Ai Fukuhara helped to bridge divides
- The Japanese table tennis player also had links to mainland China and Taiwan
- Her retirement prompted an outpouring of love from fans on all sides, the ultimate proof of the success of diplomatic soft power
Sport has famously been used to bridge divides the world over; the Olympics movement was founded on the idea. Table tennis played a significant role in opening China to the West in the early 1970s, “ping-pong diplomacy” being the term adopted by the media for a match between Chinese and American teams in 1971 that led to the establishment of diplomatic relations. Japanese star Ai Fukuhara took matters a step further, though, with her links to mainland China, Japan and Taiwan through the game bringing her popularity in all three places. Her recent retirement prompted an outpouring of love and gratitude from fans on all sides, the ultimate proof of the success of diplomatic soft power.
Fukuhara, 30, was a good player, but never took an international title. She won silver and bronze medals in team events for Japan at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. But success is not what endears her to fans; it is her looks, emotions and humility. Having gone to China at a young age for training and even playing on Chinese teams, acquiring a distinct northeastern Mandarin accent along the way, she won a special place in the hearts of Chinese. Her marriage to a Taiwanese table tennis player in 2016 created a diplomatic triangle that further bridged divides.
Arguably, she is more popular in China than Japan, being known among her millions of Chinese fans as the “Japanese doll”. The announcement of her retirement was headline news on the mainland. For Chinese, who followed her progress as a player from a child prodigy to an adult star, there was always memories of her trademark bursting into tears, cute smile and later, debate over whether she should marry someone from the mainland, Taiwan or Japan.
Fukuhara was adored no matter how icy diplomatic relations between China and Japan became. It is proof of the importance of soft power; from grass-roots contact between people in business, sports and tourism comes understanding and trust, underpinnings of any relationship between nations. As one Chinese social media user said in a message to the player: “The friendship between China and Japan will always need you.”