Photos: Ray Ally
In the past few weeks anti-Japanese sentiment has risen in China, fuelled by the controversy over the Diaoyu Islands. Both China and Japan claim ownership to these uninhabited lands, which have rich deposits of natural resources. There have been protests across the country and many Japanese businesses were attacked and vandalised. Riots even spilled out onto the streets, which is very rare in China. In Beijing, protestors tried to storm the Japanese Embassy and the car carrying the Japanese ambassador was attacked.
Although the anger is toward Japan’s government, it’s Japanese brands in China that have been the focus of the attack. The wave of anti-Japanese feeling has been widely spread across social media through the internet and on Weibo, China’s twitter.
This Tuesday, was the 81st anniversary of Japan’s invasion of China back on 18th September 1931. Many Japanese shops and restaurants closed their doors as a mark of respect and to prevent igniting any further animosity on this dark symbolic day.
Our local Japanese restaurant was closed for that day and had hung Chinese flags outside its door. The Canon shop next to my wife’s office on Jinbao Street had even removed all its signage and masked out its windows so you couldn’t see inside.
The growing sense of Chinese nationalism sweeping the country is in part answer to the anti Chinese sentiment from overseas, especially coming from the US over trade issues. But what the protestors and rioters don’t realise, or care about, is that Japanese brands in China employ local people. They are mostly run and managed by Chinese and play an important part in the business and social community.
Japanese brands have been in China for a long time and enjoy a strong and loyal following across market segmentations. At the low-end consumers aspire to own brands like Sony and Canon, which dominate in electronics and cameras. For the middle classes that can afford cars, Toyota and Honda are favourite and popular brands of choice. While for the young and trendy, brands like Evisu and Bathing Ape represent a cool and urban street style.
Japanese products are generally more modern in design, have increased high-tech and innovative features and built to superior standards of quality, service and value. In fact they are the exact opposite of how Chinese consumers perceive most local brands, designed and made in China.
With such irrational fears and emotions running high, the only option for Japanese brands is to keep their heads down. While all the time continuing to build relationships with local communities through low-key initiatives. As any big national PR campaign could easily backfire and would only highlight the issue even further.
Many Decades ago in the UK, we had a similar problem due the aftermath of World War Two. Most people including my grandparents were strongly against buying Japanese brands. I even remember my mother telling me I could marry anyone, as long as she wasn’t Japanese. Lucky I married a Chinese woman, but when I first came to China in 1988 many people in the UK were still confused between Japan and China and couldn’t point them out on a map.
The anti-Japan mood in England, slowly died out in the 67 years since the war ended in 1945. I think in part, because in the West, we commemorate the date the war ended. This was initially a celebration of the victory over the Japanese, on 15 August 1945, known as VJ Day and the end of the war. Every year since, ceremonies have been held across the world and in London, a member of the royal family lays a wreath at the Cenotaph, the grave of the unknown soldier. Nowadays it’s a more sombre event full of remembrance, pride and sorrow.
In China it’s very different, as every year the country commemorates the start of the Japanese invasion of China. I think this plays a large part in keeping the memory alive and breeding a new generation of young people, who feel anger and resentment to what happened more than 80 years ago.
While China continues to commemorate the start of the conflict rather than the end, it makes it harder to forgive. Of course China should never forget the atrocities of the Japanese war, but they should not keep opening up the old wound and reliving it again every year.
Sadly, I don’t see the situation over the Diaoyu Islands being resolved anytime soon, as there is too much pride, patriotism and historical conflict for China and Japan to both back down on this issue. However, economic relationships between the two countries are also very more important, as trade between them generated US$345 billion last year.
So while Japanese brands are being damaged, they may look to take their factories and business elsewhere, which in the long run, will only hurt the Chinese people.