Spreading the Word on Japan
May 7, 2015
A magazine dedicated to all things Japanese is thriving in China. Zhi Japan means “Knowing Japan”. It is published monthly in Beijing. Each issue takes one aspect of Japanese culture and looks at it in depth.
Editor-in-chief Su Jing founded the magazine in 2011, a year after massive anti-Japan protests in China rocked the two countries’ ties. But Su says his motivation was not about bilateral relations.
“To be honest, I wasn't thinking about promoting friendship,” he says. “All I wanted was to continue the magazine as long as readers were interested.”
The magazine covers everything from samurai culture to Zen Buddhism. It sells up to 100,000 copies per issue.
For an upcoming issue, the editors traveled to remote Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan. They visited the birthplace of Osamu Dazai, a literary icon who was popular in the 1940s before his death in 1948. Dazai’s direct style strikes a chord with young Chinese readers. His novel, No Longer Human is especially popular. In it he writes about a man who hides his true self from others, and the tragic consequences he must face as a result. It’s said Dazai drew on his own life for the book.
Dazai is so popular in China that readers have posted over 20,000 comments about No Longer Human on a book review site. They say things like, “This novel comforts me when I feel down or depressed." Or, "At first, I was nervous about picking it up. But when I started, I found similarities between the protagonist and myself."
Su says despite the novel’s popularity, Chinese readers know little about the author. So the editorial team visited the place where Dazai grew up, and the house where he spent his days as a student. They wanted to walk in his footsteps, and find clues about Dazai’s stormy life and repeated suicide attempts.
“There are very few works whose authors visited where Dazai lived and looked into his background,” says Su. “When this special issue is published, it will be the first Chinese work on this subject.”
At a brainstorming meeting, Su suggests an approach. “We want to let readers think Zhi Japan knows everything about Dazai,” he told his staff. “But we'll only write about what we feel is important."
Su says the trip gave him new insights into Dazai’s thinking. The special issue of Zhi Japan is due out before summer.
“I hope to provide information to young readers that can't be found in books or on the internet,” says Su. “This trip to Aomori is our first step in this direction.”
NHK World’s Daisuke Azuma joins us now. He’s been in Beijing looking at the success of Zhi Japan.
Shibuya: Daisuke, it’s interesting to see the topics they’re choosing. Why do you think they’re focusing on Osamu Dazai now?
Azuma: Well, he’s become phenomenally popular in China recently. Publishers there issued translations of many of his most popular works in 2009, to mark what would have been his 100th birthday. That’s when people in China really started to notice his novels. And I think younger Chinese people see a part of themselves in him. Dazai was born into an affluent family, but he struggled with feelings of isolation.
Many of his books depict peoples’ inner struggles. Sometimes they show an unreasonable or destructive aspect.
China’s booming economy is creating a wealth gap, and Dazai’s themes of injustice are resonating with many younger Chinese people.
Beppu: It’s interesting, too, to see a magazine all about Japanese culture taking off in China. Did they anticipate it becoming this popular?
Azuma: No, the editors say it’s doing better than they ever expected. The topics they’ve covered include traditional themes like manga, Japanese cuisine and the samurai, to modern lifestyle topics like the recent de-cluttering boom.
We asked people in a bookstore in Beijing what they liked about Zhi Japan. One shopper said, "I’m especially interested in learning how sushi culture developed. I bought this book because I want to read about it in depth."
Another said, "I don’t pay attention to the arguments between politicians. I just want to know more about Japanese culture."
Shibuya: Which issues have sold the most?
Azuma: So far, the one about cats. And the manga and Japanese cuisine issues sold well too.
Beppu: People in China staged anti-Japan demonstrations a couple of years ago. Is the success of this magazine a sign that things are cooling down?
Azuma: Well, some people in China are still very anti-Japan. But many others are interested in Japanese culture. And some people even fit both camps.
Zhi Japan’s editor-in-chief Su told me he wanted people to read the magazine before making decisions about whether they like the country or not.
Beppu: Why do you think there’s a growing interest in Japanese culture right now?
Azuma: Lots of Japanese products have gone on sale in China recently, and many Chinese people are visiting Japan. So I think more and more people are wondering what kind of place Japan is. Zhi Japan is one of the ways they’re finding out. Cultural bridges like this are an important way of fostering understanding between China and Japan, even as the political arguments drag on.