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CULTURE, IDENTITY THRIVE IN ETHNIC ROOTS

Chinatown feels Japan’s tight embrace

by Reiji Yoshida

YOKOHAMA — Yokohama’s Chinatown has been spruced up, its eateries ornately dolled up, its towering gates given a face-lift and a huge shrine adorned in gold.

The town and its people have a unique history, and they have endured major upheavals and rebuilt in the past 60 years from the rubble that the district turned into during the latter months of the war.

The first generation of Chinese immigrants, most from Guangdong Province, first came to Yokohama as servants for Westerners, who were entering Japan after centuries of seclusion ended in 1858. The port opened the following year.

The war posed extreme hardships for Chinese in Chinatown, which was devastated by massive U.S. air raids on Yokohama. The destruction changed their lives.

Kensei Hayashi, 63, whose parents immigrated from China, runs Manchin-ro, a major Chinese restaurant. He recalled the time when his family had to flee to Nagoya to avoid the air raids. His father had to stay in town due to his job.

“Because foreigners were prohibited from traveling without a police permit, my father could not come to see us in Nagoya,” Hayashi said, adding that his father was unable to come even to see their newborn.

However, residents were quick to recover and reopened shops and houses soon after the war.

“There were only a few restaurants here at that time. Japanese from outside came because they could find meals here,” Hayashi recalled.

At that time, food distribution was strictly restricted in the war-ravaged country. But controls were less strict in Chinatown, and it was easier to find food there, he said.

In the mid-1950s, Chinatown, which had been a residential area for Chinese, became an entertainment district for American soldiers lodged nearby.

The area retained this purpose even through the 1960s, serving foreign sailors visiting Yokohama. It was not a place for ordinary Japanese to hang out.

But by the 1970s, the area had rapidly turned into a tourist spot with the opening of Ishikawa-cho Station on the JR Negishi Line.

After Japan normalized ties with mainland China in 1972, Chinese culture became as popular as ever in Japan. A plethora of imported Chinese goods, ranging from food and drink to clothing and ornaments, began hitting store shelves, making the district’s ethnicity more striking.

Around that period, golden Chinese gates were built to mark the borders of the district, which is defined by the 10 gates standing today.

“Nowadays, this town looks quite different from Chinatowns in other countries. Ninety-eight percent of the customers (at the shops and restaurants) are Japanese visitors, not the Chinese residents,” Hayashi said.

The now prosperous restaurant enclave belies the continuing turbulence between China and Taiwan.

A private Chinese school originally established in Chinatown in 1897 has long been the spiritual center for residents trying to preserve their ethnic identity.

But the school was split between procommunist and anticommunist groups in 1952, with the former building a separate school elsewhere.

Chinese residents then split up into promainland and pro-Taiwan groups whose ideologies broke bonds that were based on the areas they were from, or who their ancestors were. The confrontation even fractured families.

“My elder brother supported Taiwan, while his wife supported the mainland government,” said Chen Kuangjia, a 55-year-old, third-generation Chinese who grew up in Chinatown.

“Within one family, which of the two Chinese schools they should send their children to became a very big issue,” said Chen, who himself supports Taiwan.

In recent years, the two schools have undergone major changes because many children from Japanese families that have no Chinese background have begun to enroll.

The Japanese parents send their children to those schools, hoping their kids will pick up the Chinese language and give them a key advantage in their careers.

The promainland school, situated in Yokohama’s Yamate area, has 411 students from kindergarten to junior high school. About half of them are children of “newcomers” to Japan, or Chinese who arrived after the 1980s.

Some 18.5 percent of the students are Japanese. Most do not have any Chinese background.

“Our job is to give children an education that will enable them to make a choice for their future — to live as a Japanese, Chinese or a citizen of any other country,” Principal Pan Minsheng said.

Today, Chinatown’s residents’ first language are Japanese. They are the second, third and fourth generations of the original Chinese immigrants.

But Chen, like many others, does not fret whether over time the district and its inhabitants will lose their ethnicity.

“As long as Chinese schools exist here, I don’t worry much about it,” he said.