December 21, 2016 5:30 pm JST
China up close

'Your Name' boom in China could end in an instant

Japanese blockbuster could suffer same fate as K-pop

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

Makoto Shinkai's anime "Your Name" has become the highest-grossing Japanese movie in China. © 2016 YNFP

TOKYO -- A Japanese anime titled "Your Name" has become the highest-grossing Japanese movie in China since it was released across the country in early December.

The popularity of the film is some rare good news amid thorny relations between the two countries. Expectations are rising that young Chinese may visit Japan after seeing the lush scenery beautifully drawn in the film.

But the movie's popularity masks a worrisome development.

"Three weapons"

An essay partially revealing China's foreign relations strategy was recently published on a government-authorized website, and it has been read by a large number of people.

It carries headlines such as "Does Japan still insult China?" and "China should retaliate if its market economy status is not recognized."

The essay said China has three weapons that can be used in a counterattack: Restricting exports of rare-earth metals to Japan, constraining visits to Japan by Chinese tourists and limiting distribution of Japanese cultural products in China.

China imposed the first when it restricted rare-earth exports in 2010. Regarding the second, China is well aware of the purchasing power of its tourists and how it is propping up the Japanese economy. The third is found in things like Japanese movies, anime and manga -- its soft power.

The anime "Your Name" is related to the third weapon. Film companies across the world, including Hollywood, are seeking greater access to China's massive market. Japan is no exception. A ban on the release of Japanese movies would deal a serious blow to its industry.

In 2012, large anti-Japanese demonstrations occurred across China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. No Japanese films were released in China in the next two years.

But China's strategy toward Japan, based on the third weapon, becomes ineffective if it bans the release of all Japanese movies.

China needs to import some of them in order to make the strategy workable. "Your Name" is one of them. It is a rare example of a Japanese movie being released in China while it is still being shown in Japan. The well-thought strategy has proved very effective.

Boom and bust

South Korean entertainment should be seen in the same context. The country's movies and TV dramas have been highly sought after in China in recent years, including during the two years that no Japanese films were released in China. But this has changed: Not a single South Korean film has been released in China in 2016.

China conducted a large-scale military parade in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015. While leaders of most free nations refused to attend, South Korean President Park Geun-hye observed it at Tiananmen Square together with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Not long after, Park decided to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system despite China's fierce opposition. The decision, which followed a North Korean nuclear experiment and missile firing, was unavoidable because China showed no intention of working to prevent Pyongyang's provocative deeds.

China saw the decision as a betrayal and toughened its stance toward South Korea. The honeymoon between Xi and Park thus ended.

"I fully understand how people in Japan felt after the anti-Japanese demonstrations in Beijing," said a Beijing-based South Korean diplomat while in Tokyo.

Relations between China and South Korea have been chilly ever since. Recently, for example, China rejected a South Korean ship's port call just before it arrived at Qingdao for a goodwill visit.

China has gone so far as to not authorize TV programs jointly produced by South Korean and Chinese companies. Authorities refuse to even begin examining them. Although China does not disclose the reason for refusal, it is evidently attributable to South Korea's decision to deploy the THAAD system. Unofficially, some Chinese officials even admit this.

Earnings at private Chinese TV producers and movie companies are decreasing because of the de facto ban on South Korean entertainment. One offshoot is that "Your Name" and other Japanese products are doing well. At least 10 Japanese movies have been released in China this year.

While the number of Chinese tourists going abroad continues to increase, Beijing makes political use of them. When, for example, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who does not accept the "one-China" policy, took office in May, the Chinese government instructed state-run travel agencies to limit the number of tourists going to Taiwan. As a result, Taiwanese sightseeing destinations, which have flourished with the flood of Chinese tourists in recent years, are now deserted.

Of movies and missiles

At the end of November, Japan's Ministry of Defense began studies about deployment of the THAAD system. The ministry set up a research outlay in the third supplementary budget of fiscal 2016.

China has already protested the move. State-run China Central Television criticized Japan for launching the study, while the Global Times, a media under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party's official People's Daily newspaper, covered the story in a similar manner.

If Japan further considers deploying the missile system, China may resort to using one of its three weapons, as was the case with South Korea.

Another flare-up could occur between the two countries, and now China has accumulated ammunition through the release of the popular "Your Name" movie.

China's cultural strategy uses an adolescent fantasy film that has no political nature as a bargaining chip in international politics. Such action does not deserve market economy status within the WTO.

The downfall of South Korean entertainment in China points to risks ahead for the "Your Name" boom.

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