Meet Mao Danqing, the Professor-Turned-Publisher Selling Japanese Culture to China


Since it was launched in 2011, the Chinese monthly Zhiri (Know Japan) has been selling 50,000 copies or more of each issue. The man behind the magazine is Mao Danqing, a university professor a well-known writer and media personality in China and Japan.

Mao Danqing

Author. Professor at Kobe International University. Born in Beijing in 1962. After working at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Institute of Philosophy, Mao came to Japan for further studies at Mie University. Zhiri 知日 (Know Japan), a monthly magazine introducing Japanese culture to Chinese readers, was launched in 2011.

A man with a self-appointed mission to “show Japan as it really is,” Professor Mao Danqing is a popular blogger in his native China, with more than 600,000 followers on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. We spoke to Mao, a close friend of Nobel Prize–winning author Mo Yan, about his affection for Japan and his efforts to introduce its culture to young readers in China.

Stylishly dressed and sporting a neatly trimmed white goatee, Mao welcomes us into his office at Kobe International University. With a red banner in the corner advertising his magazine and a selection of his books laid out on the table, the room looks more like the center of a creative publishing enterprise than an ordinary scholar’s study. With the sea visible from the window behind him, Mao settles down to tell us about his work to battle Chinese misconceptions about Japan.

China’s First Specialist Magazine About Japan

MAO DANQING Our aim is to introduce readers to the real Japan. We launched in Beijing in 2011—just when tensions were rising over the collision between a Chinese fishing boat and the Japan Coast Guard near the Senkaku Islands. In fact, it was the atmosphere of distrust and hysteria that gave me the idea. I thought there was a need for an attractive, fact-based magazine that would introduce readers in China to another side of Japan from the one they were used to seeing in the Chinese media. When I mentioned it to So Sei, the young Chinese editor who’s now the editor-in-chief, he leaped at the idea. So that’s how we started. He’s never studied Japanese, but he’s a huge Murakami Haruki fan. He’s read all the books in Chinese translation, and knows the stories like the back of his hand. We went for a few drinks and hit it off right away. Ours is the very first Chinese magazine to deal exclusively with Japan and Japanese culture.

INTERVIEWER I understand that the 10 or so issues you have published to date have all sold at least 50,000 copies. And some have sold double that. These are impressive figures for a new magazine on such a specialized subject.

MAO Our editor is based in the heart of Beijing. So he’s in the perfect position to know what Chinese readers are looking for. He watched the anti-Japanese demonstrations unfold from up close. My job is to hunt down resources and information here in Japan. But we want to do more than simply entertain Chinese readers. We try to come up with subjects that will interest and surprise Japanese readers as well. If I can get Japanese people to read a magazine about Japan, then I figure I must be doing a pretty good job. Even if they can’t read Chinese, we try to make sure that Japanese readers can get the idea of what we’re about from the photos, illustrations, and appearance of the magazine.

Consuming Japanese Culture

Each issue of the magazine is organized around a single subject. Topics covered so far have included the Meiji Restoration, uniforms, cats, railroads, monsters, and fashion. The issue on cats was the biggest seller to date, selling more than 100,000 copies.

Mao says he spends several hours or more trawling bookstores whenever his editor comes to Japan. He says the two rarely disagree about what should go in the magazine. “The idea is to present Japan as it is,” he says. “You’ll never put out a good magazine if you waste your time arguing about every little thing.”

The latest issue focuses on Zen. Mao says the main aim is to discuss “universal values and a shared human consciousness,” but admits that there is another message behind the choice of subject. “Every country needs a space like a Japanese Zen temple, where people can go for tranquility and reflection,” he says.

INTERVIEWER Opinion surveys regularly suggest that the distrust and animosity between Japan and China are only getting worse. What view of Japanese culture do young people in China have today?

MAO Japanese culture satisfies an appetite for knowledge. I think we’re seeing the beginning of a new era in China, in which consuming Japanese culture will be really important. About 70-80% of the foreign literature in bookstores in Beijing and Shanghai is Japanese novels. Books from Japan are by far the most popular. And it’s not just novels—the same is true of fashion and women’s magazines. The Senkaku Islands dispute notwithstanding, there is no doubt that young people and academics in China are more interested in Japan than ever before.

We put out our first issue just three months after the fishing boat collision. People thought we were crazy! But we have been able to make a success of it, thanks to our supporters. When you look at Japan-China relations, you have to look at all sides, not just one.

Living Through the Kobe Earthquake

After graduating from Peking University with a degree East Asian Languages in 1985, Mao spent two years in an elite position as an assistant at the CASS Institute of Philosophy. He came to Japan in 1987 to study at Mie University. He was 25 years old at the time. Before long, he started working at a fish market. “I was pretty much broke,” Mao remembers. “So I knew I had to do something!” Leaving his elite past behind, Mao joined the regular workforce. From the fish market he moved to a trading company. A few years later, he was earning serious money.

Mao used some of his disposable income to travel around Japan. Escaping from the ivory tower proved a formative decision, allowing Mao to experience the Japanese landscape at first hand, with all his senses. Out of his travels came Nippon Mushi no Me Kikō (Seeing Japan Through Bug Eyes), a collection of essays describing Mao’s discovery of the “real Japan,” published in 1998. The book won an award the following year.

Mao’s writing goes far beyond the usual confines of the Japanese literary world. Rather than uttering pronouncements from on high about the habits and idiosyncrasies of Japan and its people, his work portrays the daily lives of ordinary people. He presents Japanese culture and nature as he finds them.

INTERVIEWER You were in Kobe when the Hanshin Awaji Earthquake hit in 1995, and wrote very movingly about what you saw.

MAO The house I was living in was damaged in the earthquake. Fires were breaking out all over the city, but the fire trucks couldn’t get through because of the traffic. And there was no water. I remember seeing a man standing outside a burning house, shouting desperately that his daughter was trapped inside. Those scenes will stay with me as long as I live. Even when the firefighters arrived, there was nothing they could do without water. The man eventually came out holding his daughter’s lifeless body. The firemen were lined up in front of the house. The man had watched his own daughter die. You’d expect him to be furious.

But instead of shouting or screaming, he suddenly gave a deep bow and thanked the firefighters for trying to save his daughter. “I thank you on behalf of my daughter,” he said, and then walked quietly away. Everyone was so surprised. My eyes filled with tears. This is the true Japanese spirit of toughness and endurance, I thought.

Getting Your Message Across

MAO I think that a sense of resilience and defiance is definitely a part of the Japanese character. Maybe too much so in some cases. The flip side, perhaps, is that people in Japan are often not good at expressing themselves clearly or standing up for themselves. I have a few favorite keywords that come up time and again when looking at Japanese culture. One of them is “craft.” People in Japan tend to become completely focused on something. There’s a perfectionist streak that demands high standards. Another is “ritual.” A festival, for example. People participate in the same activity at the same time every year.

Together, these qualities are the essence of continuity. Continuity and conservatism are not conducive to forceful expression and standing up for yourself. To keep up with the rapid pace of change today, though, it’s essential to be able to make things happen. And that means being able to express yourself.

INTERVIEWER Do you think this tendency puts Japanese people at a disadvantage in terms of cross-cultural communication?

MAO One of the keyword of our age is “diffusion.” I think there’s a lack of this in Japan. Self-assertion is essential. Young people in China are the complete opposite. They have a remarkable ability to get things going—even if they can’t sustain it yet. Often there’s a tendency in China for things to get off to a roaring start, only to break down and peter out before they are complete. There’s a lack of persistence and application.

Doubts About the Effectiveness of “Cool Japan”

Professor Mao teaches urban environment and tourism studies at Kobe International University. He is also involved in various projects and initiatives for such organizations as the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism and tourism-related businesses. This experience of government-sponsored efforts to promote the country has made Mao skeptical about the potential for the government’s official “Cool Japan” campaign.

INTERVIEWER In an international, multicultural era, cultural diplomacy is more important than ever. What is your opinion of Japan’s efforts to promote international exchange and tourism?

MAO I’ve worked with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism for several years. Frankly, there have been too many changes of personnel. If they are going to have any real impact in terms of improving the country’s image, cultural specialists have to be involved over the long term. They have to train experts who will work on the frontlines. Culture is something intangible. If I sing you a song, that in itself is not culture. It’s just a hint. Compare that with the kind of lingering impact that stays with you after you read a novel. Now that’s culture!

INTERVIEWER Would you agree that the government’s policies and methodology are too vague?

MAO All countries try to improve their image through culture. But it doesn’t always work. I have my doubts about the whole Cool Japan thing. I think it’s a mistake to assume that anime and collectible figures will be as popular overseas as they are in Japan. People’s cultural background is different. Apparently the Indian version of the baseball manga Kyojin no Hoshi (Suraj: The Rising Star) has been a big hit. But in the Indian version, they’ve substituted cricket for baseball. This meant not just changing a few lines of dialogue but altering the whole storyline. That’s the level of respect for the other culture that you need. You have to establish your product in some kind of context.

Think of it like this. Say you take a Japanese plant over to India. There’s no guarantee that it will thrive. The water or climate might not be favorable. The government has set aside a big budget for Cool Japan, but what have the results been? Has Japan’s reputation or image improved internationally? You could say that Murakami Haruki has singlehandedly done more to raise Japan’s profile than any government scheme. And he’s never had any official support!

The big breakthroughs for Japanese culture have been the two M’s: manga and Murakami Haruki. I think more work needs to be done to analyze why his books have become so popular all around the world. Japanese cultural policy should look to emulate his example.

Living in an Era of Information Overload

INTERVIEWER There’s a lot of talk about “global human resources” these days. But of course this means more than simply being able to speak English. What kind of skills do you think will be particularly important for Japan in the years to come?

MAO You have to know where you’re coming from first before you can think of anything cross-cultural. You don’t become globalized just by studying English. You need to make sure you know your own history and your own culture better than anyone else before you can start branching further afield. Developing a global outlook is not only about language; it comes from within.

Mere information isn’t enough to make one global, either. We’re overwhelmed by floods of information streaming in through our phones and computers. There’s too much to choose from, and we struggle to keep up. The time has come to get rid of what we don’t need, and guard ourselves against information overload. It’s important to keep our identity intact and not constantly give in to the temptation of more information. We need to work to understand of our own culture. In the long term, that’s the best way to develop a truly global workforce.

(Based on a May 28, 2013, interview in Japanese. Interviewer Harano Jōji is representative director of the Nippon Communications Foundation.)

Kobe Murakami Haruki Mo Yan Chinichi Mao Danqing Kobe International University International exchange