan refers to the “other world” of animation and video games. Real world individuals have an alter ego in the erciyuan world.

The erciyuan media has grown increasingly enmeshed with Chinese folklore and storytelling.

“Nowadays, Chinese firms publish numerous animation series, comics and mobile games acknowledged by audiences, readers and players all over the world and have lots of cooperation with neighbouring Japan and South Korea on ACG,” reported Chinese state-run news outlet SHINE.

Beijing’s campaign to control the influence of “feminine” celebrities on youth culture has a history which goes back to concerns about erciyuan – and the broader influence of Japanese and South Korean culture. The Chinese government has even invested in developing its anime and manga-based propaganda.

Despite the admiration, China’s sensitivities on the influence of Japanese culture are well established. Chinese actor Zhang Zhehan was recently criticised for taking pictures at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The shrine worships Japanese war heroes, some of whom were war criminals from the era of the Japanese invasion of China. Other Chinese celebrities have created controversies in the past by visiting the shrine.

Multiple Chinese brands ended their ties with Zhang Zhehan following the controversy.


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All eyes on Kishida

Chinese state media cited Fumio Kishida’s remarks about the importance of China to Japan at the first press conference after he assumed office.

It also pointed out Kishida picking Toshimitsu Motegi as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Nobuo Kishi as Minister of Defence despite his softer approach. Both Motegi and Kishi have taken a more arduous approach to relations with China under the Suga government.

“Although Kishida’s personnel arrangements were supposed to balance the factions within the party to a certain extent, it did not fully fulfil the promise of building a “party” system in a united manner,” Xinhua reported on the election. The Xinhua report expressed views that factionalism within Japanese politics will keep PM Kishida busy.

China views Kishida as a moderate leader as opposed to his predecessor Suga.

“The Chinese side knows Kishida’s ‘initial impressions’,” said Liu Qingbin, associate professor at Yokohama University, in an interview to Beijing Daily.

Liu added that Kishida, within the Japanese political factions, is a “dove” in relations with China. Kishida will pay more attention to Japan’s domestic and social policies, Liu believes.

China hopes for a more dovish approach from PM Kishida also because of the growing consensus within Japanese politics, which supports a stable Taiwan.

Chinese state-owned Ningxia Daily pointed out that Fumio Kishida faces multiple challenges, including from opposition parties, controlling the pandemic and a proposed upcoming election.

“Fumio Kishida’s great-grandfather is Kishida Masaki (who) passed away in Dalian (China), grandfather started his business from Dalian. If Kishida Fumio is a filial son, the first time in office should visit China to pay respect to his great-grandfather, while promoting the development of a comprehensive and mutually beneficial strategic relationship between China and Japan,” said a Weibo user.

Chinese state media has struck a conciliatory tone in the hope of better relations. China’s long-held position has been direct relations with Tokyo instead of US-China relations overshadowing their bilateral relationship.

China’s own belligerent actions in Taiwan Strait are likely to force Fumio Kishida to continue his predecessor’s policy on Indo-Pacific security. If that happens, Beijing will again fall back on stoking anti-Japan sentiment through films and propaganda.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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