China and the World

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An unforeseen outcome from the Wuhan virus: better relations with Japan

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The ship in Yokohama quarantine

With deaths from the coronavirus approaching 1,500, any talk of silver linings from the crisis would be inappropriate.

But one of the unexpected outcomes from events is a thawing of relations between longtime antagonists China and Japan.

Japan is battling the infection at home – reporting 28 cases on land and 175 more on the Diamond Princess cruise ship moored in Yokohama. However, its gifting of masks and other medical supplies to the Chinese containment effort was much appreciated by China’s media. Also getting comment are smaller gestures such as Japanese pharmacies putting up posters urging China to “stay strong” or teachers in Japanese schools telling students to stop bad mouthing China at such a difficult time.

An official from Japan’s Ministry for Health, Labour and Welfare has also warned against demonising the Chinese population, saying it is the virus that is responsible for the crisis, not the people themselves.

On February 5 China’s Foreign Ministry formally thanked the Japanese for their “sympathy” and “understanding”.

“What the virus has done is cruel and will not last. What the [Japanese] people have done is touching and will be remembered forever,” it added. On February 9 Shanxi TV announced it was withdrawing the final 20 episodes of an anti-Japanese war drama called Red Sorghum because of Japan’s “unprecedented friendliness to China in its fight against the epidemic”. And this week there was a flood of praise for Japan on Sina Weibo after it emerged that some of the Japanese aid had been delivered with lines of classical Chinese poetry attached.

“The mountain range that stretches from you to me is under the same clouds and rain. The same moon is shining over our heads, never be apart, instead in one place we remain,” read one of the notes stuck to a shipment to Dalian.

“Together we stand, my armours are thine!” read another on a delivery to Hubei.

The verses were taken from literary sources such as the Book of Songs (written over 2,700 years ago) and the works of the Song Dynasty poet Wang Changling – illustrating the extent of the two nation’s shared cultural heritage.

Netizens were impressed. “This has given me a new appreciation for Japan,” wrote one weibo user. “I am touched by the poems even if I don’t fully understand them,” wrote another, alluding to the complexities of the ancient language.

But not everyone was happy with the sudden surge in pro-Japanese sentiment.

“They killed hundreds of thousands in the Nanjing Massacre, I cannot forgive them,” insisted one netizen. “Japan is buying Chinese people’s favour,” warned another.

Others saw specific self-interest in Japan’s actions, claiming that Tokyo was going all-out to stay on good terms with China in the lead-up to the Olympics in the Japanese capital this summer.

On Wednesday the mood seemed to be switching again, with the Changjiang Daily even complaining that the Japanese use of poetry was “cruel” and that it should be focusing more on showing remorse for its actions during its brutal occupation of China – which it described as an “Auschwitz”.

The article was quickly removed and widely criticised on social media for being “over the top” and “uncivilised”.

Instead the official line from publications like Xinhua is that China and Japan share “deep cultural and historical roots” that create a “strong brotherhood of interdependence of mutual help”.

However, some of the netizens quarantined at home with nothing to do were still frustrated that Shanxi TV had chosen to pull its Red Sorghum drama.

“If you are going to take that off the air maybe you can replace it with a high quality Japanese soap opera,” pleaded one.


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