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‘Japanese in Spirit’ Phenomenon Among Young Chinese Alarms Beijing





“They are Chinese scum!”


The comment came from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the end of a nearly two-hour press conference on March 8, held in conjunction with the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing. His voice and gestures revealed his anger.


A reporter from the Modern Express, a business newspaper based in Nanjing under the umbrella of the state-owned Xinhua News Agency, asked Wang, “What do you think of these ‘Japanese in spirit (精日)’ types who are continually trying to scrape the bottom as ethnic Chinese?”  



His question was an example of the tendency among Chinese reporters to follow the official playbook in their give-and-take with officials.


A slang term for “Japanese in spirit” is attracting attention over the internet in China. The term is applied to young Chinese who are intent on being perceived as having a Japanese spirit. The phenomenon has risen in China despite the media and education systems being dominated by negative propaganda about Japan and Japanese history.


At the March 8 press conference, the reporter’s question was prompted by an incident on February 22 in Nanjing. Police had arrested two men in their 20s who took photographs of themselves wearing Imperial Japanese Army uniforms at a pillbox on Zijin Shan (Purple Mountain)—the site of a fierce encounter between Japanese and Chinese forces during the Battle of Nanking (1937). Three pictures of the two posing with sabers in their hands and a Japanese flag attached to a bayonet were posted on the internet. “Good fortune forever on the battlefield” was written on the flag.


In recent years cases of Sino-Japanese War-themed cosplay photographs have occasionally appeared on the internet. China’s officials and mainstream media have viewed them as deviant acts by “Japanese in spirit” types.


There was an interesting debate about the background of the “Japanese in spirit” phenomenon and how to define it on the Chinese question-and-answer website Zhihu (“Do you know?”). The definitions receiving the most support included, “those with an excessive appreciation for Japan and a deep dislike of their own people,” “those who take delight when a major disaster strikes our country,” and “those who are embarrassed by their own lineage and hold to the illusion that they are really Japanese.”


Other respondents expressed different opinions, like; “They have a fondness for Japanese culture, know the differences between Japanese and Chinese culture very well and express sharply critical opinions about China. Calling them ‘Japanese in spirit’ is a false accusation.”


Another comment: “This phenomenon started with the maturation of children who reacted to the over-the-top glorification of their own country by coming to see Japan as a utopia.”


“I honestly cannot understand the ‘Japanese in spirit’ and I think that it may be that they are simply trying to offend people. If wonder if it is something like ISIS?” said another commenter.



Perverse Longing?


For most Japanese, Chinese young people who like Japanese culture, such as manga and animé, and who have a sense of fondness for Japan, are to be welcomed. At the same time, it is difficult to understand the psychology behind cosplay based on the Imperial Japanese Army.


The reason may be found in daily life. Every day anti-Japanese dramas are broadcast in China. Chinese children are bombarded with extreme images of Imperial Japanese Army soldiers from their earliest years. Given the depiction of Japanese soldiers as the epitome of cruelty and evil, it is not difficult to imagine that this impression is entrenched in the consciousness of young Chinese.


It is perhaps a perverse psychological reaction to this childhood experience that has resulted in a longing for the Imperial Japanese Army. Or, it may be an unconscious search for relative balance in the face of the one-sided anti-Japanese perspective on history pushed by the Chinese authorities.


Even without the cosplay hobby aspect, there is a surprising number of so-called geeks with a near maniacal interest in the Imperial Japanese Army as an historical entity. This has gone so far as to result in an internet sticker based on the five admonitions employed at the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy. While curiosity about the enemy may be natural, there is also a risk that some will be attacked as Japan zealots.


Hunters of Japan Enthusiasts


Regardless of how one defines those who see themselves as Japanese in spirit, Chinese authorities see them as a rebellion risk and are increasing their vigilance.


The news site Record China—operated by the tabloid Global Times, which is connected to the People’s Daily, the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party—took up the case of a man in Fujian province who searches for cosplay photographs on the internet and outs those who appear to be Japanese in spirit.


According to this man, the Japanese in spirit types include both those who are organized in groups and those acting alone. In his view, the individual types are going through a rebellious phase.


In contrast, he stereotypes the organized Japanese in spirit as males in pursuit of a certain type of identity. The uniforms they use are more authentic and more specialized than those worn in the anti-Japanese dramas. One outfit can cost thousands of dollars.


Another Chinese researcher thinks the number of participants in military uniform cosplay may be in the thousands. Among the cosplay participants he identifies are groups with a political slant focused on Japan’s rapid economic development, with emphasis on its military strength. They have the distinctive characteristic of referring to China as “your country” when talking to people outside their circle.


Shen Yi, director of the Fudan University Cyberspace Governance Study Center, is quoted in Record China as saying: “The lack of values, sense of purpose and proper worldview has pushed the ‘Japanese in spirit’ into a morbid psychology and pursuit of thrills. We need to reflect on why the anti-Japanese story lacks the kind of appeal of Japanese manga.”

 Record China also quotes Peking University professor Zhang Yiwu, who emphasized that “the small number of ‘Japanese in spirit’ types needs to be differentiated from the broad spectrum of people who appreciate Japanese culture.”


He indicated his fear that those who see themselves as Japanese in spirit also project the appeal of Japanese culture onto all Japanese and, feeling a sense of unity, in the end go below the lowest acceptable level for their own ethnic group.


Yoshiaki Nishimi is the Sankei Shimbun Beijing bureau correspondent.



(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)