Commentator tackles sensitive balancing act

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am


Writer Kato Yoshikazu is one of the most visible and popular Japanese people living in China. He is best known among young Chinese, particularly for his takes on mainland affairs. He moved to the country in 2003, not knowing a word of Putonghua, and he has since become fluent. He often mixes his personal beliefs with a diplomatic approach to controversial issues, trying to get both sides to see eye to eye. But he recently came under fire for the way some Chinese interpreted comments he made about the Nanking Massacre. The fallout resulted in education authorities in the northwest province of Gansu refusing to let him speak at a university. The 28-year-old says his comments were misinterpreted, and he is reaching out to his followers to explain what he meant, as well as clarify what he is striving to achieve while living in China.

Did you ever expect something like this to happen?

I thought to myself many years ago that if I were to become famous in China, I would eventually be boycotted because I am Japanese. In the context of the subtle relationship between the two countries, territorial and historical issues are sensitive, and mainlanders have complex feelings about Japanese. I have been studying and working in China for about 10 years. I have gained popularity by writing Chinese columns for top-tier media, making comments on television programmes, giving speeches at more than 50 mainland universities and writing a few books. Not long ago I was invited to give a lecture for students at Gansu Agricultural University, but [on June 7] the provincial education department wrote on its Sina microblog account that my speech had been cancelled, and they called on the public to boycott me because they said my previous comments had hurt the feelings of Chinese people. They were referring to a speech I delivered at a bookshop in Nanjing at the end of May to promote my latest book. But they misunderstood my words.

What did you actually say?

During the question-and-answer session with my readers, a man raised a question, saying, 'Both China and Japan have problems with recognising and understanding historical issues. How should we come to discover the truth?' I agreed with him that both governments have problems in regard to history. I said I once spoke with some right-wing Japanese people and told them they had better be mindful about making comments that would not be accepted by the Chinese and would make them angry. These people said: 'The Chinese don't reflect upon their own history, so why should other countries should be required to show them respect and be sincere towards them?' I advised people to read diverse material, especially publications in languages other than Chinese. I also suggested they read books published in Hong Kong or Taiwan, where there is freedom of speech. By doing so, they could access different takes on historical events and draw their own conclusions. Regarding the Nanking Massacre, I said 'I don't know', because what Japan and China claim are quite different. Historians' views also vary. I don't know the truth about this event, and I said we should all insist on trying to dig up the truth. But when the video of my speech was uploaded online, internet users thought my saying 'I don't know' meant that I was denying that the massacre occurred. Facing the boycott call from Gansu authorities, I tried to explain on my Sina microblog account that I don't know the exact numbers [of victims] or details about the carnage. I also included a link to the video to allow more people to see it.

You have visited dozens of universities and addressed tens of thousands of students in the past two years. Why have you been so enthusiastic about doing this?

I hope my articles are able to influence two groups of people in China: policymakers and university students. I am quite interest in those born after 1980 because they are the future of China, and some of them will become the nation's leaders and shape what China will look like in the coming decades. Giving speeches at universities and getting their reactions gives me ample opportunity to understand this group of people and learn what concerns them and makes them anxious. I also present to them a fresh image of Japanese, rather than the stereotypical Japanese who are represented in China's traditional anti-Japanese films or by official mouthpieces such as the People's Daily. I talk with them about how to look at current affairs in China, such as corruption, rising inflation, political reform and religion. And I offer them suggestions on what they should do during their time at university.

Are you ever met with critical voices or people questioning you?

Students are generally polite to me. I think their curiosity about me [being Japanese], and because my age is close to theirs and because I am sincere, while not avoiding sensitive topics, has made me popular among university students. But, of course, there are people who disagree with me. Some say I don't understand China, and some suspect I am a spy. For the latter accusation, I feel helpless.

How do you communicate with Chinese people about sensitive issues?

I have three principles: what I write or say represents only the opinion of myself, not of Japan or of any interest group; I can't take any stance against my country or my people; and that I should be mindful of the feelings of Chinese people. When an incident or a diplomatic crisis emerges, I explain the Japanese mindset or the political situation in Japan that caused the incident in question. Or I will present the opinions of the Japanese people in regard to the case.

You have been living on the mainland for about a decade. Have the volatile Sino-Japanese ties affected you?

If the relationship is rosy, I have an easy life, and my local friends are all nice to me. But when the situation is reversed, I face overwhelming protests. People post malicious comments about me online, and my e-mail inbox is filled with criticism and abuse, such as calls for me to leave China. I can't do anything about these attacks. But I think the negative sentiment among the mainland public is understandable.

You have been invited to attend international forums held overseas to talk about mainland issues. What topics are Westerners interested in? What's your point of view?

They are interested in understanding the rise of China, whether it will be a real power and what the intentions are. My reply is that China is full of potential. However, we shouldn't over-evaluate its power, since China still has to tackle a slew of serious domestic problems. Westerners are also keen on knowing when China will democratise. In my eyes, this is a question that the whole world is wondering. I think it will take time and mainland leaders have road maps to follow. Central government officials receive tremendous pressure from social movements, including the prevalence of microblogs, which could be seen as motivation for reform. But China's political reform will be decided by the top leaders and will be implemented from the top down.

What are your plans for the near future?

In August I will begin a fellowship programme at Harvard Kennedy School of Government for at least one year. I will continue writing, in Chinese, Japanese or English, and keep on observing China. I have been living on the mainland for such a long time, and it's time to leave. If I don't, many people will regard me as one of the Chinese.