The good Japanese

Mark O’Neill – The South China Morning Post

Copyright The South China Morning Post
Amid the anti-Japan hysteria sweeping the mainland this year, there is one man whose history the official media will not recount. Kanzo Uchiyama first arrived in Shanghai in 1913, and travelled round the country selling eye medicine for a Japanese company. He liked China so much that, in 1916, he moved to Shanghai and established a bookshop that has a worthy place in Chinese literary history. He became friends with many of the most prominent Chinese writers and intellectuals, especially Lu Xun , who was a close friend, and also wrote widely about China.
During the Japanese army’s occupation of the city, he used his shop to hide Chinese intellectuals, enabling them to escape to safer parts of the country and saving them from interrogation and possibly execution. Uchiyama remained in Shanghai throughout the war, helped with the repatriation of Japanese after the surrender, and wanted to stay on. But the Nationalists expelled him in 1947 because he knew too many left-wing writers.
At home, he continued to work for Sino-Japanese relations and, aged 74, was invited to Beijing in 1959, the 10th anniversary of the founding of the new state. At a welcoming banquet in Beijing, he suffered a brain haemorrhage and died the next day. He was buried in a cemetery in Shanghai, as he had requested.
A plaque depicting Uchiyama and Lu adorns the wall of a bank building in northern Shanghai, marking the site of the bookshop. A memorial room inside contains artefacts of that era.
Uchiyama’s life is a poignant testimony to what history might have been. A devout Christian and a socialist, he started selling religious books and then Japanese books and magazines, including works translated from western languages. After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Japan became the first foreign country where Chinese students went to study. It was a model of a formerly closed Asian country that had modernised and defeated a major European power – Russia – in war.
For thousands of Chinese, Japanese was the medium through which they came to understand the west. The most prominent of these was Lu. Uchiyama described their friendship as “the greatest joy in my life”.
Uchiyama knew nearly all the leading Chinese writers of his day and shared with them a passion for contemporary Chinese poetry and literature. For his audience at home, he wrote extensively about these writers, everyday Chinese life and culture.
What a tragedy that it was the right wing of the army and not the attitude of Uchiyama that decided his country’s treatment of China, setting off a vicious cycle that has continued without end until today.

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