SHANGHAI -- Late last month, I went to a theater here to see a performance of Peking opera, a traditional performing art in China. It was an unusual opportunity because the performance did not feature local professionals, but rather, it was put on by about 40 Japanese students who do not speak Chinese at all.
Learning to perform Peking opera is said to be difficult for many reasons. It requires, for example, a unique way of projecting one's voice, and many of the lines are in classical Chinese. On top of that, the program was "The Legend of White Snake," an extended classic that even pros undergo a half year of training for before they can properly undertake it.
I must admit I was less than excited when I arrived at the theater, and partly because of that, I was totally blown away when the students unexpectedly put on an amazing performance.
They beautifully handled high-pitched singing, and their Chinese pronunciation sounded nearly perfect. Their dancing and dynamic moves, as well as the makeup, were all executed at a high level. The performance garnered much applause from the audience of some 500, who are probably accustomed to watching professional Peking opera performers.
The students attend J.F. Oberlin University in the city of Machida, in western Tokyo, and major in performing arts. They aspire to be professional actors in Japan. But for them, the Shanghai performance was the first time they worked in a foreign language and performed Peking opera.
Boosting cultural exchanges
Yuan Yingming, an associate professor who teaches theater at the university, is their instructor. She moved to Japan in 1992 and speaks fluent Japanese. Yuan is also a professional Peking opera performer and learned her skills under the tutelage of Mei Baojiu, a master Peking opera performer who died last year.
In spring 2016, the students, who voluntarily participated in the troupe, started rehearsing for the Shanghai performance, initially by repeatedly listening to the Chinese lines recorded by Yuan.
A month before the performance, they invited three makeup and costume professionals from China to help with the upcoming tour.
"The Legend of White Snake" is a popular work that depicts a fateful love affair between a young man and a snake that transforms itself into a beautiful young woman. During the performance, the audience will often call out "Hao!" ("Good!") in response to performers' movements at critical scenes, creating a sense of togetherness.
"I wasn't confident if we would be accepted by the Chinese audience, who have discerning eyes," Yuan said.
After the Shanghai theater, the troupe performed at the noted Peking University Hall, known for its discerning audience that does not hesitate to walk out of a show if they are dissatisfied with the performance -- even by noted artists.
But the students passed that test as well. None of the 2,000-strong in attendance showed any signs of leaving. Rather, the calls of "Hao!" grew louder as the performance progressed, and the large hall eventually resounded with thunderous applause, leaving many in tears.
A Peking opera performer who is a friend of Yuan's lavished praise on the performance, the teacher said.
The tour was part of a bilateral exchange program organized by the Chinese foreign ministry. Officials from both countries prepared for it on the belief that art has no national borders, and with the hope of improving ties that are currently at a low point.
This year marks the 45th anniversary of Japan and China normalizing ties, and both countries are planning events to promote relations, such as a speech contest, student exchanges and an art festival.
In 2012, similar events were planned for the 40th anniversary but were canceled as tension mounted between the two countries after Japan nationalized disputed islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by China and Taiwan.
One shadow hanging over prospects for the anniversary celebration is the reluctance of Japanese businesses to financially support the events. Donations are essential to sponsor the events, but companies with profitable operations in China are reluctant to contribute.
A Japanese professor who was involved in a student exchange program last year solicited funding for travel and accommodation costs for students to visit each other's countries. According to the professor, Chinese companies responded by offering some money, but no Japanese company donated. Eventually, the professor had to make up the difference of 2 million yen ($18,000).
A reason given by one representative of a company for not offering funds was that it cannot make such a move because the government and business lobbies have not made their stance toward China clear. Another said it was impossible to obtain the company's approval for a donation unless it clearly benefits the company.
The professor said the companies were reluctant unless they could expect immediate gains.
As many as 6.4 million Chinese tourists visited Japan in 2016, up as much as 28% from the previous year, even as news of their "explosive" shopping sprees declining made headlines throughout the year. This proves that Chinese interest in Japan remains strong, except their focus is shifting from merchandise to experience-based tourism.
In China, too, people fill the seats at seminars about Japan, including its craftsmanship and business management philosophy.
The growing interest in Japan among the Chinese gives Japan a chance to burnish an image that Beijing has worked to tarnish. It would be a wasted opportunity if Japanese companies miss this chance just because they put profits first. They should build on the relations the students managed to warm through their Peking opera performances, not toss them aside.