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Pop Culture Successes Point to Warming Relations Between China and Japan

Gender-swapping anime “Your Name” this month became the highest grossing Japanese film of all time in China. But its significance may go beyond mere box office records.

China, which regards itself as one of the world’s oldest civilizations, but one that has been repressed by outsiders, has often made culture a battlefield. It has tussled with its neighbors and rewritten history textbooks. In other instances, soft power skirmishes may be seen as substitutes for hot war. So China’s recent embrace of Japanese movies may be more complicated than audiences falling for the cuteness purveyed by Japan’s cartoon factories.

The recent warming towards Japan comes at a time when China has politically turned its shoulder against South Korea. China and Korea fell out over the 2016 Korean decision to deploy U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missiles, which China says can be used to spy on its territory.

China emphasized that frostiness by effectively banning the import of previously popular Korean dramas and by freezing Sino-Korean co-productions. Other Korean export sectors such as cosmetics have also been targeted.

“The ban on Korean content could be sustained for some time. This makes the young generation look for some other foreign content,” said Patrick Poon, China researcher with Amnesty International. “Japanese pop culture is prominent in the region so it replaces interest in Korean content.”

In December, “Your Name” achieved $78.7 million (RMB547 million) in China and was the top film for two weekends. It went on to beat the record for a Japanese film set in 2015 by “Stand By Me Doraemon,” another anime, based on a long-running manga series about a robot cat from the future. But where in 2015 only two Japanese films made it to Chinese theaters, the total in 2016 has been 11. Nine of those were animation. Those numbers are expected to rise again in 2017 and the cultural relationship to expand.

Top mainland Chinese actor, Huang Lei will make his directorial debut in April with a remake of Yoji Yamada’s comedy “What A Wonderful Family.” Online discussion of old and new Japanese dramas has surged in the past year. Some cite 1991 hit series “Tokyo Love Story” as the most beloved Japanese TV series of all time. “With such developments, we Japanese will be able to get friendlier with Chinese people,” Yamada recently told Japanese media.

That would appear to represent a rapid shift from long-standing positions within China. As recently as 2012, China saw a series of nationwide anti-Japanese protests. They included attacks on Japanese factories, products and the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. Ongoing territorial disputes over the Senkaku/Daioyutai Islands previously leaked into the cultural sphere. Japanese films were barred from China in 2013 and 2014. And in 2015, China banned 36 Japanese anime.

“The Chinese government has been trying to promote nationalism, but this trend of embracing Japanese popular culture in China shows that traditional propaganda doesn’t work any more,” says Poon. Indeed, Japan has also recently become a popular tourism (destination for the Chinese middle classes. That has been spurred by a relatively strong currency, but also by Japanese-set Chinese films such as “If You Are The One.”

However, the current warmth towards Japanese pop culture may be short-lived. “The authorities might not be able to exert all-round control and they are monitoring how the public responds to Japanese popular culture,” says Poon.

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