August 14, 2008 / 7:01 PM / 11 years ago

Japanese belle Fukuhara wins over China

BEIJING (Reuters) - Talented, doll-faced and fluent in Mandarin, Japanese table tennis player Ai Fukuhara may also be the best thing in years for China-Japan relations.

Chinese fans supported her during a tough Olympic match against a Spanish player on Thursday, urging the world number 12 to victory and showing no trace of the animosity that Chinese often reserve for Japan.

“She’s our Asian player. She’s got a fine personality and is truly gorgeous,” said Chen Xiao, 34, an IT worker who led his largely male group of friends in enthusiastic cheers for Fukuhara.

“She can make a contribution to our countries’ friendship and, by supporting her, we can do a little, too. At the very least, if we don’t cheer for her, that would hurt our friendship,” he said.

Selected as Japan’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games because of her popularity in China, Fukuhara is modest about her ability to bring the two countries closer together.

“I’d feel quite honored if I’m able to do that,” she said.

She has, in fact, already done her bit for Sino-Japanese diplomacy.

Chinese President Hu Jintao had a brief ping-pong joust with her when he visited Japan in May, the most photogenic part of his trip which was aimed at cementing warming ties between the countries after years of rancor over Japan’s wartime aggression.

Fukuhara tapped balls at him softly and Hu responded with vicious smashes.

In the Olympics so far, she has been harder on her opponents.

On Thursday she held her nerve with Japan’s hopes of a team medal on the line to take the deciding match against Spain.

“Lots of Chinese friends cheered for me. It made me very happy to hear their voices,” she said.

Fukuhara’s Chinese fans were even more boisterous when she arrived in Beijing last week. Mobbed at the city’s airport by fans and local and media, she needed a police escort to make it through.

She acquired her impeccable Mandarin through years of table tennis training in China’s northeastern Liaoning province.

Fukuhara also played for the Liaoning team in China’s professional league while still in high school but has now returned to Japan, where she studies at Tokyo’s Waseda University.

Editing by Ed Osmond

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