Photo/Illutration Hitomi Maesako gets ready to enjoy a serving of "choudoufu" at a food court in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district. (Sotaro Hata)

Illustrator Hitomi Maesako had no interest in China until she started watching a Chinese anime series as recommended by a friend.

She began watching other Chinese dramas and developed an interest in tasting the food and drink that appeared in the programs.

“The food and culture differ by region,” said Maesako, 34. “I never thought China was such a rich and interesting nation.”

Younger Japanese have always known China as an economic power and many such as Maesako are now appreciating various aspects of its modern culture, including anime and cuisine. 

That is in stark contrast to older Japanese who still retain bitter memories of World War II as well as the path China has taken to becoming the world’s second largest economy.

Sept. 29 marks the 50th anniversary of normalization of relations between the two nations.


One Japanese who now loves authentic Chinese food is Maesako.

In mid-September, she was at a Chinese food court in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district and enjoying “choudoufu,” a tofu dish known for its strong smell. It is one dish many foreigners stay away from given that it is often called “stinky tofu” in English.

“I love the taste of authenticity that doesn’t try to adapt to Japanese tastes,” Maesako said.

She developed an interest in authentic Chinese food after watching the Chinese anime “Mo Dao Zu Shi,” which became available on a Chinese video streaming site from 2018. It has become an international hit through its artful depiction of ancient China.

A 30-year-old mother of two in Kawasaki, just west of Tokyo, is also a fan of Chinese culture. She has even begun visiting various stores that carry Chinese food products.

When she tried to get her parents in their 50s to watch a Chinese drama, they showed no interest. The women felt there was a generation gap because her parents appeared to look down on China.

A 27-year-old Japanese man whose handle name can be read as Asei in Japanese or Asheng in Chinese, transmits information about authentic Chinese cuisine while working for an information technology company.

He has so far released reports on about 200 restaurants and his Twitter account has a large lineup of photos of bright red soup and heavily spiced spit-roasted mutton.

In the two years since he began his reports, the number of followers has expanded to about 17,000. Many are young women who developed their interest in food after watching Chinese anime.

“While many in the older generation are turned off just by hearing ‘China,’ I feel younger Japanese are making their appraisal based purely on quality,” Asei said.


When he was in his second year of senior high school, So Hishii began reading the popular manga “Kingdom” about ancient China. He also became fascinated in his Chinese classics class about being able to read a foreign language from 2,000 years ago.

Hishii is now a senior at Waseda University studying Chinese literature and culture.

Tamaki Naramoto, 22, was shocked as a child over the often violent protests in China after Japan nationalized the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea a decade ago. China also claims the islands, which it refers to as the Diaoyu Islands.

But after studying in the Netherlands from three years ago, she became friends with Chinese students and her preconceptions about China evaporated.

“Even if relations between nations are difficult, individuals can still become friends,” she said.

Shigeto Sonoda, a professor at the University of Tokyo who has long researched public attitudes in different Asian nations, said memory was the main factor accounting for generational differences.

For young people, China has always been a developed nation with a market economy.

“Young people who use such catalysts as communications and games through information technology may feel that political issues are not something to become all worked up about,” Sonoda said.


While Chinese youth have long had an interest in Japanese anime, there has been a broadening of the areas of Japanese culture that attract the Chinese.

Liu Haoyue, 23, a university student in Tianjin, likes to read Japanese novels by contemporary writers, such as Kotaro Isaka and Keigo Higashino.

“I believe one characteristic of Japanese society is for people to delve deeply into their thinking to find out what is at the core of their souls,” Liu said.

Having graduated from university last year, Liu Yang, 23, plans to study in Japan and eventually enter an engineering graduate school.

“As an elementary school student, I loved Japanese anime,” Liu said. “I read a work by Ryunosuke Akutagawa in senior high school” based on a Chinese novel.

Liu developed an interest in ukiyoe art and read Ruth Benedict’s classic work on Japan, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.”

Having learned about World War II since junior high school, Liu said, “I felt contradictory feelings about the Japanese, thinking they could be friends at the same time they were the enemy. But that doesn’t matter because when I actually meet a Japanese, I decide based on that person’s character and personality.”


The Japan-China Student Conference held an event in June with the theme of popular songs in the two nations over the past half-century.

Ryuichi Katsu, 22, a senior at Keio University, served as emcee and realized that the young people of the two nations shared trends and culture across borders through the internet and social media.

“Our generation has closely observed China as an economic power,” Katsu said. “We don’t feel anguish at having been overtaken.”

Another participant in the conference, Saki Yamashita, 22, a senior at Kanagawa University, said, “Regardless of nationality, I cannot dislike anyone who likes the same music and anime as me.”

Kazuyuki Suwa, a professor of modern China at the University of Shizuoka, spoke at the conference and said future bilateral ties will be helped by ties developed among young people who may not realize that the songs they listen to are from China.

But he also wants young Japanese to develop an interest in Chinese politics and the human rights situation there.

“In order to develop a deep understanding of China, one cannot avoid politics,” Suwa said. “I hope they will learn what logic China uses in making its arguments and make their own judgment.”

The event ended with the playing of a Chinese version of a popular song by the former Japanese idol group SMAP.

An Jiayu, 24, a student at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, who is originally from Xian, China, said, “I feel the song is about things common to all humans. Even though Japan and China might have differences in politics and society, I feel efforts should be made to find similar common factors.”

(This article was written by Sotaro Hata and Yusaku Yamane in Tokyo and Kim Soonhi in Shenyang.)