Bridging the Gap


So, what is your opinion of the Diaoyudao issue?” my Chinese language teacher asked me. “Try to use today’s new sentence structure to answer.” I was in class at Tsinghua University, Beijing, when I first heard about the recent Diaoyudao—called Senkaku by the Japanese—islands issue. It was the last class of the day and my mind was beginning to wander, but my teacher’s question jerked me back to alertness. Why was my teacher asking me about the Diaoyudao issue? This territorial dispute between China and Japan dated back to the 1970s—why bring up the old issue now?

As I biked back home, I thought about what my teacher’s intention may have been. I eventually decided that she brought up the islands issue simply so that we could practice a new sentence structure, “历来是” (in the past, has always been). At the time, I had not heard that just a few days before, on September 11th, the Japanese government had announced its decision to purchase three of the five disputed Senkaku islands from their private owners.

I came home to an email from my previous year’s Chinese teacher, Mr. H. It read: “If anyone suspicious asks you if you are Japanese, you should say you are Korean. Take care of yourself in this extraordinary time.” After I read the email, I immediately logged into VPN (Virtual Private Network, a technology that allows internet users to bypass the “Great Firewall of China,” i.e. the Chinese government’s internet censorship) and began reading about the various anti-Japan demonstrations the Diaoyudao issue had incited.

On the BBC’s website, I saw unbelievable photos: 3,000 Chinese protestors waving portraits of Chairman Mao and burning Japanese flags around the Japanese consulate in Shanghai; rioters in Shenzhen overturning a Toyota with their bare hands; the burnt remains of the Panasonic factory in Qingdao.

Seeing these images of violence on my laptop screen, I felt detached. I knew that these riots had taken place and that they were still happening all around China, including in Beijing, the very city in which I lived. As a Japanese citizen living in China, shouldn’t I feel threatened? How could it be that these events feel so distant and unrelated to my own life?

The resident director sent us foreign exchange students an email, saying, “Peking University is buzzing with talk of a student demonstration at the Japan Embassy… If possible, please avoid this area this weekend. Do not participate in, nor get near, any demonstrations at any time in any place in China.” The U.S. Embassy in Beijing also sent out a security message, warning us that “even gatherings intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence” and urging us to “avoid areas of demonstrations if possible, and to exercise caution when in the vicinity of any demonstrations.”

On September 16th, the day after I received the security message from the U.S. Embassy, I overheard a story that finally allowed me grasp the reality and immediacy of the anti- Japan riots, though I could not attend them.

“Did you hear about Erika?” a Japanese student that I did not know asked his friend.

“No—what happened?”

“She was walking around Chaoyang [the district in Beijing where the majority of foreign embassies and firms are located] alone at night and a Chinese man approached her to ask where she was from. She sensed danger so she lied and said, ‘I’m Korean.’ Then the Chinese guy said, ‘Good. If you were Japanese, I would have killed you.’”

Before I heard this story, I often rode cabs alone at night to the Chaoyang district, and whenever someone asked me if I was Japanese, I always said yes. When I heard this story, a chill ran down my spine. I could have easily been Erika. How much danger had I inadvertently put myself into by telling strangers that I was Japanese? If I had been in Erika’s position, would I have been killed? I knew that this story was most likely an extreme and isolated case, but still, I could not shake these thoughts away.

After hearing this story, I began saying I was Chinese-American or Korean whenever strangers asked me where I was from. I stopped going to the Chaoyang district altogether. I locked myself in my apartment, leaving only to go to class.

After a week of self-imposed lockdown, I finally gathered the courage to discuss the anti- Japan riots with my private Chinese teacher, Ms. D. When I told Ms. D about the story I’d overheard, she said, “That guy must have been crazy. Many Chinese people are critical of the anti-Japan demonstrators who resort to violence. Violence won’t solve anything. It will only further strain the China-Japan relations.” “Why do you think the anti-Japan sentiment is still so strong in China?” I asked. “I think it is because many Chinese people are upset that Japan still has not formally apologized for the atrocities they committed against China during the Sino-Japanese Wars and World War II. I feel the same way, too. I know every country, including China, has a dark history. But that does not mean Japan doesn’t have the obligation to admit its past mistakes. Germany has apologized for the Holocaust. Why hasn’t Japan apologized for its past aggression?”

Her reply shocked me. Japan has apologized for the war crimes it committed during the period of Japanese imperialism. On September 29, 1972, Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and Chairman Mao Zedong signed the “Joint Communiqué of the Government of Japan and the Government of the People’s Republic of China,” which states: “The Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious damage that Japan caused in the past to the Chinese people through war, and deeply reproaches itself.”

Similarly, in the past three decades, various diplomats, prime ministers, and even the Emperor have all apologized to China for the “tremendous suffering and damage” that Japan has caused during Sino-Japanese Wars and WWII. It is true that the sincerity of these apologies is disputed. Chinese government offcials claim that because Japanese prime ministers still visit the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese Class A World War II criminals are honoured, these apologies are insincere and thus inadequate. This argument—that as long as Japanese offcials continue to pay their respects to the war criminals, their apologies are but empty political gestures—is a valid argument that requires further discussion between Japan and China. But how can a discussion about the sincerity of the apology take place if the Chinese people are not aware of the fact that apologies have been issued?

My teacher, Ms. D, is an educated, middle- class Chinese citizen who considers herself liberal and who criticizes the Chinese government for its opaqueness. She wants to have a more accurate understanding of the islands issue and China-Japan relations at large. Yet many basic facts are not available to her.

Although there are many factors—the Yasukuni Shrine controversy and anti-Japan education in China, to name a few—that fuel anti-Japan sentiment in China, the misunderstanding that Japan has never officially apologized for its wartime atrocities seems to be, for many Chinese people, one of the main reasons why they still resent Japan. And I cannot blame them for this, either. How can Chinese people not harbour anti-Japan sentiment if they view Japan as a ruthless, heartless nation that refuses to admit its past mistakes?

On October 19th, over a month after the Japanese government’s announcement to purchase the disputed islands, I gave a speech about my reflections on the anti-Japan riots at my language program.

I began my speech feeling calm. When I reached the paragraph about the Chinese man’s death threat to Erika, however, I saw one of my American classmates widen his eyes in horror, shake his head, and mouth the word, “No.” For a second, I couldn’t breathe. Words choked in my throat as my body tensed up with fear and panic.

At that point, I realized— as if for the first time—that I was talking about the anti-Japan riots to a group of Chinese citizens. I was not speaking to my teachers anymore, but to Chinese citizens who may harbour anti-Japan sentiments as well. All of a sudden, everyone in the audience became foreign. What are they thinking? Are they angry, offended? Am I safe giving this speech?

These questions whirled in my head as I blurted out the rest of my speech as fast as I could. As soon as I finished, I rushed out of the room. The fears that grew inside me during the speech suddenly disappeared, and as if a tightly stretched string had snapped loose, I began crying. “I did it. I’m done. I’m safe.”

After my speech, a Chinese man whom I had never seen before approached me and said, “I had a similar experience when I was in San Francisco. I was walking around alone at night when an American approached me and said, ‘What are you Chinese people doing here?’” I answered, ‘I’m just being a human being.’” To me, the man continued, “In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping visited Japan and learned much from their modern methods and economic structures. We have long forgotten those times. But even if the diplomatic relationship between China and Japan worsens, it doesn’t matter.” He added, in English, “We are not politicians; we are citizens.”

I became scared during my speech because I looked at the audience and thought to myself: Before they are teachers, they are Chinese. But that Chinese man made me realize: Before they are Chinese, they are people, just like me.

Despite the continuing antagonism toward Japan, instances like these make me hopeful that we are slowly moving toward a mutual understanding. “If there is ever a need, we will help you stay safe,” one of my Chinese teachers said to me. “It doesn’t matter that you are Japanese and that we are Chinese. We are friends, and we are always here to help.” A few hours after I gave my speech, I took a cab to the Beijing Railway Station. I sat in the front seat, but did not say a word to the driver. After 10 minutes of silence, however, the driver suddenly said to me, “It’s my birthday today. I have a daughter who is about the same age as you and she is waiting for me at home.” His thick, Beijing-accented words rolled with excitement. “That’s great! Happy birthday!” I answered immediately.

After this, the cab driver and I began to chat. “I’m allergic to white sugar,” he told me, “I can’t even pass by a bakery without sneezing. That’s why I eat fruits for my birthday instead of cake.” We continued to talk, hopping from one topic to another. The slight apprehension that I had felt when I first got on the cab slowly began to disappear.

“Why are you going to the station?” the cab driver asked. “I’m catching a train to Panjin,” I replied. From there I’m going to Shenyang then to Dandong to see North Korea.”

“It’s much colder up there than it is here in Beijing. Make sure you stay warm and don’t catch a cold,” he said as he worriedly eyed my thin sweatshirt.

Right before we arrived at the station, the driver casually asked me, “So, where are you from? Korea?” I hesitated for moment—should I tell him the truth? thought about how worried he seemed that I would catch a cold in my sweatshirt. Finally, I answered, “I am Japanese.”

“You have to be careful when you travel. Areas outside Beijing are much more dangerous for Japanese people. Avoid speaking Japanese there as much as possible,” the driver warned me, his voice filled with concern.

His words shocked and moved me. I was just a passenger that he picked up from the street, yet he cared about my safety as if I were his daughter. “Thank you for your concern. I will make sure to be careful,” I said to him, using the most respectful phrases I knew to express my gratefulness.

“It’s nothing. Take care,” he replied, and then drove away. As I sat on the train to Panjin, I felt calm and peaceful as I looked at the passengers around me. Just like me, they were listening to music or talking to their friends. No matter our nationalities, we are the same. We have always been—and always will be—people.

Minami Funakoshi ’14 is a Literature major in Berkeley College. Contact her at minami.