HONG KONG — The weeks leading up to Chinese New Year are a time of celebration and confusion. Workers—white collar, blue collar, all collars—scramble to purchase bus and train tickets to journey home, where rest, food, and family await. But before the 3 billion passenger trips lead to well-earned homecomings and reunions at family dinner tables across the nation, it is customary for employers to host some kind of celebration. Sometimes it’s a nice meal. Sometimes it’s a feast with gifts and red packets stuffed with cash bonuses. The CEO of JD.com, a Chinese e-commerce company, handed out ¥10 million (US$1.6 million) to his staff. But a company called Qihoo 360 did something to top that.
Qihoo is a Chinese tech powerhouse, offering antivirus software, a web browser, and a mobile application store. The year 2014 was a little rough for them. In the past 12 months, their price per share in the New York Stock Exchange reached a high point of $123.73. As I type this, it’s trading at less than half that. Nonetheless, they had a (Chinese) year-end bash, sending off their employees with all manner of prizes, including, apparently, Apple products, a trip to Bali, and a Porsche 911. But what caught the eyes of Chinese social media users was the grand prize: a night with Julia Kyoka, a 27-year-old Japanese porn star who has been in the adult video business since she quit working as a nurse in 2010.
Presumably, only male employees were eligible for the special date.
It was probably a hoax, but it reflects a notable trend in China: Japan, as a nation, may not have won over the hearts and minds of China, but Japanese porn is more popular than ever.
Pornography isn’t just censored in China. It’s illegal. And the Chinese Communist Party sees it as an important enough issue to hire officers whose sole purpose is to watch hundreds of adult films every week and record their contents, scene by scene. But that’s just a fig leaf, and fodder for the Party’s propaganda. China is hardly puritan, all manner of vice is rampant, and pornography is unsurprisingly easy to come by. Anyone with an Internet connection can download it; the censors simply cannot keep up with the amount of porn that is online. Hawkers with stocks of pirated DVDs have them stashed away, ready to be exchanged for a few bills. Even Chinese news websites splash advertisements and photo essays that feature Japanese adult film performers, undoubtedly without the subjects’ permission; anything that draws a few clicks for ad revenue is fair game.
A woman who manages a pirated DVD shop in Shanghai tells me, “Julia Kyoka is popular, but so are Yui Hatano because she looks like [Taiwanese model and actress] Lin Chi Ling. And of course, our best seller— [former porn star] Sora Aoi! We try our best to get the videos without pixilation. Customers always prefer those if we have them.” (Japanese porn films typically have the genitals slightly obscured.)
Their fans in China reached out, and the actresses waved back. They have Chinese social media accounts. They’ve had cameos in Chinese film or television productions. They’ve made special appearances in China. Aoi raised funds for victims of the 2010 Yushu earthquake in China’s Qinghai province.
But mention China and Japan in the same sentence, and all sorts of emotions run high on both coasts. If East Asia is the room, then the elephant would be an amalgam of the wars between the two nations, general nationalistic sniping and snobbery, the Rape of Nanjing, the issue of comfort women, and the current geopolitical and military tensions stemming from sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. It’s an elephant in a constant state of musth.
Last November, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met at the APEC summit in Beijing. Neither man seemed to want to be seen in public with the other. Regarding the maritime disputes surrounding the island chain, they agreed to disagree so they could feed their respective constituents different stories.
In 2012, anti-Japan protests took place in several Chinese cities, including Beijing. Storefronts selling Japanese goods were vandalized and Japanese cars were destroyed. In a country where national security and societal harmony are painstaking priorities, the police were suspiciously absent. Anti-Japan sentiment proliferates just as Japanese pornography punches through the Great Firewall.
So, while the CCP may run the country, Sora Aoi might just be Japan’s most famous daughter in China, and she commands the hearts of its lonely men. Harnessing her popularity, Aoi waded into the waters of Sino-Japan reconciliation. A couple years ago, she posted an image of a piece of brush calligraphy that said “Japan-China friendship” on her Weibo account. The post quickly went viral.
Cracking virality is no simple feat, especially given the cross-cultural barriers. Reactions were mixed. In true clicktivist fashion, many hailed her words. Others shot back, “Don’t forget our country’s shame,” a line used commonly by those who bear a blanket grudge against Japan and all things Japanese.
For these Chinese men—millions of them, if torrent trackers are an indicator—the view of Japan as a nation, as a culture, is tempered. But this perception is shaped by the pornography they consume, pornography that generally paints women as submissive, malleable, to be tamed and degraded, in a country with virtually no sex education.
From Shenzhen to Shanghai to westward Chengdu, the films of Kyoka, Hatano, and Aoi—adult or otherwise—are still best sellers. “My male friends all share their films when we are at school,” a university student in Shenzhen surnamed Lin told me. “The fact that it’s from Japan just makes it cooler.” Then he asked, “Hey, since you live in Hong Kong [which is unaffected by the Great Firewall], can you get me a few of their videos?”
When hordes of young men go crazy over Japanese media, drive Toyotas, order Pocky snacks in bulk online, binge-watch the anime series Naruto, travel with Pentax and Fujifilm cameras, and shop in Muji, it’s difficult to take the anti-Japan posturing of the CCP seriously. “The country’s shame” that the CCP’s Publicity Department harps on about has little to do with Chinese life in 2015. Repeating the phrase like a broken record might energize the most radicalized neophytes of the Party, but a few deep breaths later, they realize that the ghosts of Chinese past are just mist.