Love thy neighbor? Chinese nationals who call Japan home

With Lunar New Year just around the corner, we speak to a handful of longtime Chinese residents in Japan in an attempt to gain mutual understanding and insight into what both countries could learn from one other

by

Special To The Japan Times

Like tempestuous lovers, China and Japan have sparred for centuries but have remained interdependent in each other’s economy, politics, culture, language and arts.

However, in light of Japan’s ongoing diplomatic tussle with China over the Senkaku Islands and the government’s failure to put World War II atrocities behind it once and for all, it’s often forgotten that the country’s largest number of foreign visa holders are from China.

Chinese citizens accounted for 648,980, or almost 30 percent, of all foreign nationals living in Japan in 2013, a number that includes those working and studying in Japan. More than 150,000 Chinese nationals live in Tokyo, three times the number who reside in surrounding areas that include Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures, as well as the city of Osaka.

Tourist numbers from China are also on the rise. In 2014, the number of Chinese tourists doubled from the previous year to 2.4 million — the third-largest nation of tourists after Taiwan and South Korea.

Given the proximity and intertwined histories of the two countries, it’s perhaps not surprising that there are a number of Chinese nationals who have called Japan home for a decade or more.

However, those profiled here have all made a commitment to the country that appears to be at odds with their motherland. By examining their perspectives and personal histories, it may be possible to gain mutual understanding and insight into what both countries could learn from one other.

Mei and Xia Zhang

Sisters Mei and Xia Zhang, both in their 40s, first came to Japan from Beijing in the late 1980s around the time of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square. At the time, their father was working at Kobe University on a three-year assignment. Xia attended a local public high school in Japan, while older sister Mei remained in Beijing to continue her university studies.

When the Tiananmen protests broke out in May 1989, Mei was in her third year of college. She fled Beijing to join her father and sister in Kobe the following year.

“Few companies in China were hiring college juniors and seniors that year. They were too afraid,” Mei says, referring to the government-led campaign that targeted those associated with the student protests. “What’s more, many college instructors left. We didn’t study very much that year. My college moved the first day of instruction from September to October, but even then there were no classes — just government briefings. I was concerned about the future.”

Although her mother, sister and father returned to Beijing shortly after her arrival, Mei remained in Japan, learned Japanese and graduated from Doshisha University in Kyoto with a doctorate in economics. Funding from the education ministry persuaded her to stay.

“I received scholarships all the time,” she says. “My father gave me ¥50,000 when I first came to Japan and that was the last time he offered me financial assistance. There were hard times, but it helped me learn to live independently.”

Having no intention of returning to China upon graduation, Mei worked for employment agency Recruit in Tokyo, met and married her American husband and became a mother of two.

Xia, meanwhile, joined her older sister in Tokyo after graduating from a university in Beijing and working for a Japanese company. She attended the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Public Policy while holding down part-time jobs — one of which was waitressing in a restaurant next to Mei’s office building.

Mei introduced Xia to her future Japanese husband, an employee of Recruit.

“Thanks to my sister, I got a job and found my husband,” Xia says.

They married while Xia was in graduate school, and she had their first of three children two months after graduation.

Mei now works at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in Tokyo while her sister works at a rapidly growing cable assembly company in Kawasaki that manufactures iPhone cables.

As the mother of three, Xia says rearing a child in Japan can be challenging compared to China.

“As a parent, I need to do everything I can to ensure my children fit in, being half-Chinese and half-Japanese,” she says. “In Japan, you need to put in a lot of effort to get along with other parents during volunteer work. By comparison, parent relationships in China are far less formal.”

Xia says it has been occasionally challenging to find a job both as a non-Japanese and mother in her 40s.

“Although things are changing, I always had difficulty finding jobs after finishing graduate school and later on, especially when the economy was sluggish.”

Mei’s frustration with Japan stems from its business environment.

“Both AIG (where Mei worked briefly) and PwC claim to be global companies, but they are Japanese companies in reality,” she says. “PwC has very few non-Japanese workers. Japanese managers do not listen to ideas from non-Japanese employees. They would say something like, ‘Your idea is interesting but it wouldn’t work in Japan.’ PwC is getting a little better, but even PwC Japan is still isolated. Of the 157 countries in which PwC has established a presence, only two use non-English languages in their daily business: Japan and South Korea. Everything is translated.

“There are many areas Chinese people can improve upon, but they are accustomed to living with various cultures and languages. They understand that people are diverse even though they may disagree with different ideas. In Japan, if you don’t accept a particular way of thinking, you have no place in the society.”

Mei remains positive the rift between Japan and China can be resolved. “I think this is just one of those waves,” she says. “In the long run, relations will improve.”

Where do they both see themselves in the future?

“I would like to go back to Beijing,” Mei says.

“I couldn’t,” Xia replies. “The prices are so high there now.”

Mei says her experiences in Japan have been life-changing.

“I will go back to China once my children have grown up and I am no longer responsible for them,” she says. “I love Japan and have had many great experiences in this country over the past 20-plus years, but I would like to return home. My experience of living in Japan, away from China, has given me confidence I can live anywhere in the world. One day, however, I would like to return to where my heart is.”

Yanfei Zhou

A native of Shenzhen and mother of three, Yanfei Zhou has lived in Japan since 1996. Although she arrived as a university exchange student in Okayama at the age of 21, she is now a researcher at an institute under the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

When she first arrived, Zhou didn’t speak a word of Japanese. She didn’t think this would be a problem because her courses were to be taught in English, a language in which she was fluent. She soon learned, however, that all of her courses were taught in Japanese — despite the school branding itself as an “international university.” Putting in a lot of hard work, Zhou became fluent within six months and pursued a master’s degree in sociology and a doctorate in economics at the University of Osaka.

Although she had originally planned to pursue graduate studies in the United States, Zhou was granted a government scholarship from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) after six months.

“The MEXT program was so generous,” she says. “It provided me with living expenses of ¥180,000 per month on top of full tuition and research expenses until I finished the Ph.D. program. So I stayed in Japan to finish the Ph.D.” At the university, Zhou met her husband and married at the age of 24. They had their first child when Zhou was 25.

Zhou admits it has been difficult to ensure her children maintained both a Chinese and Japanese identity.

“I tried to teach them Mandarin, but it didn’t last. When I speak to them in Mandarin, they don’t respond,” she says. “My third child is too young to understand the idea of identity, but I tell my first and second children that they are half-Chinese and half-Japanese. I suspect they think of themselves more as Japanese.”

Zhou says she encountered difficulties securing a full-time position upon completing her doctorate.

“I held two different part-time jobs, but it took me some time to find a permanent position,” she says. “Osaka University is one of the former Imperial universities and, in general, it’s rather easy for the graduates to find employment. My peers found permanent jobs quickly and I felt a little desperate. I had a little difficulty overcoming this barrier as someone who is not Japanese. I now have a full-time job, but I meet a lot of international students who work part time here. They are academically excellent, but have a hard time finding permanent jobs. The situation remains the same.”

Zhou feels that the current tensions between Japan and China are grounded in a flawed account of history.

“I went to high school and college in China, and I know that history teachings in China are quite biased,” she says. “As a result, young people attack Japan, creating tension between the two countries.

“But, as a matter of fact, Chinese people in general like Japan. It’s sad that there is such misunderstanding. This can lead to anti-Chinese sentiment in Japan. There should be greater opportunity for mutual cultural exchanges.”

Zhou believes China will experience a few social problems in the not-too-distant future.

“I guess prosperity in China will last another 10 years at the most,” she says. “Meanwhile, issues surrounding China’s aging population will surface in 10 to 15 years time. China has enforced its one-child policy since 1980 and its birthrate in 2010 was 1.02, which is even lower than Japan’s (birthrate of) 1.3 or 1.4. The consequences of this policy will be visible in the near future and cause serious social problems. I believe China’s arrogance will last another 10 years, and then it will calm down.”

Zhou would like China to teach the next generation of Japanese how to be more proactive. “Young people in China are extremely ambitious, and are always aiming for the top,” she says. “I think Japan is losing its vitality, and it’s immediately obvious when I see my own children.”

She feels China should study Japanese policies on tackling the declining birthrate and aging society.

“Japan’s long-term health care system and its experience in building a senior-friendly society could help address similar issues in China,” she says. “China could also learn from Japan’s equal income redistribution system and social security.”

She expressed reservations about moving back to China in the future.

“I love Japan,” she says. “I dreamed of living in the U.S., and I did for a year, but I learned that Japan is the best country to live in. It’s beautiful, (Japanese) people are so polite and respectful, and it’s safe.”

Zhiqiang Jing and Jie Quan

Nanchang-native Zhiqiang Jing and Jie Quan of Beijing met at an education ministry-sponsored event on Ishikawa Prefecture’s Noto Peninsula in 1989, married in 1993 as postgrad students and had their only child in Fukuoka in 1994. Now based in Tokyo, Jing is a patent attorney and his wife, Quan, is a China liaison with national broadcaster NHK. While Jing arrived to Japan shortly before the Tiananmen protests to attend Kanazawa University, Quan arrived shortly after to attend Ryukyu University in Okinawa.

Born in 1963, Jing is the fifth of six children.

“There were no chances to travel abroad for my older siblings as the country was closed after the Cultural Revolution,” Jing says. “My older sister is 64 now and did not have the opportunity to attend college during the Cultural Revolution. My generation has experienced the most dramatic changes in Chinese history.

“When the Cultural Revolution reached its peak from 1967 to 1968, I was only 5 years old. My family were landlords and, being capitalists, became the target of the political unrest. The communist Red Guards attacked us on the grounds of having exploited the working class, and I still remember them looting our home.”

Upon graduating from university and attending postgrad school in Beijing, Jing was invited to study in Japan on a one-year program. Although he did not speak any Japanese upon his arrival, he was fluent within the year.

“I probably felt pressure to study,” he explains. “It wasn’t easy to return to China after the crackdown at Tiananmen Square.”

Jing was accepted to Kanazawa University on a full scholarship, which allowed him to remain in Japan.

Having arrived in Japan two months prior to the protests with no access to Chinese newspapers, Jing felt completely isolated from the news of the crackdown.

“I knew something had happened after watching TV, but I did not know for sure what it was,” he says. “I didn’t know how to ask anyone else about the incident, and they didn’t know how to explain it to me, either. There were no other international students around to ask. I was shocked and scared. I was fortunate to be in Japan at the time.”

Quan, meanwhile, fell upon Japan by accident. At university, she was hoping to be an English major, but was not accepted into the program.

“Students with low English grades were assigned to the Japanese Department, as Japanese was not very popular back then and they had very few applicants,” she says. After graduation and a brief stint working in Beijing, Quan enrolled at Ryukyu University.

“It was right after the protests at Tiananmen Square,” she says, “and there were restrictions on travel to other countries.”

After moving to Fukuoka, there were few employment opportunities to sustain a family of three on a single income with Quan now a stay-at-home mother. In 1995, therefore, they returned to Beijing.

Jing returned to Japan without Quan in 2007, attracted by the promise of a better education for their son.

He continued his work as a patent attorney, and his son was sent to middle school. Quan, in the meantime, stayed in Beijing and was commuting to Tokyo to see her family on the weekends.

“Our schedule was crazy,” she says. “(But) when our son was accepted into Keio High School in Tokyo and therefore would stay in Japan for another seven years through university, I realized we’d burn through our savings if I continued to fly between Beijing and Tokyo. So, I quit my job in Beijing and landed a job at NHK in Tokyo.”

Jing and Quan have managed to adjust to living in Japan and China.

“There are good things and not-so-great things about both countries,” Jing says. “The general sense of responsibility and neatness of people in Japan is quite impressive. Chinese people, by comparison, are rather rough-and-tumble. We think it’s OK to be this way and feel you don’t have to be so meticulous. In Japan, people dislike extreme positions, but in China you are expected to state your position clearly — ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You are also expected to be polite in Japan. One must avoid being too honest or hurting someone’s feelings. It’s hard to know exactly what Japanese people are really thinking.

“There are 56 ethnic minority groups in China, and we are accustomed to the idea of co-existence and co-prosperity. To us, it’s normal to live with people of different races who speak different languages. In Japan, however, you are expected to complete your job according to the rules.

“China has numerous job opportunities. People have unlimited possibilities if they work as hard as they do in the United States. In Japan, you just do the same thing over and over again each day. It’s very repetitive. Everything in China is new, every day.”

Jing feels that the rivalry between Japan and China will dissipate in the next five to 10 years, as China’s growth supersedes that of Japan.

“If two men ride a horse, one must always ride behind,” he says. “The problem then is: Who will ride behind? Many Japanese citizens look down on modern China with a sense of superiority. These days, China’s gross domestic product is 2½ times that of Japan. It no longer needs charity. Despite the role reversal, Japan has been unable to change its way of thinking. Most Chinese do not care which country is superior, but they do acknowledge Japan’s advantages. China has a better economy, but Japan has more vibrant technology. It also has better regulations governing social welfare, democracy and the Constitution.”

Quan agrees. “China is energetic and Japan peaceful,” she says. “When I travel to China, I get quite excited. However, I always feel calm when I come back here. Both countries have things about them that the other can learn from. They should help each other out.”

Asked about their future ambitions, Jing says he wants to publish a textbook on modern Chinese history, having witnessed the turbulent times from the Cultural Revolution through globalization. The couple are also entertaining the idea of settling somewhere in the West — either Europe or North America.

“It can be hard to acclimatize to a different culture at first,” he says, “but once you live outside your own country, you can feel comfortable anywhere.”

Yangyue Fan

In the past 14 years, Yangyue Fan, a native of Beijing, has spent 10 years in Japan. Fan’s first job upon graduating from the Beijing University of Technology in 1998 with a degree in engineering and Japanese, was with a Japanese company in Beijing. In 2001, she came to Japan.

“At that time, many Japanese companies were looking for engineers in China,” Fan says. “I tried to behave like a typical Japanese person, especially at work. Almost everyone at my company was Japanese. I was the only girl on the technical team and they constantly expected me to serve tea. Women are typically expected to pour beer during company parties, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so.”

Fan returned to Beijing after three years when her job at a Kyoto company didn’t pan out. She didn’t think she’d ever get another chance to return to Japan, but she jumped at the opportunity to head back here after an IT company based in Tokyo offered her a position in 2008.

Asked about the current tensions between Japan and China, Fan expresses little concern.

“It will calm down one day,” Fan says. “People will soon start focusing on new things and forget. I don’t think this will become a war. I don’t see how anyone would benefit.”

Fan feels that both countries have a great deal to offer each other.

“I think Japanese people could be a little more ambitious,” she says.

“Last summer, I traveled to Thailand and met a Japanese university student there. He told me he wanted to go to postgrad school in Japan and had never thought about going overseas. When I was his age, I was so curious about the world outside of China,” she says.

“On the other hand, Japan can teach China about rules,” she says. “Over the past two or three decades, China has been evolving in many ways. During these changes, there was a lot of instability or uncertainty. There are too many people and it’s developing so quickly that governance cannot keep up. So sometimes you have to protect yourself. However, China should now create a system to make life easier for everyone.”

When asked about her future, Fan rules out a return to the mainland.

“I have no plans to return to China,” she says. “I think now I fit better in Japan than in Beijing. In Beijing, everyone’s always talking about making money. All my friends just talk about buying a house or apartment or better cars, or trying to put their kids in the best school. I don’t think I can live like that.”

  • Kiuri

    Good article. We need more like this.