Widely known in China as the “riben guizi” (Japanese devil) for his portrayals of Imperial Japanese Army soldiers in local TV dramas, Koji Yano has become a popular emcee on a variety show watched by around 300 million Chinese.
It was a dream come true for the native Osakan, after a decade of ups and downs in Japan. Many consider Yano, 42, a trailblazer for the 20 to 30 Japanese actors and entertainers who have since pursued careers in China.
But despite his successful career, Yano has higher aspirations. The actor hopes to use his popularity to facilitate people-to-people exchanges and promote greater understanding between Japan and China, whose ties remain strained by historical grievances and the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands.
Yano landed his first role in a Chinese TV drama in 1999, after spending eight frustrating years trying — and mostly failing — to build a career in Tokyo.
Viewing the offer from China as “something that could change my fortune,” Yano took the biggest gamble of his life and headed to Beijing. Unfortunately, the drama flopped and Yano found himself out of work.
His breakthrough came six years later, when he was asked to play the role of an Imperial army soldier in a Chinese period drama set in the years before and during the war.
“Until then, Japanese had always been simplistically depicted as monstrous and power crazy,” Yano said. “I wanted to promote a more realistic view” among Chinese.
The drama aired as China was undergoing rapid and profound social changes in the runup to hosting the 2008 Beijing Olympics, allowing TV producers to include a greater degree of diversity and realism than before.
Yano’s nuanced acting in the popular 2005 drama put him on the map, but his career really took off after he was tapped as an emcee for a variety show three years later.
His witty and smart presentations on the show, produced by a TV station in Hunan Province, made him an instant hit with Chinese viewers.
But he then made a huge faux pas: On one show he lightheartedly paraphrased a Chinese idiom, but the attempted joke backfired and instead infuriated a guest big-name singer with ties to the People’s Liberation Army.
What Yano had intended as a play on words was interpreted by the visibly outraged singer as a reference to the 1931 Manchurian Incident — the Imperial army’s pretext to invade China.
However, Yano said that after he apologized on his blog and various TV channels he received a lot of support from viewers, with some even blaming the singer for misinterpreting his comment.
“The magnitude of hostility (after the blooper) made my hair stand on end, but thankfully I also received help and support from many others,” he said.
He is less optimistic over bilateral ties, which have shown no sign of improving ahead of the 40th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations later this year.
“Despite being neighbors, distrust between the two countries just keeps on intensifying,” Yano said. “I keep thinking about ways I can help to promote deeper mutual understanding.”