Monday, October 15, 2012

Why Does the U.S. Support Japan?: Questions at a Restaurant in Changsha, China

Yesterday for dinner I enjoyed a dish of spicy and garlicky Shaoyang-style fish at a restaurant in Changsha, Hunan province. As I paid the bill, I chatted with three of the staff working there--females I would guess to be between 25-40 years old. At first, the discussion focused on light topics such as our hometowns and how to pronounce my English name. But then out of nowhere, one of the women asked me if I knew about Diaoyu--the Chinese name of the islands at the center of a territory dispute between China and Japan. I said that I did, and she then sternly asked me, "Why does the U.S. support Japan?"

Not wanting to open up the topic of what would happen if China took military action (it's not clear, see here and here), I explained that the U.S. does not particularly care who controls the islands. It just wants to see China and Japan peacefully resolve the issue.

She then had some negative words to say about Japanese people. The other women agreed. I told them that if they met some of my Japanese friends they would surely find them to be good people. "No," the one woman said. "Japanese are bad people." Again, the other staff readily agreed with her.

The woman then mentioned that Japan had done bad things to China in the past. I replied that most of today's Japanese people had nothing to do with what happened many decades ago. Appearing to believe that making it more personal would change my mind, she mentioned the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Again, I said it had little to do with Japan today and now Japan and America are on excellent terms. Later, they looked at me in disbelief when I claimed that many Japanese are peaceful. A woman pointed to the TV and asked, "Have you not watched the shows about the war with Japan?"

Often, they tried to establish that I supported China more than Japan. For example, a woman asked if I have more Chinese or Japanese friends. I explained that the numbers are meaningless. I have friends from many places around the world, and I do not choose them based on their nationalities. She then asked me if I could speak Japanese. I cannot. As if she had proven a key point she said, "But you learned Chinese!"

I think my face clearly expressed "So what?"

She then asked, "Why did you choose to learn Chinese?" Not wanting to get into a lengthy explanation, I just said that I found the language fascinating and it is spoken by many people. She again mentioned that I had not bothered to study Japanese. I pointed out that I have also not learned many other languages and it has nothing to do with whether I think certain countries are "better".

As we were wrapping up the discussion, I thought about the bar in Changsha that openly forbids Japanese from entering and the cafe owner who believes that Chinese and Japanese people are friends. So I asked the staff whether Japanese could eat in their restaurant.

They could. In fact, the previous day two Japanese customers had eaten there.

But then one of the women proudly stated, "We didn't behave warmly towards them!". I suspect the staff's attitude reflects what could be found in many other restaurants in Changsha--something in between the bar and cafe. As I tried to imagine the experience of the Japanese customers, she added, "But you see, we're very open with you! You are American." Indeed, they had been very kind and friendly towards me that night and the previous two times I had eaten there.

Although it could be easy to be discouraged by the conversation, I believe it also represented something positive. I do not expect to quickly change people's mind on a topic that can be deeply emotional and has been likely guided by years of "education" with little or no presentation of alternative viewpoints. As with a young waitress in China who asked an important question about censorship in China, there can be great value found in encouraging or allowing people to ask questions. Many of the staff's questions seem to have been intended to make a point and not to better understand my views, yet it was still much better than if they had not asked any questions at all. A person's questions can say as much about their thoughts as their replies to your own questions. And a person may be more likely to consider what you have to say if it is in response to a question they have asked.

I don't know if the conversation will have a lasting impression on any of the restaurant staff. But it certainly made an impression on me and gives me something to consider for possible future conversations. On that note, I would not mind returning to the restaurant for another chat, especially if I could bring one or two Japanese friends. Under the right conditions, I believe the restaurant staff would be interested to ask questions. There is a reasonable chance they would be surprised by some of the answers.


  1. I'm an American, but have been living and working in Japan for several years (and am married to a Japanese, FWIW).

    The frustrating thing about this issue from my perspective is that you're absolutely right to point out that the vast majority of Japanese people had and have nothing to do with what Japan did in China, it is also true that Japan's government has never properly apologized or even fully acknowledged what it did in China. This includes properly educating people here about wartime atrocities, or fostering serious thinking about what led to the wartime nationalism that made those crimes possible. (I suppose this isn't too surprising, since many of the political and business elites are the sons and grandsons of those in power at the time, and not particularly inclined to disavow their own kin.) Instead, we have a Japanese populace with a shallow, reflexive anti-war sentiment, that doesn't really understand what China is (and the Koreas, and most anywhere else the Japanese army went are also) still upset about. And so, though most anyone under 65 really has nothing to do with the past, really, the current government can pretend it didn't happen (or in the case of people like the governor of Tokyo, exploit it), and that means the Chinese government can continue to use it to rally domestic support. It's frustrating to see a new generation of Japanese people trapped by the mistakes of the past and shortsightedness of older leaders, and become, to an extent, responsible for the past by not coming to terms with it. And it's worrisome to see that same denial of history pop up in statements by ostensibly forward-looking, fresh new politicians like the new mayor of Osaka, because it doesn't augur anything good happening domestically on this issue going forward.

  2. Why you rationalize your result of the Cultural Revolution which was more destructive to China and 4 years starvation Mao brought up. Japanese Imperial Army ruled Chinese Major cities from 1937-1945. China was simply defeated by Imperial Japan.Photos of "atrocity"are of deception. Why Chinese are always deceived by from Communism to Photos.Japanese don't want to visit China and Chinese to come here. It is perfection. Let's live separately.Our girls love American culture and people. Boys are busy in business with Europeans and Americans as well. No needs to import Chinese goods.No needs to export our goods to China.We may discriminate you to some extent. If so,you can hate us.It is free for you to hate us.