by Koji Okumura
In February 2006, SGI President Daisaku Ikeda and Chinese ambassador to Japan, Wang Yi, met and discussed strengthening friendship between Japan and China. As one way to achieve this, they emphasized the need to expand cultural and educational youth exchanges, and President Ikeda proposed that a large Soka Gakkai youth group again visit China.
At the time of the meeting, the Sino-Japanese relationship could only be described as chilled. Although our countries share a long history, our relationship has been characterized more recently by old tensions dating from the time of the Second World War. These tensions, exacerbated by Japanese politicians' apparent insensitivity, were brought into sharp relief by a series of large anti-Japanese demonstrations in China during 2005.
For me and many people in Japan concerned about the relationship between the two countries, this was a frustrating state of affairs. So, when I heard about President Ikeda's proposal for the youth exchange, I immediately knew that I wanted to participate.
I'd never been to China before, but as I boarded the plane, I felt that our large-scale exchange group of 200 people could really help change the current in the Sino-Japanese relationship. I felt a strong determination that these 200 participants would be able to spread a correct understanding of China to a larger audience in the future.
On landing in China, I felt a great sense of excitement but also trepidation. Recent political events make obvious the great deal of misunderstanding between us. I, in fact, had never really interacted with Chinese people and must admit to a poor understanding of China.
Tragedy of Mistrust
Without close contact, one naturally forms impressions of others that are based only on supposition and colored to some extent by whatever negativity exists in the general atmosphere. It's only when one meets face-to-face with others that we can see each other for who we actually are. This I feel describes the tragedy of mistrust on both sides of the relationship.
I was struck by these thoughts, for example, during the course of the trip when we visited a war museum in Beijing. Shocking scenes of unbridled carnage conducted by the Japanese military were displayed. There were a large number of very young Chinese school students viewing the exhibits. The members of our group all felt a deep sense of sorrow at this tragic history. The children were also very moved, and some of them were crying. But when a member of our delegation offered her handkerchief to one of the crying children, she refused it, saying she didn't want a handkerchief from a Japanese person.
Fortunately, this kind of reaction was not characteristic of our trip. At any time when we actually sat down with people and began to talk with them, any such mistrust quickly evaporated. There was a feeling that, although there have been tragic events in the past, we are after all neighbors with thousands of years of shared history. I realized that through dialogue, there is no obstacle to understanding each other.
At a meeting with students at Peking University, for example, the atmosphere was initially very tense. As soon as the discussion started, the students confronted us with the apparently anti-Chinese actions of Japanese politicians. As we spoke to each other, though, feelings softened and lightened, and, in the end, youths from both sides departed with a strong determination to help build Japan-China friendship.
Above all, just being among Chinese people, in their environment--standing in the massive expanse of Tiananmen Square; eating mutton kebabs at a local food stall each night; watching the rivers of bicycles flow down the streets each day and feeling the abundant energy of the Chinese people--these simple sights and impressions have given me the precious sense of closeness to the lives of ordinary Chinese people.
[ Courtesy January 2007 SGI Quarterly ]