"Car destruction ahead. Japanese made cars should turn around now."
So read the warning on a flattened cardboard box one Chinese man held up to traffic in the city of Xian. The man's advice was not based on fearful speculation either, as cities across China erupted in anti-Japanese protests over the weekend (including, The Economist notes, about 3,000 at the Japanese Consulate in Shanghai on Sunday), Japan's auto brands were bracing for the backlash. One man set his own Honda Civic on fire in front of a dealership. One of the more moving photos shared on social media was of a young woman, weeping as she begged protesters to spare her car.
Targeting Japanese products for boycott or destruction is nothing new in China. But this weekend's actions — sparked by ownership dispute over islands between the two nations — were especially dire, called the worst flare-up of tensions between the nations in decades by The New York Times. As Japanese companies ordered their workers to stay home and closed their factories over fear of reprisals, what's unknown is the degree to which Japanese brands have been hurt in China's marketplace.
Chinese owners of Japanese models draped their cars with China's flag. One owner placed signs on the bumper stating "I bought this car before the Japnese began acting so unreasonably. I will boycott all Japanese products from here forward." Other owners, possibly hoping to dissuade damage with zealotry, added "F**k Japan" signs to their Japanese cars.
One owner's desperate plea letter became a viral sensation on social media. He began by asking, "Why is buying a Japanese car traitorous?" and circles around to ask why Chinese consumers buy American cars when Americans bombed China's embassy and crashes its fighter jets, why buy Korean cars when the nation is China's opponent in the peninsula. The letter concludes with a promise to beat any vandals with a steering wheel lock bar.
As if the weekend needed more drama, Japan's newly appointed ambassador to China was found dead on the street (apparently in natural causes) in Tokyo before he could make the trip. One representative who will immediately be making a diplomatic trip to China is the Chairman of Toyota.
The current protests against Japan concern Japan's plans to take control of the Diaoyu Islands, of which China claims ownership. The row has been going on for some months, with activists staging flag plantings, fishermen being arrested and "reconnaissance" craft dispatched to the area. Anti-Japanese protests over the islands flared a month ago, with one car and a sushi restaurant reportedly damaged, but little further harm. This incident was far more severe.
Of course the true underlying problem is the pure hatred and spite many Chinese people still harbor for Japan over the latter nation's actions before and during World War II. Events such as the Nanjing Massacre are open wounds that even the state-run media pokes when the purpose serves. Many observers saw the weekend's anti-Japan protests as government-arranged activists that got far out of hand.
In the hours after the protest, China's state run media threw some salt in there Japan brand wound. CCTV was reported to have suspended running ads for Japanese brands. "Japanese companies continue to struggle" was the headline of the piece that described how Chinese tourists are abandoning Japan and how "the share of Panasonic Corp in home appliances dropped steadily from 4.2 percent in 2009 to 4 percent by the end of 2011." Tellingly, the URL of that report from the China Daily contained "china/2012Diaoyu/2012-09/17/content."
Ironically, the day before, Panasonic spokespeople reported that one of its facilities in Qingdao had been set on fire. An arson fate that also befell at least one Toyota dealership. Some Japanese restaurants were vandalized while Japanese brands like Uniqlo placed Chinese flags in display windows in the hopes of heading off potential trouble. A day after the fire, Canon Inc. suspended operations in three of four plants.
Meanwhile, China's brands are both stoking and capitalizing on the zombie nationalism. Responding to the self-immolated Honda Civic on Weibo, one executive with BYD, one of China's domestic automakers, offered the patriot a free BYD replacement. In one clothing store window, the sign read "15% off for those who yell loudly 'The Diaoyu Islands are China's'. Yell 'Japan is also China's' and get 20% off!"
For the height of lunacy, one display at a department store in Nanjing was of a heavy artillery gun made out of toothpaste with the sign "The Diaoyu Islands belong to China!
While the weekend's violence seemed especially grave, anti-Japan activities are baked into China's modern character. It was just two years ago that cities like Chengdu saw major demonstrations, complete with calls to boycott Japanese products, over disputed islands. Far more damaging were the anti-Japan protests in 2005. Sparked by a number of issues including a new history textbook that China felt glossed over Japan's war crimes, mobs attacked Japanese brands and promised boycotts. (It's noteworthy that just a couple months ago, cities across China saw anti-Philippines protests, again over small island ownership. During those demonstrations, some Chinese consumers called for a boycott of Philippines products, which largely amounted to bananas.)
In a way, Japanese brands have come to understand this as the cost of doing business in China.
James Roy, a senior analyst who covers China's auto market for the China Market Research Group, tells brandchannel, "In the short term, it hurt Japanese auto brands just when they were looking to improve their situation in China." Roy points to Toyota's promise to double auto sakes in the nation by launching several new models.
Roy agrees that it's unlikely this is the last time Japanese brands will face China's vengeful wrath "given the nature of the relationship." As for the immediate future for Japanese brands in China, especially auto ones, Roy says, "As long as there is a peaceful resolution to the conflict, this will resolve itself."
As violent as many of the images on traditional and social media appeared, and as inflammatory as much of the rhetoric was, it seems a lot more Chinese consumers see their purchasing habits as separate from their political persuasions. In Nanjing, the beating heart of China's anti-Japan feelings and the site of the aforementioned toothpaste cannon, Reuters found most consumers going about their business, the business of buying Japanese stuff.
In fact, Reuters pointed out that the anti-Japan burst, amid a slowing China economy, may provide some Japanese executives with an unexpected bonus: A Convenient Excuse. In the meantime, they're bracing for another round of anti-Japan protests on Tuesday, the 81st anniversary of the occupation of parts of mainland China by Japan in 1931.