‘Hey, are you Chinese?’

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‘Hey, are you Chinese?’

For the Lunar New Year holidays, I went to Osaka and Kobe. During the trip, I had an experience that I’d never had while living in Tokyo for three years as a correspondent.

I was about to cross the street in downtown Kobe when an elderly couple who got off the train with me started to speak to me. But they weren’t speaking Japanese - they were speaking Chinese. When I told them I was Korean, they looked embarrassed and the woman apologized. “My husband is learning Chinese now and was eager to use it,” she said.

I’d often heard that people in the Kansai region were much friendlier than urbanites in Tokyo, but it is still very rare to run into a Japanese person who strikes up a conversation with a foreigner on the street. I wondered if I looked Chinese. Also, it felt quite strange. The incident reminded me how Chinese tourists had surged into Japan for the Spring Festival holiday.

The Chinese boom there can also be seen on television. On Feb. 19, News Watch 9, the main news program on NHK, featured young Chinese people studying Japanese, and the head anchor went to China to meet those interested in Japan, “a country with advanced technology and culture.”

A woman who looked to be in her 30s said in one interview, “Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine is upsetting, but we still study Japan. We won’t stop learning about it.”

Although the segment was from Japan’s point of view, “China” is an important word there today.

The next day, TV Asahi’s morning program “Morning Bird” focused on department stores in Tokyo that had four times more Chinese visitors than the previous year.

“We offer specially designed suits for Chinese customers with generous cuts - big bellies are symbols of wealth in China,” one man interviewed said.

Another clerk added, “We’ve doubled Chinese-speaking employees at the duty-free counter.”

Meanwhile, Japanese televisions describe Korea as a competitor and an uncomfortable neighbor. On a program about Korea’s efforts to attract Chinese tourists, the host said, “More Chinese visit Korea than Japan, but I want to ask those who have been to both countries which they prefer. Japan is confident.”

Poor Korea-Japan relations have become routine now for both countries. Prime Minister Abe may make inappropriate comments and Japanese government officials may have attended the Takeshima Day celebration on Feb. 22, but neither is surprising. This nonchalance is the status of our bilateral relations two years after President Park Geun-hye’s inauguration and two years and two months after Abe returned to power.

It would have been better if the outcome was a part of Korea’s meticulous diplomatic strategy to assume a stalemate in order to bring Abe down. But if there is no specific strategy or plan and authorities simply drag the stalemate out, then aggravating emotional discord between the citizens of both countries is flat out pathetic.

The author is the deputy international
and political news editor for the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 25, Page 30

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