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Sunday, Nov. 9, 2003


Dancing through the storm in a D-cup

Much of the reporting about the Oct. 29 incident at Northwest University in Xian, China, in which three male Japanese exchange students danced in a university festival wearing brassieres and "fake genitals," gave the impression that the students' faux pas was a matter of cultural differences. What this means is that Japanese have to be careful about expressing themselves as Japanese in the presence of Chinese, since, owing to historical circumstances, Chinese people automatically distrust Japanese people.

This premise is reinforced by official chauvinism and defensive attitudes on both sides. The Chinese media supposedly encourages anti-Japanese sentiments, while the Japanese Embassy in China advises citizens to be careful about asserting their Japaneseness around Chinese people.

Coming on the heels of the mustard-gas tragedy (in which Japan agreed to pay compensation after a fatal leak from chemical weapons left over from World War II) and the alleged Japanese orgy that took place in Zhuhai in September, the university incident can be slotted into a pattern, and the actions of the Japanese students in question are made to fit a cultural model, even by Japanese people themselves.

Last Wednesday, the Asahi Shimbun published a letter from a 77-year-old man who made the case that, traditionally, Japanese people are comfortable with openly sexual themes and displays of the human body. This is supposed to explain the women's underwear and phalli worn by the students in the skit that so offended their Chinese audience.

If the writer has a point, it's difficult to see how it relates to the incident. The skit sounds as if it had more in common with bad TV comedy than it did with hadaka-odori (naked dancing), which the writer claims is a Japanese tradition. But hadaka-odori is not strictly "culture." It's something that is done when people are drunk and having a good time. The context makes the comparison meaningless.

On the other side, Chinese are said to be more reserved about sexual matters and that's why they were automatically offended by the display. But one has to understand how the Japanese skit looked compared with other performances, which included scenes from Shakespeare and recitations in Russian. In such a context, the Japanese burlesque -- which sounds more embarrassing than offensive -- stood out as particularly vulgar, and therefore more likely to cause offense, even if the intentions were innocent. Though the students admitted to wearing bras, there seems to be a wide range of opinions as to the "fake genitalia," which in some reports were very large and in others nonexistent.

The linchpin, it seems, was the phrase written on the backs of the three performing students. They claimed that they wrote "Japan Loves China" with the word "loves" represented by a heart-shaped symbol. Somehow, this phrase was reported by one Hong Kong newspaper as reading "This is Chinese," with some sort of indication toward the genital region. From Hong Kong and elsewhere, the rumors spread over the Internet like wildfire.

The real story has yet to be revealed, but the following day a group of Chinese students, believing they had been purposely insulted by the Japanese, went to the foreign-student dormitory demanding an apology, and 50 of them entered the building and attacked two Japanese students. Local police broke up the demonstration and the university transferred about 80 foreign students (not just Japanese) to a hotel.

Though the university said that classes were still in session, the campus was essentially shut down. Now the students, joined by other citizens, including unemployed laborers, demonstrated against the authorities, whom they accused of protecting the Japanese and preventing them from offering a proper apology (which the Japanese said they wanted to make).

In the end, the only thing that can be correctly said about the incident is that it was a dumb idea that was misconstrued into an international incident because of media confusion and official nervousness. Whatever its role in fanning anti-Japan feelings, China's national news agency didn't report the incident at all, so rumors were free to fly. And since the university was more interested in nipping citizen unrest in the bud than in reconciling the Japanese students with their hosts, the matter was allowed to get out of hand.

The irony in all this is that the Japanese government has always hoped that once the generation of Chinese people who lived through the Japanese invasion dies off, Japan-China relations will become more normal. Apparently, that isn't happening. If anything, Chinese university students seem to be even more sensitive about Japan than their grandparents were.

However, according to reports in both the Asahi Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun, the anger on display in Xian had more to do with general frustration toward Chinese authorities than with specific grievances against Japanese exchange students. Given Japan's and China's mutual history and their occasional displays of diplomatic bad form, there is definitely room for resentment, but the enormity of ill feelings is way out of proportion to the alleged cultural insensitivity demonstrated by the Japanese students.

If the Chinese students had viewed the Japanese performance for what it really was -- three young men suffering from arrested development -- they would have snickered and let it go, but their preconceptions are too deeply rooted. The tenacity of these preconceptions has more to do with the present closed nature of Chinese society than it does with the past sins of Japanese imperialism.

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