Growing up in rural China, where anti-Japanese sentiment raged, Karoline Kan developed an unlikely friendship.

One Thursday in December, I got a call from a cousin in Tianjin, who had planned on taking her 8-year-old daughter Jing to Beijing for the weekend. “Sorry, we have to cancel,” she told me. “This coming Saturday Jing has to go to school. You must have heard—all the students have been asked to attend a major school ceremony in honor of the anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre. Seems like it’s getting big this year.”

I put down the phone and turned on my computer. News headlines flashed online: China’s first “National Day for the Nanjing Massacre” was everywhere. I checked WeChat—a popular Chinese social networking app—and saw people posting and re-posting nationalistic, hate-provoking articles, with comments ranging from relatively moderate (“I will never forget what the Japanese did in that war”) to extreme (“I want to throw an atomic bomb on Japan.”)

This stirred memories of my school days in a small village near the port city of Tianjin and what we were taught about China’s difficult history with Japan. Like many Chinese, when I was growing up I felt fear, hate, and confusion toward the Japanese. But I also remembered the time I spent with a person who sparked my fascination and, ultimately, love for the same country. I couldn’t help but think: What would she feel if she was still in China today? And what hardships had she experienced during the sixty years she lived in a small Chinese village surrounded by people who regarded the Japanese as enemies and cruel barbarians?

The author with her mother, aunt, and cousin on the road to her grandparents’ village in 1993. Photo courtesy of Karoline Kan

I called her Grandma Ono. She was a Japanese woman who married a Chinese farmer in my grandparents’ village. I don’t know her real name. I decided to call her Grandma Ono after I watched an anti-Japanese film a character named Ono. I thought it sounded much better than the term the villagers had used to describe her and her half-Chinese children: “Little Japs.”

As a child, I had no idea what it meant to be Japanese and what it meant to be Chinese; I didn’t know why they all treated her differently. She farmed in the field, planted flowers in the yard, and cooked meals—just like the rest of the women in the village did. If there was something different, it was mostly her accent, the fact that she was alone most of the time, and that people in the village often talked about her behind her back.

One day I followed my aunt to play mahjong at her friend’s home. On the way, we encountered four women having a conversation; Grandma Ono had just passed them by.

“She was abandoned after the end of the (Sino-Japanese) war and found hiding in the forest near the river, while other Japanese left or killed themselves,” I remember one woman saying.

“She can’t be a wife of a high-end Japanese official. Otherwise how can she be left here?” said another contemptuously. “She must be a…”—the old woman looked around, and lowered her voice—“…a weianfu—a woman that did that kind of business with Japanese soldiers.”

The bored women murmured something low, and then laughed and sneered.

I pulled my aunt’s blouse and asked, “What’s weianfu?”

A fat woman interrupted. “Little kid, don’t ask too much!” The others laughed. I knew from the sound of the laughter that weianfu couldn’t be a good word.

Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces near Chapei, during the Battle of Shanghai. Photo courtesy of Ministry of the Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Many years later, I learned what the word meant: Weianfu is the Chinese term for a “comfort woman.”

When I was five, my parents moved our family to the city. I would beg my parents to return every weekend to the village, to escape the city life I hated. Village life was my paradise—the land, the rivers, the animals, and people who, by city standards, were “rough,” with tanned faces and calloused hands, but who were never strict with me, always ready to send me home no matter where I’d gotten lost.

Grandma Ono’s daughter married my grandpa’s neighbor. Because of this, I spent more time with her whenever I returned to the village. Grandma Ono was quiet—we normally just exchanged a mutual smile, and then I would run away, even though I really wanted to tell her that the villagers were speaking ill of her.

The author’s grandparents play a game of ‘go’ in their old house, around 1998. Photo courtesy of Karoline Kan

My opportunity to tell her this finally came. One day, I hid myself behind the neighbor’s haystack. I was afraid of being discovered. I didn’t want to go on the bus with my mom—the bus that would send me to the city to attend dance classes, English lessons, and other activities I dreaded. When the sun set, I grew fearful of the darkness. I worried what punishment would be handed down for coming home late.

I began to cry. Then Grandma Ono appeared in front of me, on her way to cook dinner for her daughter’s family. “Girl, are you okay? They are looking for you.” In the darkness, her voice sounded gentle and caring.

She took me inside the room and handed me sweets. She bent down on her knees, looked at me and said, “Don’t want to go back? But only when you go to school can you be a smart and useful person.” It was the first time I’d had a careful look at her. She was a short woman in her sixties, her hair was short and black, her skin was less tanned. When I felt less embarrassed, I said to her: “Grandma, can you keep the secret for me? I don’t want them to know that I hid myself. If you can, I will tell you a secret.”

Grandma Ono smiled, and said, “It depends on how good your secret is.”

“They all call you weianfu and ‘little Jap,’” I said, “and they are laughing at you behind your back.”

Grandma Ono said nothing; instead, she silently returned to her chores.

She took me home and told my family that we’d been together. She apologized for forgetting the time. After that, Grandma Ono and I spent more time together. I told her what I learned in school; she told me strange stories from her motherland—Japan—a place I began to dream about often.

Anti-Japanese education is a vital component of Chinese education

I can’t remember when I began to understand the difference between the Japanese and the Chinese; when I began to understand the meaning of the terms ‘nation,’ ‘world,’ ‘war,’ and ‘history’; when I began to understand that anti-Japanese education is a vital component of Chinese education, all in the name of patriotism.

We learned, memorized, and were tested on details of the “Great War lead by the Great Chinese Communist Party against the Japanese Imperialists.” Bloody pictures from the war were included in our textbook, even though we were just little kids. On Qingming Festival (also called Tomb-Sweeping Day, for honoring ancestors), we were visited the graves of veterans killed in the war.

Women pay their respects at Hong Kong cemetery during Qingming festival. Photo by: Marco Repola

Japan was always the source for endless hatred. And when it came to any anniversaries related to the war, various activities were carried out in school, such as speech contests, anti-Japanese movie screenings, and essay competitions—which, in my experience, didn’t help promote love for our country, but buried a seed of hate in the heart of the kids who didn’t really have any idea of what Japan was.

One day we learned about the Nanjing massacre during history class. That night during dinner, I told my parents: “I don’t want to see that old Japanese woman anymore. She is a bad person—a little Jap!”

My mother slammed down her bowl. “How can you be so rude! She is different from the Japanese you learn about in your school textbooks. Grandma Ono is a poor woman. She also had her family killed in that war. If you are rude like this, I won’t allow you to go back to Grandpa’s village anymore!”

I was shocked by my mom’s reaction. I learned for the first time that the world is not simply black and white, and I began to wonder that maybe not everything we were taught in school was true.

The wall of files—one for each victim of the Nanking massacre—at the Nanking Massacre Memorial Hall. Photo by: Kevin Dooley/Flickr, used under CC BY 2.0

But I didn’t dare tell my classmates. Little kids always put Japan on the top of the list of their “most hated countries.” The fact that I was developing a bond with a kind Japanese woman who taught me many interesting things about her home country—the beauty of Mount Fuji in the cherry blossom season, the girls who wear shoes made from wood—was practically treason. I didn’t dare tell them that I liked her, and that I somehow liked Japan as well. I was afraid of being laughed at.

What is the real Japan? Who are the real Japanese? I always asked myself while I watching Grandma Ono walking in and out of her yard in the traditional small steps of a Japanese woman. I wondered what about her true identity. Had she ever killed any Chinese people? Is it true that her family members had been killed by Chinese soldiers? War is such a horrible thing, I told myself. I had no other better conclusion than this cliché.

Sometimes, Ono’s husband, Old Fu, visited their daughter’s home. Old Fu looked much older than Ono. People said he was a stubborn and silly old man. The story was that he had rescued Ono after the war, and married her against the will the other villagers. For these choices he suffered greatly during the subsequent political movements, and in the words of the villagers, Old Fu “ruined the life of his own descendants.” My bored aunt always raised the question in her gossip group: “Who do you think is more unlucky? The little Jap who had to marry Old Fu, who is more than ten years older than her? Or Old Fu, who was persecuted for years?”

In the early 2000s, Old Fu passed away. Around that time, there was a rumor in the village that Ono and her children and grandchildren were “secretly planning something ugly,” because they were often seen coming in and out of a local government building. They often had strange guests visiting them. Then one day, Ono visited my grandpa and told us that she was moving to Japan after having been away for more than 60 years. She would move back to Japan together with all of her children.

“I first got the invitation from Japan in the eighties,” Ono said, “but my husband was not invited. How can I abandon him? He saved my life. Now, I can leave without any worry and regret. They tell me that my children and grandchildren, if they want, can have Japanese citizenship.”

The Chinese port city of Tianjin today. Photo by: Shubert Ciencia/Flickr, used under CC BY 2.0

For years I thought of Grandma Ono, especially when I learned anything about Japan and the war. I never knew her real name. Nobody in the village did.

As I grew older, I learned that Ono was just one of millions of Japanese citizens who were left in Mainland China after World War II. As China and Japan normalized diplomatic relations in 1972, the Japanese government invited them back, agreeing to assist them with jobs, pensions, access to health care, and education. If what Ono said was true (receiving the invitation in the eighties and only leaving in the 2000s), Ono spent nearly two decades of her life paying back her husband’s grace. During those 20 years, she lived the hard life of a farmer, the object of her fellow villagers’ scorn.

And what did Ono do for me? Aside from the stories about a foreign nation that inspired a little kid’s imagination, she gave me the ability to doubt, to think, and to believe in love and the good in human nature.

Japanese Foreign Minister, Mamoru Shigemitsu, signing the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of the Japanese Government, formally ending World War II. Photo courtesy of Naval Historical Center

If there was a rebellious period of my teenage years, it came very late. It was during my time as a university student in Beijing. I was so eager to tear down the old standard about right and wrong that had so firmly formed in my mind after twelve years of education before the gaokao, the grueling nationwide university standard examination. I felt it in my blood; I wanted to shout to my classmates, my teachers, the people in the village, everybody around me: “I hate being taught who I should hate or who I should love! I hate to be taught to believe what you say! I love Japan and it’s none of your business!”

I admit it this was more a case of youthful rebellion than any true feeling of the love and hate I proclaimed. Still, I made Japanese friends, I learned the Japanese language, and tutored Japanese students in Chinese. When people asked me, “Why are you friends with the Japanese?”, I answered without even meeting their eyes: “Why not?”

The author wearing traditional Japanese clothes at Asakusa temple during her visit in 2014. Photo courtesy of Karoline Kan

A Japanese friend I had made in Beijing, named Sakata, moved back to Tokyo in 2012. On the first day of 2014, Sakata emailed and invited me to visit him in Japan. During that time hostilities were raging between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu Islands. The question about whether the two countries would break out in war was constantly discussed online. In his email Sakata wrote: “I don’t think there will be a war, but I am afraid that the tense relationship between China and Japan will make it harder and harder for you to travel to Japan. Why not come to visit Japan as soon as possible?”

In May, I visited him in Tokyo. One evening, when Sakata and I walked the streets of the bustling Shibuya neighborhood, he asked me why I was so interested in Japanese culture.

“I think I’m a weird girl. I love it simply because many Chinese people dislike it. I call it the ‘silent rebellion.’” I laughed, but I wasn’t joking. “Sakata San, I’ll tell you a story that partly made me who I am today,” and I told him about Grandma Ono.

When I was finished, Sakata asked what had happened to Ono’s family. The day Ono and her family left the village, a huge crowd of people gathered to say goodbye; many of them were people who once cursed her and Old Fu behind their backs, or even bullied their children. But at that moment, they all pretended that nothing had ever happened.

Ono’s daughter now comes back to the village at least once a year. She said Ono reunited with her family in Osaka. Ono’s children found jobs—not perfect jobs, but much better jobs than being a Chinese farmer. Ono’s grandchildren are now studying in university and speak fluent Japanese and Chinese. The daughter and son-in-law don’t want to give up their Chinese passport, however.

Tianjin’s train station. Photo by: A. Gabriel

Meanwhile, in the village, Ono’s story is still occasionally brought up in conversation. The old women are as bored as before. But these days the topic has changed: “Who do you think is luckier? The dead Old Fu who has descendants living an easier life in Japan, or that Japanese woman who was rescued and escaped the fate of being killed by angry people after the war?”

Sakata only offered one comment about my story: “But people forget. You only harvest the fruit from the seeds you plant yourself.”

He went on, growing more serious in his tone: “Karoline, Japanese people are so afraid of China now. China is getting stronger and stronger; it is something that nobody can stop from happening. The Japanese people are so afraid about what China will do to Japan in the future.”

I was about to say that most people are reasonable, but didn’t. Instead, I asked him, “Sakata San, do you think China and Japan will be friends in the future?”

He didn’t answer me directly. After a while he said, “At least there are people that can be like you and me, and you and your Grandma Ono.”