Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Monday, March 15, 2021

Relationship Between China and Japan (with Korea) 

What is a weeb? The term is used in this fascinating and very informative short video on the historical relationship between China and Japan. Dictionary.com defines it this way:

A weeb is a derisive term for a non-Japanese person who is so obsessed with Japanese culture that they wish they were actually Japanese.

When the narrator of this short video uses the term “weeb” to define Chinese who are interested in China, he is doing it in jest, of course. But is it accurate? I started to think about this, because one of the things I noticed when I came to China was the difference between how American students and Chinese students approach Japan.

I taught at a software university in Tempe, Arizona for four years (but actually 12 semesters). I would ask students, “What is your dream?” or “What is you career objective?”

I would hear, “I want to go to Japan and write software.”

It always pained me, because I knew that the odds of that actually happening were not very good. I sincerely hope that some of them were able to make it happen. But it’s pretty tough for Americans. If you want to benefit from Japan’s severe labor shortage, you really need to be able to do Japanese.

But I wasn’t surprised by the interest American young people had for Japanese culture. Japan produces lots of video games, including phone games. So it’s not surprising at all that American young people who were enthralled with things Japanese would want to go to where it all happens.

When I got to China, the Software College at Beihang University actually had a Japanese Software program. They would hire a Japanese teacher to come and teach language skills to students in that program. Several members of the faculty had lived and worked in Japan, and spoke excellent Japanese. And I had many students who had, during their middle school years, taken the Japanese exemption to the language requirement. In some parts of China, students can opt to take Japanese or Russian instead of English.

So I saw a system at Beihang that the American “weebs” I taught in Arizona would envy. But when it comes to the reason for going to Japan, Chinese students tend, I think, to be more pragmatic. The reason for their interest in Japan does not come mostly from a fascination with things Japanese, but from a desire to take advantage of Japan’s severe labor shortage, and particularly in the area of their chosen skill and interest. I asked one my students who had gone to Japan if he was planning to become a Japanese citizen. He said, “My grandfather would be very angry.” But his grandfather didn’t complain about the money he was able to send home.

Chinese students in their approach to Japan are very similar to Americans in Beijing who value being in China, but who are perfectly content to go to international churches that bar the door to Chinese people. Of course I did not follow my students abroad, but I have heard reports from Chinese students who went to Japan or America that they often tended to spend a lot of time with other Chinese students.

So for the most part, I think, Chinese students who go to Japan are not so much preoccupied with becoming Japanese as they are with taking advantage, both of the work opportunity and of the economic difference between China and Japan. Money earned in Japan goes a lot further in China than it does in Japan. In addition to this, Chinese people who have Japanese experience, and especially Japanese language proficiency, have an extraordinary employability advantage when they come back to China.

Most Americans I met during the sixteen years I lived in Beijing knew very little about Chinese culture, and they had little interest in learning. For most of them, Beijing was their whole China. When they left Beijing, it was usually to go to America. Mind you, Americans generally like China, they like living in China, and they get along well with Chinese people. And in the church environment, the ones I saw who did go to Chinese churches (a very small minority, since most Americans prefer to go to the international churches that bar the door to Chinese people) were very effective at working with Chinese young people. But they did not know much about Chinese history or culture. When I was working at the Software College at Beijing University, the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs had a special dinner at the Great Hall of the People for foreign teachers. One of my colleagues said, "Is this some kind of famous place or something?" Believe it or not, he was Chinese American.

Don’t get me wrong—there are plenty of sinophiles in China, but they don’t tend to be American. Americans are much more like Chinese working in Japan in that sense. Their reasons for being in China tend to be more pragmatic. But they differ in one way from Chinese. For Chinese people working in Japan, it is not so much that they are not interested in Japanese culture, it is because, in some sense, they are already part of it.

So this brings me to my question: Should China and Japan be viewed as two different cultures that have borrowed from each other over the centuries, or should they be viewed as actually being two different parts of the same culture? Watch the short video above and see what you think.



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