Strengthening Japan-China Grassroots Exchange
Toshihiro Menju, Chief Program Officer, Japan Center for International Exchange
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the Asahi Shimbun on March 15, 2005.]
Although economic interdependence between Japan and China remains strong, mutual distrust among the general public has grown, with bilateral relations at their lowest point in decades. If Japan's strategic plan for an East Asia regional community is to be realized, Japan will need to maintain a good relationship with China. In addition to political and economic ties, grassroots-level exchange is essential to further developing relations between Japan and China.
China's international exchange activities, particularly at the local level, are increasing at an extraordinary rate. For example, Sichuan Province, which has a population of 87 million, has sister city relationships with 36 cities and regions overseas, including Hiroshima and Yamanashi Prefectures in Japan. These arrangements are not limited to exchange among local officials; they have also begun to actively involve the younger generation. The Sichuan Provincial government also established the Sichuan Provincial People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, which sends delegations of young people to Japan, the United States, the Netherlands, and Australia. The committee has even begun providing aid to Africa.
While international exchange used to be the sole domain of provincial governments and large cities in China, we have recently seen more international exchange initiatives in smaller cities and in rural villages as well. The situation in China today closely resembles Japan in the 1980s. During that time, local government-affiliated organizations in Japan sought to encourage internationalization by providing opportunities for international exchange in areas where residents had few opportunities to interact with foreigners. They developed plans for defeating the sense of isolation in local communities by encouraging international exchange. One can say that those kinds of activities are being advanced now as part of China's trend toward "internationalization."
It is important to acknowledge the role that international exchange at the grassroots level can play in suppressing the radical nationalism that is gradually increasing among Chinese citizens. It can be harnessed in the development of a kind of "internationalist" thinking. There are many examples in which invitations for sister city ties from Japan's local government-affiliated organizations have been used as an opportunity to start international exchange at the local level in China. In addition, the growing number of Chinese students studying in Japan has contributed to a broader interest in grassroots exchange with Japan and other countries. For example, many of the management personnel of the Sichuan Provincial People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries mentioned above have experience studying in Japan.
Japanese aid to China has also played a significant role in facilitating local-level exchange between the two countries, contributing to a sense of "internationalization" throughout China. For example, there is a social welfare organization in Okayama City that is engaged in a project, in cooperation with the Japan International Cooperation Agency, to train leaders in the field of elderly care in Shanghai City. This project is not only training leaders in elderly care; it is also providing China, a country that is facing a growing problem of an aging population, with an invaluable opportunity to explore information that can help it think about the kind of care system it would like to introduce. This kind of face-to-face grassroots-level exchange helps Japan share some of the resources it has at the community level, thereby serving as a cornerstone for improving Japan-China relations.
Japan-Korea relations went from being completely frozen to a kind of boom in exchange between the two countries. Despite recent growing tensions between Japan and Korea, numerous grassroots-level exchange activities—including youth exchange and homestay programs—have helped to keep the relationship strong. The only way we will be able to develop a similar relationship of trust between the general publics in Japan and China, will be to expand and strengthen the framework that facilitates contributions from those who are engaged in grassroots-level exchange.
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