The world has been more focused on events in Ukraine over the last two weeks. Less in the public eye is that relations between China and Japan are getting more antagonistic.
During the past fortnight China has approved the creation of two new holidays commemorating Japanese aggression on its territory during the 1930s and 1940s; allowed a Beijing court to hear a case against Japanese companies accused of using forced labour during that period; and called on Tokyo to compensate Chinese women forced to work in brothels for Japanese soldiers.
The demand for compensation was occasioned by a move within Japanese leader Abe Shinzo’s Liberal Democratic Party to revise the so-called Kono Statement (in which Japan acknowledged its military’s role in compelling Chinese and Korean women to work as ‘comfort women’).
In January it also emerged that Japan was in possession of 300kg of weapons-grade plutonium which the US wanted back, Japan’s Kyodo reported. The news agency added that the nuclear material could be used to make up to 50 nuclear bombs, and Japan had balked at returning it to Washington (it was transferred to the country for research purposes in the 1960s).
China seized on the issue to villify Tokyo. “What is Japan going to do with the material? Why does Japan need weapons-grade nuclear material?” Xinhua quoted Vice-Foreign Minister Li Baodong as saying earlier this week in an article headlined “Japan urged to justify its excessive nuclear stockpile”.
Li went on: “Japan owes the international community a clear explanation.”
Against this backdrop it is fair to speculate if there is more to Nikon’s inclusion in CCTV’s annual consumer rights programme than the quality issues and poor customer service that the broadcaster alleges. It is the first time that a Japanese firm has been targeted for shoddy behaviour, with multinationals from the US (Apple), Germany (Volkswagen) and France (Carrefour) among those pilloried by the show in the past.
This year the Japanese camera maker was second in the firing line (behind a baking ingredients company from China) when the highly popular ‘3.15’ show went to air on World Consumer Rights Day last Saturday (the date, March 15, is the reason for the programme’s name).
The segment focused on the Nikon D600, a compact SLR which retails for about Rmb14,999 ($2,407) in China. While Nikon has acknowledged that the camera has problems in other markets, the CCTV exposé showed staff at the company’s Chinese service centres refusing to honour return and exchange polices. Instead they blamed the camera’s owners and even Shanghai’s worsening smog to explain the black spots that are appearing on some of the images taken with the D600.
“You have to avoid turning the camera upwards when you’re taking picture as that lets dust in,” one Nikon staffer in Shanghai is recorded saying. Another says: “If you don’t want the dots, the only thing you can do is go to a dirtless place.”
Nikon responded by issuing a statement apologising to customers and thanking the Chinese government, the media and consumers for “such close attention and supervision over Nikon”.
Before the programme went to air the cameramaker also promised to provide free servicing, cleaning and parts exchange for the D600 even after warranties run out.
But that wasn’t enough to stop the Chinese government suspending sales of the D600 two days later.
But poor PR can cut both ways. Earlier this month it was the turn of a Japanese company to embarrass China – or in this case the government and its inability to control PM2.5 air pollution. In what is regarded as an international first, Panasonic has agreed to pay Japanese expatriates a wage premium for working in China – in effect danger money for living in hazardous air.
Although the two incidents are not connected, there is a certain symmetry: neither the camera model in question nor Beijing’s air quality policies look ‘fit for purpose’.
But in this public relations face-off even China’s netizens have been conceding that local air quality is now an international embarrassment – galling though it is for the Japanese to be highlighting it.
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