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How Japan Embraces China

Is Japan turning towards China — and away from the United States?

August 2, 2004

Is Japan turning towards China — and away from the United States?

Japan's economy is stalled, but the society is in motion.

Predictions about where precisely it is headed are best left to fortunetellers. But changes occurring in the national psychology are certain to affect the course of the country's history in the 21st century.

The most significant are a growing disenchantment with the United States and the gradual rediscovery of an affinity with the rest of Asia in general — and China in particular — which goes beyond economic interests.

More recently, the Japanese have come to view America's professed motives with increasing uneasiness and skepticism. Since early in January 2003, Shintaro Ishihara — Tokyo's governor — has been referring to the United States as "the second Mongol Empire." This may be typical Ishihara bombast, but many Japanese are listening, and wondering uneasily if he may be correct.

If Japan is emerging from thralldom to the United States and the mystique of America, it appears that the Japanese are also reengaging with China on multiple levels.

The most obvious has to do with business. Since the mid-90s, Japan has been investing heavily in China. Toyota and Nissan are both producing cars and trucks in joint ventures with China.

In September 2002, Carlos Ghosn — CEO of Nissan —purchased a half interest in the Dongfeng Motor Corporation and began production of 80,000 Nissan subcompacts a year at an existing plant in Guangzhou.

Nissan expects to be producing 550,000 vehicles a year by 2006 — and 900,000 a year by the end of the decade.

In March 2003, Sony announced plans to move its entire production of PlayStation 2 game consoles to China by 2004.

Fuji Xerox is preparing to spend $300 million to expand its sales and service network in China. The company plans to triple its sales of printers and copiers there to 700,000 a year and to double sales volume to $500 million a year by 2005.

The recent surge of business activity on the mainland is increasing the Japanese presence in China month by month.

In the fall of 2003, a Chinese pharmaceutical manufacturer will open a ten-story hospital for Japanese nationals in Shenzhen, the Chinese twin city to Hong Kong. The hospital will be staffed with Japanese as well as Chinese doctors and nurses and will employ a team of interpreters.

Japan's investment in China is beginning to pay off. While exports to the United States have remained fixed since 1990 at just under 30% of the country's total, Japan's exports to China during the same period have increased from 9.6% to 15.7% of the total — climbing 32.3% in 2002 alone.

In the single month of December 2002, Japan shipped products worth $6.5 billion to China — two-thirds of the total it shipped to the United States.

It is likely that China will overtake the United States as the principal consumer of Japanese goods in the near future. Japan is also importing Chinese goods at an increasing rate. In 2002, Chinese imports out-valued imports from the United States for the first time.

The growing interdependence of their two economies appears to be revitalizing a cultural bond between China and Japan that is deeply rooted in 1,500 years of tradition.

Buddhism reached Japan from China via Korea in the mid-sixth century. Throughout the medieval period, there was constant cultural exchange between Chinese and Japanese monks, scholars, teachers and artists. Beginning in the 17th century, Japanese society was regulated for 250 years by Confucian values adopted from China.

Language accounts for another enduring bond. While spoken Chinese and Japanese are entirely unrelated languages, Japanese is written with Chinese characters.

Beginning in the eighth century, official documents in Japan were written in classical Chinese.

During the Tokugawa Period (1600 — 1868), at the temple schools in their feudal domains, the male children of samurai families spent hours each day memorizing and reciting the Confucian classics in a hybrid Sino-Japanese.

In view of the long tradition of Chinese studies, it is not surprising that the most important critical works on classical Chinese philosophy, philology and literature have been — and continue to be — written in Japan by Japanese scholars.

To this day, comprehensive literacy in the Japanese language requires an extensive knowledge of Chinese compounds and allusions — which color the Japanese lexicon as richly as Greek and Latin do English.

The recent Japanese language boom — a reflection of the nationalist emphasis on reconnecting with the past — has led many Japanese to the discovery of the importance of Chinese in their own language and has stimulated interest in learning Chinese.

In the past five years, Chinese-language schools have begun to appear in urban areas. Chinese-language enrollment at Japan's universities doubled in 2000 — and doubled again in 2002.

Tourism between Japan and China is also thriving. According to the Japan Travel Bureau, package excursions to China's major cities are now more popular than tours to the United States — with the exception of Hawaii. And Tokyo's hotels are packed with large tour groups from China's mainland.

Walking on the Ginza today, you will overhear more Chinese than English. The Chinese presence feels pervasive in a way it never has until now. And the teashops are everywhere, crowded with young Japanese, offering dozens of varieties of Chinese tea.

There is no question that younger Japanese in particular are turning toward China with open curiosity and eager interest. It also appears that China's attitude toward Japan is changing.

None of this is intended to suggest that Japan and China are about to become "one another's best." But a communality among the societies of Asia constructed around a partnership between Japan and China makes economic and political sense.

And it has a basis at the deepest level in a genuine cultural affinity that cannot be denied.

From JAPAN UNBOUND by John Nathan. Copyright © 2004 by John Nathan. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.