1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

China cracks down on Japanese culture

William Yang Taipei
September 4, 2022

Beijing cracks down on cultural elements like Kimonos amid clashes with the Western alliance of which Japan is a member.

Red flags flutter in front of the Great Hall of the People
Analysts say the timing of the rise of anti-foreign sentiments in China likely reflects Beijing's political needsImage: Tang Maika/HPIC/dpa/picture alliance

Nationalistic sentiment appears to be on the rise in China, at a time when countries in the Indo-Pacific region are already expressing concerns about Beijing's aggressive military posture.  

Over the past week, two incidents associated with anti-Japanese sentiments have sparked widespread discussion on the Chinese internet.

On August 15, a video emerged of a Chinese woman being arrested by police for wearing a traditional Japanese kimono dress while taking photos in the city of Suzhou. She was reportedly cosplaying a character from a manga series.

In the video, the police official was seen shouting at the woman that if she had worn a Hanfu (traditional Chinese clothing), he wouldn't have stopped her from posing for photos. "But you are wearing a Kimono. Are you Chinese? If you don't comply, you are provoking trouble. Please come with us," the police shouted angrily at the woman.

The woman, who is an active user on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, later wrote that she was "educated" at the police station for five hours and police searched content on her phone. She was released around midnight the next day.

Negative sentiments toward Japan on the rise?

Millions of netizens in China viewed the video and some questioned whether the police has overreacted. "I would never imagine that someone could be arrested for wearing a Japanese kimono in Suzhou. This huge country can't tolerate a woman wearing a kimono," wrote one Chinese netizen on Weibo.

"Who is the one that's provoking trouble? If this (wearing a kimono in public) is provoking trouble, should they first close down all Japanese restaurants on the street?" another netizen wrote.

Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of China's state-run tabloid Global Times, wrote on Weibo that there is no legal reason to ban a kimono, but he also noted that given the rising tension between Japan and China over Tokyo's close cooperation with the US over issues related to Taiwan, negative sentiments toward Japan are rising in China.

While it's unclear if the police's arguments reflect China's official position, the fact that he wasn't disciplined for over-exercising his power shows that Beijing doesn't want to punish people within their own system, said Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"In order to ensure the loyalty of people in the system, Chinese authorities are willing to protect those who have violated regulations," she noted, adding: "This is one way for Beijing to protect the system."

China 'seems to be preparing for a war against Taiwan'

Brand apologizes for suspected attempt to be 'Japanese'

On August 18, the Chinese retail brand Miniso, which has characterized itself as a product retailer inspired by Japan, apologized through a statement after its Spanish Instagram account posted a picture of dolls in which Chinese netizens argued the brand had mislabeled a doll wearing a traditional Chinese outfit called qipao as a "Japanese geisha doll."

Facing an intense online backlash, Miniso issued a lengthy statement, apologizing for "taking the wrong path" in the founding stage with its brand positioning and vowing to "do a good job of Chinese culture and values exportation."

The latest incidents reflect the anti-Japan sentiment that has existed in China for decades, Ting Guo, a Chinese Studies scholar at the University of Toronto. "This is not that new, as we have seen waves of anti-Japan sentiment played out in China," she underlined. 

Analysts say the timing of the rise of anti-foreign sentiments in China likely reflects Beijing's political needs. "When the Chinese government needs anti-Japanese sentiment as a symbol of its declaration to the outside world, it will stir up such sentiment," said Teng Biao, a US-based Chinese human rights lawyer.

"Even when there is no specific incident, the Chinese Communist Party may need anti-Japanese sentiment to divert domestic political conflicts or the public's attention," he added. "It's a common practice in authoritarian regimes and the timing is often carefully chosen." 

Since Miniso issued the statement, Chinese netizens have continued to question the sincerity of the brand's apology. "How about also clarifying the brand's country of origin? Why does a Chinese brand keep claiming that it is 'from Japan,'" one netizen wrote on Weibo.

"Even if the company thinks designing their package based on Japanese style can help with their sales, it is only a concept. Please don't pretend to be a Japanese company. Japanese style is not flawless. Our own culture is more beautiful," another netizen commented under Miniso's Weibo post.

Using nationalism to create a social echo chamber

Apart from using nationalism to achieve certain political goals, Teng Biao said Chinese authorities' attempt to interfere with citizens' personal choices is a phenomenon that typically happens in a totalitarian country. "While many people will resent the government's intervention, the majority of the Chinese people are unable to criticize the authorities' improper behavior," he stressed.

"Although many people feel very worried about the logic behind the kimono incident in Suzhou, such reflection and worry will not become mainstream. Fervent patriotism and anti-Japanese sentiment are much stronger," the lawyer added.

Wang from HRW and Guo from the University of Toronto both believe that by stirring up nationalistic sentiment, Beijing wants to create a social echo chamber in China where there is no space for alternative voices, say experts. "Many people are afraid of being targeted by nationalistic netizens online, so they choose to remain quiet," Wang said. "One of the effects of nationalism is the chilling effect."

Guo said that while support for China's MeToo movement and other similar issues remain active, pressure from the government, censorship, and control of the public sphere will still turn China into a more monotone civil society. "It cultivates an awareness of what you can do and what you can't do," she said. "That's one of the byproducts of top-down nationalism today."

Teng Biao said that the Chinese government will continue to reinforce nationalism and anti-West sentiment in the near future, and it also means that there will be more government intervention in Chinese citizens' everyday life, as the kimono incident has shown. "Authorities will do more to interfere with the Chinese people's thoughts and ideas, and there will be more and more of this in the future."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru