Chasing the Moon

Stories by Akiko Sugimoto

Possed by the Magic of Kanji
Witch in Training
Landscapes of Stone
Going North
Mao at Baiyunguan
My 1997
Guizi and Ahn
Three Chinese Stories

Chasing the Moon (5)

By Sugimoto Akiko

Going North

A version of this story appeared in
The East, 41(5), January/February 2006, pages 31-35

What struck me most about the Chinese continent, which I first saw from the air on my flight to Beijing, was the vast brown fields. It was just what I had imagined, having seen the sweeping sorghum fields in films like Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum.

I took a taxi from the airport into Beijing. I knew it was a major city, yet on the way I saw gangs of men, naked from the waist up, shoveling sand and mud into trucks, expanding and building highways. China was much less developed than I had thought. This was my first impression of Asia outside Japan.

Meeting Zhou Enlai

"You're Japanese, right?" the taxi driver said on we moved through heavy traffic to Beijing University, where I was going to study.

"Yes," I said, glad for the break in the silence and a chance to speak Chinese.

"Hai, hai, Dai Nippon Teikoku, banzai!", he said. I was totally shocked. He sounded like a character in an old war movie about the Great Empire of Japan. Looking back, I see that ride into Beijing as the beginning of my loss of political innocence. For the first in my life, I was forced to think of Japan's responsibility in what many Chinese call "The Greater East Asian War" or "The Fifteen Year War" of 1931-1945.

It was all I could do to understand the drift of what the taxi driver was saying in a language I had not yet mastered. I tried my best to converse with him.

"Why did you say that?" I said.

He started telling me some of the "horrible things" Japan had done in China. The puppet state it set up in Manchuria. The massacre at Nanjing.

"But all that's past," he said. "The Chinese have decided to forgive the Japanese. We'll never forget, but we'll forgive."

Those were the words of Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), the premier of China under Mao Zedong (1893-1976). The taxi driver even looked a bit like Premier Zhou. I remember generously tipping him when he let me off in front of the university.

"But you're Japanese . . ."

Especially during the earlier months of my stay in China, taxi drivers would often guess I was Japanese and say something about the war. They would usually end with Zhou Enlai's words. They wouldn't say "Premier Zhou said blah blah," though. They always spoke as though expressing their own opinion on behalf of all Chinese.

"But what about you yourself?" I would say. "Do you dislike Japanese?"

"I'll never forget what Japan did, but I forgive Japan," they would say, just repeating themselves.

"But it's not something I did," I would say. "The war ended fifty years ago."

"That's true. But you're Japanese, and . . ." many would say, then repeat that they could not forget. When pushed like this, all I could do was apologize.

"What Japan did was really bad," I would say. "I'm very sorry. What more can I say? What can I do to atone for what happened?"

The taxi drivers would brighten a bit.

"Well, it's not something you did," they would say. "And though we will never forget, we'll forgive."

"Arise! Arise! Arise!"

After my Chinese became good enough that people would think I was Chinese, I stopped saying I was Japanese. I also began riding busses, so I was able to avoid taxis and the risk that a driver would realize I wasn't a native speaker. Still, those early conversations with taxi drivers weighed heavily on my mind.

It is fine to discuss the war and related problems. If there were facts I hadn't been able to learn in Japan, I wanted to be taught them. But most Chinese who expressed their feelings about Japan spoke like the taxi drivers. And I wondered how I could possibly forge close human ties with cyborgs who all said the same thing.

One day, on the campus of Beijing University, while walking with a Chinese friend in the Japanese language department, we came upon a group of students in military fatigues. They were singing the national anthem of the People's Republic of China (PRC) while running as part of their obligatory training.

I knew the anthem by heart and began singing it to myself.

Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves;
with our very flesh and blood
let us build our new Great Wall!

"Do you know what that is?" my friend said. "It's a slogan calling for Chinese to rise up so they wouldn't become slaves of the Japanese. I can't believe I'm hearing you sing it. I mean, you're Japanese!"

My friend had said this half in jest. Yet I was embarrassed by my own ignorance. I had no idea that the song and lyrics, provisionally adopted as the national anthem of PRC shortly before its founding in 1949, was written in 1935 when the nationalists and communists of the Republic of China (ROC) were struggling against Japanese imperialism.

Knowing that the national anthem of China was essentially an expression of apprehension and even enmity toward Japan, made me feel hopeless about the prospects for cordial relations between the two countries. I had come to China believing in "Japan-China friendship". But the more I now heard such words, the emptier they sounded.

Sunday matinees

On Sundays I watched movies on television in the dorm with other students. The movies were mostly about the Sino-Japanese War -- or the Second Sino-Japanese War as the one in the 20th century is also called, to distinguish it from the First Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895. Chinese actors played terrifying Japanese soldiers who were always bullying Chinese and screaming "Hai, hai!" and "Baka!" and "Dai Nippon Teikoku, banzai!" The taxi drivers must have seen the same movies.

Among the other foreign students at Beijing University was a professor from a college in Japan who was particularly knowledgeable about Chinese politics. I asked him why, with all the interesting films in China, they had to show the war movies on Sunday.

"There are lots of national minorities in China," the professor said. "The authorities live in fear of uprisings, and in order to keep the country together, they need to create an enemy."

Ah, I thought. This is what politics is about.

But if the object of Zhou Enlai's "forgive but not forget" remark was "friendship", then what exactly about Japan are the people of China supposed to forgive? Especially in view of what Zhou said on the occasion of the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations in 1972 -- that both the Chinese and Japanese peoples were victims of the war of aggression conducted by Japanese militarists.

Beijing Friendship Hotel

I was not alone in my worries. Most of my Japanese classmates, too, had problems talking with Chinese about the past. But I found some Japanese ex-pats who had personally witnessed much of China's recent past, who had lived in China through the years of Japanese imperialism and the revolution that followed.

Sometime after coming to China I befriended a Japanese woman who resided in the Beijing Friendship Hotel, in the northeast quarter of the city, not far from the campus. On the wall of her room, brushed on a framed card, were the graphs •ΔŽυ (mishou).

•Δ means "rice" but the graph is also used to symbolize ”ͺ\”ͺ or "88", while Žυ means "longevity". Since eight is a lucky number in China, it is doubly auspicious for someone to reach the age of eighty-eight, and •ΔŽυ means to celebrate one's eighty-eighth birthday.

Also on the birthday card were 88 repetitions of the graph Žυ, each brushed in a different style by a friend. From this I knew how much some people thought of this woman, who was then ninety years old.

She was one of the foreign "zhuanjia" (κ‰Ζ) or "experts" who had lived in China for decades and come to be loved and respected by the people of China. In fact, she and her husband, both Japanese, had come to China in the 1930s, full of the sort of proletarian sympathies for which some people were then being persecuted in Japan.

These older foreigners, who had left their various countries and settled in China, had worked for China during the war with Japan. Most were intellectuals, and during the Great Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, many were sent to the country, where they labored alongside Chinese who were targeted by the Red Guards.

When the Cultural Revolution wound down, Mao Zedong called the foreign experts back to Beijing. They were made to reside in apartments provided for them in the garden-like compound of the Beijing Frindship Hotel, which was built in 1954 to accommodate post-revolution foreign experts mostly from the Soviet Union. The state provides them with living expenses, in addition to room and board, and even Chinese maids.

Ex-pat tea time

Two elderly journalists, one Dutch and the other German, also resided in the Beijing Friendship Hotel as "experts" who had lived in China for many decades. They had use of a large courtyard with slides and swings where their grandchildren could frolic and play when visiting from The Netherlands and Germany. Though they were still nationals of these countries, they could not return.

The elderly experts were always friendly and greeted each other in Chinese. They talked about which hotels had the tastiest breads, and which beauty saloons on what streets gave the best hair cuts, and the like. When I thought of the horrible ordeals they had gone through, though, I felt dizzy.

The ninety-year-old woman, whose husband had died some years before, introduced me to another expert friend, a Japanese man who had worked for the Ministry of Finance in Japan. He and his wife had come to China in pursuit of communism, and they had been employed by a publisher when the Cultural Revolution began.

They were sent to Sichuan province along with other Chinese to work, and they suffered from hunger like other Chinese. Then their son, who had been born in China, was pulled into a machine at a kettle factory and died. Then she had died, leaving the man alone. Though he had come on his own volition, I could not help but sympathize with him.

The man sometimes visited my elderly friend in her room when I was their. He was always appropriately dressed in a simple but fine qipao (ŠψεΪ). He would calmly pull up the hems of the garments, sit in a rattan chair, and gently caress a sleeve while sipping jasmine tea and talking about the old days. Then he would leave. It was difficult, just watching him there, to imagine his painful experiences.

"I've come to Japan in search of the origins of Chinese graphs," I said to him once. This led to a conversation about student life at Beijing University. "Chinese youth have really changed," he said, smiling at what I had told him.

The Yellow River

There was, however, sometime more pressing I wanted to ask these Japanese ex-pats, who loved China so much they planned to leave their bones there -- who accepted everything about the country, good and bad -- and had been consigned to live out their lives at Beijing Friendship Hotel.

"Do you think it's possible for China and Japan to become real friends?" I asked my elderly friend one day while walking with her in the courtyard of her apartment. She always smiled and spoke nostalgically about Japan but had more praise for China.

"It would be nice if Japan were more at ease with itself like China. China's like the flow of the Yellow River (Huang He ‰©‰Ν). Politics in China won't change in a hundred years. Things may seem to change on the surface, but the deeper currents run pretty much the same. China's a great country. I don't think Japan will be able to rival it."

"But isn't Japan superior in terms of economics, technology, and education?" I would counter. "And isn't China having to change deeper inside in order to get along with America?"

"China's slowly moved forward," she would say, still smiling. "It just doesn't worry about little things."

Once she pointed out the yellow blossoms of some forsythia along the course of her daily walk and remarked how nice they were. Her quiet smile reflected her belief that her life had been like something left to the flow of a river.

I, too, wanted to live without worrying about little things. But I also wanted to find true human friendship in China before going back to Japan.


The one place in China I really wanted to know personally was Manchuria. My maternal grandmother had returned to Japan from Harbin at the end of the war. I wanted to see with my own eyes the land of those Chinese words that even now sometimes come from her mouth -- like "tongpu" (“€•…, doufu) for "tofu" (“€•…) and "Puyou!" (•s—v, buyao) for "Iranai yo!" (—v‚η‚Θ‚’‚ζ). And I wanted to see that flow of ice called the Black Dragon River (Heilong Jiang •—³]), also known as the Amur, which meandered through the northernmost reaches of Asia.

One night, in a coldness that froze my spine, I boarded a steam train headed for the icy towns north of Beijing. In the station was a large poster of the body of a man who had been blown up by some explosives he had been carrying. The slogan at the bottom urged people to be careful about their baggage. The spectacle made me feel tense inside, as though a war were starting.

The stations flew by and the temperature plunged as the train chugged further north. At Harbin station was an ice cream seller with ice cream bars on top of his box.

Harbin is close to the border with Russia. The city was buried in snow and, unlike most other places in China, the roofs were red and peaked like long mountains. Shops sold fur caps, heavy military coats, and old watches from Russia.

After seeing a bit of the town I rode a reindeer-drawn sled across the Black Dragon River to the border with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). In the distance were soldiers with rifles guarding the border. In the towns nearest the border, most of the signs were in Korean, and I heard very little Chinese.

Some Koreans regard dog meat as very nutritious and use it in their soup. In one restaurant, a dog that had been broiled black, its sharp teeth gleaming, was dropped on the table where some diners were eating, and they began to haggle over the price.

Qingjiao rousi

I had come to the far north of China to see where my grandmother had lived. But there were few signs that Japanese had ever settled there.

In Harbin, in what appeared to be an ordinary Chinese restaurant, I was totally surprised by the qingjiao rousi (Βž£“χγN), or shredded meat with sweet peppers, and the chaofan (ΰu”Ρ), or fried rice. They tasted just like they do in Chinese restaurants in Japan -- a taste I had not found in ordinary eateries in either Beijing or Shanghai.

Beijing food is far from the "Chinese" people eat in Japan. They use lots of oil but don't bother much with seasonings. So why should I encounter, in Harbin, the sort of taste I associated with high-class Chinese restaurants in Japan?

It turned out that the owner of the restaurant had once worked for a Japanese cook when Manchuria was under Japanese control. So traveling all that way north, I had quite unexpectedly tasted a trace of the life my grandmother's generation had left there.

Taking my time, I crossed the Black Dragon again and made my way to another town with a station. Like the Yellow River, it is so wide in places that you cannot see one bank from the other.

Riding along the river, the white breath of the reindeer trailing over the ice, I thought of the vastness of China and wondered how a country like Japan was supposed to survive in its shadow. Just thinking about the future began to depress me. And that feeling has not abated.

Popular culture

Not long after I returned to Beijing, I heard some Chinese friends singing songs that had become really big hits in the city. My friends told me they were adaptations of songs by Nakajima Miyuki and Kiroro. I had recognized them, I said. They went on about how "awesome" and "cool" Japanese music was. Certain brands of Japanese portable CD players were "the best".

It was nice to hear them say good things about Japan. But something would make me recall the elderly ex-pats living in Beijing Friendship Hotel and the taste of the Chinese food I had eaten near the border with DPRK. And I would remember all that had happened between Japan and China in the not so distant past.

The "war responsibility" issue has been a cause of friction between Japan and the two Koreas as well. There were many students from the Republic of Korea (ROK) at Beijing University, and I witnessed quite a bit of bitterness in the attitudes of some toward Japan.

All the entrance doors of the rooms in the dorm had been painted white, and some Japanese students, without thinking very deeply, had put Japanese flags on their doors. Some ROK students protested. "Remove them," they said. "Why?" wondered the Japanese students. "Because they remind us of when Japan disgraced and invaded Korea," the ROK students said.

But now, in Japan, ROK television dramas, movies, pop music, and food are in vogue. Many ROK actors and singer are coming to Japan to feed the frenzy of interest in "Kankoku" (ŠΨ‘, ROK) or "Koria" (ƒRƒŠƒA, Korea more generally). And Japanese singers are selling many CDs in ROK.

Until recently, ROK strictly forbade the promotion of Japanese popular culture in ROK media. But these restrictions have been relaxed. Now there are even karaoke contests in which Koreans can sing Japanese songs -- in Japanese, no less -- something some Koreans still consider an act of ethnic treachery.

Going with the flow

In both China and ROK, young people are saying it's okay to be interested in things Japanese, because the music, fashions, food, whatever, are fantastic. This natural flow of interest somewhat reassures me that friendships between nations are possible.

At the level of commercial and other economic exchanges, people throughout Asia are more concerned about the bottom line. They are more likely to believe that corporate profits and technology transfers are the truer measures of national interest -- and less apt to let lingering animosities about the past interfere with the conduct of business in the present.

The ability of Chinese enterprises to work with Japanese counterparts has a lot to do with the thinking of Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), who said "Whether a cat is white or black, if it catches mice it's a good cat". China-Japan relations have also improved since Zhou Enlai's pronouncement about forgiving, but not forgetting, Japan's actions in the past.

Yet what will happen if people think only about present profits and pleasures? And neglect or are apathetic about history, or otherwise prefer ignorance to knowledge about the past? Can "friendships" based on purely materialistic relationships be deep and lasting?

In my heart of hearts, I would rather not dwell on politics. Or expose myself to the bitter cold of the icy flow of the Black Dragon River. I would much prefer to remember the wisdom of my mentor in the Beijing Friendship Hotel, who said I ought to place my trust in the slow flow of the Yellow River.

Of course I would like to think that, as long as the Yellow River flows, Asia -- and China-Japan relations -- will be okay. But the pace of progress in China is anything but slow. And reports are that the Yellow River is drying up, and otherwise dying, as Beijing and the rest of northern China gulp more and more water -- in the name of "catching up" with the rest of the industrialized world, including Japan.

(Translated by William Wetherall)

Sugimoto Akiko has had an interest in literature since childhood. She studied philosophy at Beijing University in China, and graduated from Temple University in Tokyo, where she studied comparative religion, psychology, and Asian studies. She hopes to continue writing, with a sense of humor and romance, about the lights and shadows of human experience. The writer Inoue Yasushi (ˆδγ–υ 1907-1991) was her grandmother's older brother.