CHINA> Wen in Japan
Cherry blossoms symbolize China's warming to Japan
Updated: 2007-04-10 14:53

With the cherry blossoms in Beijing's Yuyuantan Park in full bloom, young girls can be seen posing for photos in rented kimonos, their colored paper umbrellas offset by clouds of white and pink flowers.

Is it a sign that China is gradually relaxing toward its wartime enemy?

Just a year ago, the cherry blossoms were a symbol intense national rivalry. Chinese Internet users had called for the uprooting of all the "sinful" trees in Wuhan University, as they were suspected of being planted by the Japanese during their occupation of China in the 1930s.

 Meanwhile, Zhang Ziyi, the Chinese actress, incurred sharp criticism for starring as a "Japanese hooker" in the Hollywood movie "Memoirs of a Geisha" and praising the kimono as the most beautiful national costume she had ever worn.

But this spring, against a backdrop of warming political ties and government-sponsored cultural exchanges, an amiable feeling is being fostered in China toward its island neighbor.

Ahead of Premier Wen Jiabao's strategic visit to Japan, the official China Central Television (CCTV) broadcast a documentary titled "Yansong Looks at Japan", hosted by anchor Bai Yansong.

"It aims to give domestic viewers a complete and objective understanding of contemporary Japanese society with comprehensive coverage of political, economic and cultural issues," Bai said.

The primetime documentary on national TV signals a key shift in Chinese media coverage of Japan, observers said. The favorable mood has been made possible following Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "ice-breaking" trip to China in October 2006.

Bilateral relations had been frosty under Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, largely due to his annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which commemorates Japan's war dead including 14 class-A World War II criminals.

As a result, the Chinese media focused on the Japanese government's alleged attempts to gloss over its wartime atrocities. With most domestic media busy at reinforcing China's stance on historical issues, "our understanding of Japan remains fixed in the Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a book analyzing the nature of Japanese culture written decades ago by U.S. anthropologist Ruth Benedict", Bai said before going to Japan to film his documentary.

More than a dozen of the documentary episodes were screened on Oriental Horizon, CCTV's nightly current affairs program, with the interviewees including artists, business people and politicians. Some clips were posted on the Internet, drawing thousands of comments.

"I like the program. It explains Japan better, not only in historical issues. The individual awareness of environmental protection in Japan is really worth studying," said an Internet user under the name Ralf Jones.

"My friends are changing their attitudes toward the Japanese, whom they used to thinks of only as invaders. Japan certainly has many advanced aspects for us to learn. Communication is particularly important," said another user nicknamed "KG".

While taking the viewer through contemporary Japan, CCTV is also trying to revive the memory of the ancient friendship between the two countries by broadcasting a TV play about Jianzhen, a Chinese monk who went to Japan to help teach Buddhism 1,250 years ago.

Despite five failed attempts, Jianzhen, a knowledgeable and devoted Buddhist in the imperial Tang Dynasty (618-907), succeeded in his sixth effort to reach the islands at the invitation of a Buddhist temple there.

It took 10 years to succeed in his endeavor and he spent the rest of his life in Japan spreading Chinese culture and arts, such as Chinese painting, calligraphy, medicine and architecture. He has since been regarded as a symbol of friendship for cultural exchanges.

"Friendly exchanges between China and Japan date back more than 2,000 years," Premier Wen told a group of Japanese news organizations ahead of his Japan tour set for April 11 to 13.

"I hope to pass the message to the Japanese leaders and people that to promote friendly and cooperative bilateral relations conforms to the trend of the times and the will of the two peoples," Wen said.

This year has been depicted as a good opportunity to boost ties, as it marks the 35th anniversary of the normalization of China-Japan relations and is also the Year of Cultural and Sports Exchanges.

From last month, Japan has staged a variety of cultural exchange activities in China, including a concert involving Chinese and Japanese pop stars, a Japanese film festival, a Japanese band tour and a Japanese drama.

"I heard Japanese singers were warmly welcomed by Chinese fans. Despite the language barrier, young people feel the same about music and can communicate through it," said Akie Abe, wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

"Japan and China have a lot in common in our cultures, which can serve as a pivot for bilateral exchanges," Akie Abe said, citing a calligraphy exhibition as a good example of a future exchange.

Japan has just named table tennis star Ai Fukuhara and actress Noriko Sakai as goodwill ambassadors of the 2007 Japan-China Cultural and Sports Exchange Year. Activities organized by China in Japan will start in mid-April in Tokyo.

But experts point out that this year is a sensitive historic period, as it marks the 70th anniversaries of the Marco Polo Bridge incident, which sparked the anti-Japanese war, and the Nanjing Massacre.

Historical issues, always sensitive, have a direct bearing on relations and should be handled prudently, the Chinese government and experts say.

Tensions are also expected to be avoided to secure fast growing bilateral trade. Many Japanese textile and manufacturing firms have relocated their production centers to China to take advantage of lower labor costs, and China has surpassed the United States to be Japan's largest trading partner.

Bilateral trade has increased from 1.1 billion U.S. dollars in 1972 to 207.4 billion U.S. dollars last year.

"We benefit from warming relations. In previous years when the tension rose, we were ordered to close our booth. This year, many young people are coming to rent our Japanese costumes and they look beautiful and happy," said Zhang Jinhai, a vendor leasing kimonos in Yuyuantan Park.