Chinese social media users have unleashed a new wave of hostility against Japanese athletes over the past week after China suffered two high-profile defeats against the Olympic hosts in events they have traditionally dominated.
Judges have been accused of bias and the Japanese team mocked with epithets such as “little Japan”, a derogatory label popular in east Asia after the second world war, following Japan’s upset win against China in the table tennis mixed doubles final and the artistic gymnastics men’s all-around event.
“If Japan hadn’t held the Olympics, the world might still sympathise with it. Now, not only is the Olympic spirit absent, the anti-Japanese sentiment has been awakened,” Yin Jiliang, a vlogger based in Shanghai with more than a million followers, wrote on Weibo, the Twitter-like Chinese social media platform.
Anti-Japanese sentiment in China has waxed and waned, depending on the state of bilateral ties, with the historical scars of the Japanese invasion during the second world war being summoned by Chinese netizens to explain the depth of their antipathy towards their neighbour.
But there were others who criticised the anti-Japanese netizens for being unable to accept defeat, especially when their favourite athletes lost to Japan.
At the midway point, China is at the top of the medals table, with 19 gold and Japan a close second with 17 on Saturday morning.
The online animosity began early during the Games on Monday when Japan’s Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani beat Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin in the table tennis mixed doubles final. The shock result ended China’s gold medal sweep of the sport since the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The two pairs had faced each other three times before, all ending in a Chinese victory.
Some supporters of Team China were quick to point out Ito had touched the table and to accuse Mizutani of blowing on the ball, against rules imposed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. On the day, posts with the trending Chinese-language hashtag #Mizutani blew on the ball# were read 830 million times, according to data from the website.
Wu Pengkai, a 20-year-old maths student at Shandong province’s Weifang University, wrote: “Rules are rules, and violations are violations. It’s clear he blew on the ball. What were they thinking, those netizens who said Chinese people couldn’t accept defeat?”
She added in another post the Japanese pair’s red shirts were the same colour as the floor and seats of the venue, which confused the Chinese duo.
But another user urged “Little Pinks” – young nationalistic social media users known as xiaofenhong in hanyu pinyin – to show respect: “The competition was brilliant. Both sides were very strong and were very humble and
respectful towards others. Why can’t you show respect to table tennis and sports? Those radical Little Pinks are annoying.”
Another user with the name “pingzinan” said: “Please love our country rationally! Why does it seem like that if we’re not scolding Japanese people, we’re not Chinese any more?”
The defeat of Xiao Ruoteng by Daiki Hashimoto on Wednesday in the men’s all-around event in artistic gymnastics struck another nerve with Chinese web users.
They claimed without evidence that the judges were biased against China by giving Hashimoto’s vault a score of 14.700, despite him stepping out of bounds during the landing. Weibo users compared his vault with that of Chinese
gymnast Sun Wei, which was scored at 14.900 – a result netizens said should be higher because Sun stayed within bounds.
That sent #Xiao Ruoteng put away the national flag# hashtag trending. The tag itself reflected Weibo users had misinterpreted Xiao’s taking out of the Chinese flag for photographers as packing it up, when Hashimoto took out the Japanese flag when it was clear he had won. Nationalistic posts with the tag were read 200 million times.
Xiao himself wrote on his profile: “I hope everybody can continue to support Chinese athletes, support Chinese gymnastics, support Xiao Ruoteng, yes, me! But I hope everyone can avoid going overboard with attacking the athletes themselves.”
The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), the governing body, issued a statement on Twitter on Thursday in response, reaffirming the judging was fair and accurate. “The FIG thanks all the competitors for their great performances and sportsmanship,” it added.
Social media users also railed against the referee in the badminton mixed doubles match on Thursday morning, whom they said wrongly ruled the Japanese pair had stayed on their side of the court when hitting the shuttle, contrary to complaints from the Chinese team.
“Little Pinks” – a play on Chinese characters meaning the “fans of the red” – have not only been critical of Japanese athletes but also lauded the Chinese who defeated them, as if they had avenged the losses of their compatriots.
Fang Siqian, from Nantong in Jiangsu province, on Weibo branded table tennis player Sun Yingsha an “anti-Japanese hero”, a label usually applied to Chinese veterans of the Second Sino-Japanese War, after her semi-final victory against Japan’s Mima Ito.
“Ito, your mother was lying to you. You cannot beat the Chinese team,” words read in one of the photos accompanying her post as she highlighted the 4-0 score for Sun.
“Little Pinks” have been gaining prominence on social media for years, defending the Chinese government against criticism and promoting nationalism.
And the sentiments of the “Little Pinks” did not go unnoticed by other commentators, who called for calm.
Wang Yibo, in Beijing, said on Weibo: “It was a simple Olympic match yet it led many to seize on the issue. It’s too noisy. Try to focus only on the athletes’ fighting spirit. I’m going to sleep.”
Meanwhile, documentarian Guo Wei, with 1.49 million followers, said: “The Japanese have turned the Olympic Games into a big event for nationalistic education.”
Additional reporting by Ziyu Zhang