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Geopolitics

The China-Japan Relationship: A Tale Of Manners And Diplomacy

Essay: A Beijing-based Japanese writer looks at history, diplomacy and body language to try to explain the chilly reception new Japanese Prime Minister Noda has received from China's Hu Jintao. What could it mean for a region at the center of shi

Yoshihiko Noda and Hu Jintao during the APEC meeting.
Yoshihiko Noda and Hu Jintao during the APEC meeting.
Daisuke Kondo

BEIJING -- On Nov. 3, in Cannes, France, the G20 leaders were assembling for dinner. The Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, walked up to Hu Jintao, the Chinese President, and shook his hand warmly. "I'm Japan's new Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda. I had the honor to meet you 27 years ago when I visited China as a member of the Japan-China Youth Friendship Delegation…"

The Chinese leader was slightly surprised, and answered "We'll talk a bit more when we meet up again next week in Hawaii…" But Mr. Noda continued, thanking President Hu for the assistance China had offered in March after Japan's earthquake. Including the time needed for the interpreters, the conversation lasted just three minutes.

Nine days later in Hawaii, the two leaders met up again at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, and had their first official summit meeting. It lasted 30 minutes. At the start of the talks, Mr. Noda again mentioned the 1984 meeting. It was 12 years after Japan and China had normalized their relations. A youth delegation from Japan was invited by the then Chinese President Hu Yaobang. And Hu Jintao, as the head of the reception at that time, was very impressed with this visit. Throughout his subsequent career, he has mentioned this experience whenever he meets Japanese officials -- which is probably why Noda went out of his way to mention it.

But Hu did not seem to share his enthusiasm about their meeting, keeping the somber expression fixed on his face. Nor did he respond in kind when Noda described his wish that the East China Sea become a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship.

From my observation of Hu Jintao through CCTV's news broadcasts, he has but three expressions: happily smiling, alertly somber, or sad. The sad expression is reserved for the rare occasions like when he offered his condolences to the Japanese Embassy after the earthquake in March. For all other times, he chooses one of the other two – the smiling one for the "comrade", and the somber one for the "non-comrade".

As a Japanese person living in Beijing, I find that Japanese and Chinese people have totally different approaches in how to manage interpersonal relationships. To put it simply, the Japanese are more "vague" whereas the Chinese tend to draw a clear line between the "white" and the "black", the "good" and the "bad." For the Japanese, since "even friends can be like strangers," it follows that "neither stranger nor friend" is also the way of dealing with people.

In contrast, Chinese people draw clear boundaries. Either you are a friend and are to be treated very well, or you are a total stranger (or enemy), and contact is kept to a minimum. Such thinking and attitude is also reflected in the way China treats Japan.

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Two Ukrainian soldiers at a military base on the outskirts of the separatist region of Donetsk

Lisa Berdet, Lila Paulou, Anne-Sophie Goninet and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Halito!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where the first war crimes trial against a Russian soldier since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine gets underway in Kyiv, Kim Jong-un slams North Korean officials’ response to the coronavirus outbreak and Mexico’s National Registry of Missing People reaches a grim milestone. Meanwhile, Ukrainian news outlet Livy Bereg looks at the rise of ethnic separatism across Russia’s federal regions.

[*Choctaw, Native American]

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