The Japanese Olympian who stole Chinese hearts

Ai Fukuhara (R) of Japan gives a press conference at Riocentro complex in Rio de Janeiro, on August 3, 2016Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
27-year-old Ai Fukuhara has gained thousands of fans in China, where she used to live as a teenager

Japan doesn't always have an easy ride on Chinese social media. A history of conflict, ongoing diplomatic spats and a rise in nationalist sentiment have led to several vitriolic attacks on Japanese users. But one Japanese Olympian has become a media darling in China, as the BBC's Yashan Zhao explains.

She may have lost her match to a Chinese player, but she has won China's heart.

"Don't Cry, Ai-chan" has been trending on China's micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo since Japan's Ai Fukuhara lost the table tennis semi-final 4-0 to China's Li Xiaoxia on Wednesday.

Thousands of Chinese fans have been comforting the girl they call "Japanese doll" on social media, or by the affectionate Japanese term "Ai-chan".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Fukuhara (right) has been popular in China for some time

As a teenager Fukuhara joined the Chinese national table tennis team for training in northern Liaoning province, and speaks with a fluent Chinese Northern dialect. She still has a Chinese coach.

On Thursday, Fukuhara thanked her coach on Weibo, saying that she would cheer up. She posted in Mandarin Chinese.

"I feel so sorry for Ai Chan," said Weibo user Jinbiao.

"She is so tough and strong to continue to compete in the Games as the Chinese table tennis team are too strong to defeat. But she never gives up. And the longer she plays, the better result she gains," Jinbiao said.

Many fans said she seemed "vulnerable", recollecting in particular when she burst into tears after losing a competition when she was younger.

But she is also considered "cute as a doll" with a sweet voice, a highly sought-after feature in China.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Some users joked online that Fukuhara has been beaten by a long line of Chinese champions

But that's not the whole picture. They also adore her because she has a strong connection with China, with Chinese sports fans watching her grow up.

Many say the 27-year-old Olympic feels like family when she speaks Mandarin.

"Competitive sport is beyond nationality, such as the North and South Korean players taking a selfie together," Langsha Jiang, a sports fan in Sichuan, told the BBC.

"Every athlete has a home country but we need to regard him or her as an individual first."

"I don't think Ai's story has anything to do with her nationality. We've seen her growing from the youngest player in Japan team and now she is a leading figure.

"Years ago, she was a little girl but soon she may get married."

The BBC's Mariko Oi recalls a similar sentiment towards Fukuhara in Japan

Ai Fukuhara has been a familiar face in Japan since she started playing at the age of four.

We watched her practice against adults despite being just tall enough to see the top of the table.

We watched her cry as she went through tough practices, earning herself a nickname of "Cry Baby Ai-chan" in addition to "table tennis child genius".

To many, she is still the cry baby who we watched grow up but her decades-long efforts and devotion to table tennis are highly respected in her homeland.

Image source, Weibo
Image caption,
Fukuhara has amassed a following of 770,000 fans on Weibo

In fact Fukuhara is so popular in China, it's even been suggested she should marry a mainland Chinese man, an unusually warm gesture from Chinese social media towards a Japanese woman.

However, Fukuhara already has a boyfriend. He is from Taiwan.

"It would be perfect if you had a Chinese boyfriend," said Weibo user Gaoaonan.

The Japanese Olympian is active on social media, posting regular updates into her life.

About one week ago, Fukuhara posted "the Olympic games will be on soon" on her Weibo account- which has amassed a following of 770,000 people.

With Chinese athletes posting pictures showing the condition of Rio's Olympic village, Fukuhara was no exception. She posted on Weibo saying she had fixed a broken toilet on her own, and asked: "Aren't I great?"

Image source, Weibo
Image caption,
"The Olympic toilet spoilt, I ended up fixing it myself- Aren't I great?", says Ai Fukuhara in this Weibo post

Users also joked online that Fukuhara had been beaten by a long line of Chinese champions, including Zhang Yining, one of the world's greatest table tennis players who is known in China as the "Big Devil".

This time in Rio, Fukuhara was beaten by Li Xiaoxia, Zhang Yining's successor.

"Ai make my heart ache…she wasn't born in a good timing," said JK Kekaka on Weibo.

But Hector Shi from Shanghai pointed out one potential reason Fukuhara has remained so popular with Chinese table tennis fans: "I don't count on her posing any threat to Chinese team at all."