Has a muddle over mixed marriage marred the UK’s relationship with Asia?

The most popular news website in the UK, operated by the BBC, carried a rather strange story relating to Japan which became its most read article on one day this week.

The story was based on something the newly appointed British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said about his wife Lucia during his first official visit to China.

According to the BBC, Mr Hunt was at a meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, when he said, in English: “My wife is Japanese – my wife is Chinese. Sorry, that’s a terrible mistake to make.”

“My wife is Japanese – my wife is Chinese. Sorry, that’s a terrible mistake to make” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt

Impressive skill

In trying to explain the muddle, Mr Hunt said that he and Mr Yi spoke in Japanese during the state banquet.

As a learner of Japanese for many years, that information impressed me. I know that is not easy to keep up one’s language skills. It takes constant practice. Mr Hunt has a busy job in politics and is the father to two young children.

According to the profile he wrote for his parliamentary profile, he spent two years in Japan in the 1990s and his main purpose was to learn the language. “I struggled every day to master the writing system – you need to learn 3,000 characters to read a Japanese newspaper. It’s definitely a comparable challenge to getting elected,” he wrote in 2005.

To pass the highest level of the Japanese language certificate, candidates need to know around 2,000 kanji (Chinese characters). This is a very rare achievement among foreigners. I know some kanji but I quickly forget them, which is why I always say the hardest aspect of learning Japanese is memorising Chinese.

This is because much of the Japanese written language is based on an old form of Chinese – although there are profound differences between contemporary written Japanese and the writing system which the Chinese now use. Furthermore, the spoken languages have almost nothing in common – so it’s interesting to hear that Mr Li from China can speak Japanese, too.

Was it a bad mistake?

Returning to Mr Hunt’s remarks about his wife, the BBC’s story, written by Helier Cheung, asks why it was such a “bad mistake” to muddle Japan and China in this context.

Ms Cheung claims that China and Japan have “had a particularly bitter relationship for decades. They fought each other in two Sino-Japanese wars, and are also in a dispute over territory in the East China Sea.”

She goes on to claim that “among China’s older generation, there are plenty of people who are reluctant to buy Japanese products or go to Japan on holiday – because they accuse Japan of playing down its wartime atrocities.”

Outdated picture

This seems a rather outdated and negative interpretation of the situation. There are a record number of Chinese tourists in Japan at the moment and the political and diplomatic relationship between the countries is in the best state it has been for years.

The Chinese premier Li Keqiang met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo earlier this year, and Mr Abe is expected to go to Beijing in the autumn. The Chinese president Xi Jinping may well go to Japan next year.

The Financial Times also covered Mr Hunt’s visit to China, focussing on the business and trade implications.

The FT’s Tom Mitchell did not write much about Mr Hunt’s wife but noted in his article that “painful memories of Japan’s occupation of China in the 1930s and 1940s are kept alive by government propaganda and nationalist activists.”

Although the Chinese state-media can be belligerent in its rhetoric towards Japan, the Japanese rarely stoke the resentment in return. For the sake of Britain’s international reputation in Asia, a Foreign Secretary who is friendly towards both China and Japan is the best person to represent the UK.