In 1919, 15-year-old Zeng Yaoquan from Guang Dong Province, southern China, arrived at Yokohama port to work as a servant at a trading house that imported rice and other crops from China, run by one of his relatives.

Although he always hoped to return to his home country before he died, Zeng spent his whole life in Yokohama’s Chinatown. He died there in 1978 at age 74.

After his death, his ashes, in accordance with his will, were separated and buried at graves at two temples, one in Yokohama and the other in Hong Kong.

“My dad’s life seems to be that of a typical first-generation immigrant. He did any type of work available to Chinese immigrants to support his family, while maintaining a strong desire to return his home someday,” said Zeng’s 51-year-old son, Deshen, the current head of the family.

The life of the Zeng family, which runs a food trading firm, restaurants, a grocery store and food-processing firm in Chinatown, vividly portrays the history of “ro-kakyo,” or Chinese who came to Japan before the war, and their descendants.

Of the registered Chinese residents living in Japan, it is estimated that 50,000, or about 15 percent of the total, are prewar immigrants.

After war broke out between Japan and China in 1937, the Zeng family had to close their trading business. Yaoquan supported the family by working as a cook at a Chinatown restaurant until the end of the war.

“Doors to mainstream society in Japan, such as employment opportunities at major corporations, have long been closed to Chinese residents, forcing them to stick to their own small-scale businesses, especially trading or restaurants,” Deshen said.

Soon after the war ended, the family resumed its trading business with China. It was the family’s prime business until diplomatic ties between Tokyo and Beijing were normalized in 1972.

“As the two countries lacked diplomatic ties, the trade between mainland China and Japan relied on personal connections like ours,” Deshen said, adding that many long-term Chinese residents established firms during this period.

Meanwhile, the normalization of diplomatic ties stirred public interest in Chinese culture, and the Chinatowns in Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe began developing into prominent tourist spots.

Enclave now tourist draw

Yokohama’s Chinatown, the largest in Japan with an estimated Chinese population of some 3,000, now attracts nearly 20 million visitors a year for its roughly 200 restaurants and 300 grocery, souvenir and other shops.

The Zeng family began diversifying its business in the 1970s, partly because major Japanese trading houses were moving into the newly legitimized business after 1972, cutting in on the business of Chinese residents.

“It is often said that the scale of a country’s Chinatowns is a gauge of how liberal and tolerant of minorities a nation is,” Deshen said.

“The recent prosperity of Chinatowns in Japan possibly clarifies that this country is finally becoming more cosmopolitan.”

Since the late 19th century, however, the two countries have fought two major wars, resulting in a legacy of prejudice and discrimination against Chinese residents in Japan.

Wartime legacy

Yin Chiuxiong’s father emigrated to Japan as a cook in the 1930s. Yin, 62, chairman of the Tokyo Association of Chinese Residents, recalls memories of his childhood in Fukuoka during Japan’s 1937-1945 war in China.

“Being the only Chinese child in my neighborhood, I was often bullied by Japanese children when I was kid, so I used to hang out with Korean kids from segregated Korean villages,” Yin said.

“But what was more devastating was that I was often refused entry into bomb shelters (by adults) during U.S. air raids.”

Even after the war, employment discrimination and other bias continued. Lacking Japanese citizenship, he and his fellow Chinese also suffered from a lack of benefits, including public health insurance, for many years.

“Chinese residents in Japan were long left in a void, with no assistance either from the Japanese government or from Beijing, due to the lack of diplomatic ties,” Yin said.

“Instead of counting on politics, we just focused on business, using individual networks among Chinese residents here and with mainland China.”

Intense rivalries between pro-Beijing and pro-Taiwan residents also marked the postwar history of prewar immigrants until the early 1980s.

Even inside the strict confines of Yokohama’s Chinatown, politically opposed residents confronted each other, sometimes violently, until the late 1970s, some said.

This changed after a fire gutted the interior of Kanteibyo (Kuan Di Miao) Temple on the evening of New Year’s Day 1986.

The two sides cooperated in rebuilding the local landmark, getting together for the first time since the 1950s. This paved the way for successive joint efforts by merchants to develop Chinatown into a prominent sightseeing spot.

“The fire now seems to me as a message to us from Kuan Di, who must have been frustrated by decades of conflicts among Chinese people inside this little town,” said Chogen Rai, 51, owner of a Chinatown grocery store and chairman of a pro-Taiwan residents’ association in Yokohama.

Chinese residents elsewhere also seemed to reach a detente, but the two sides still maintain separate resident associations and schools.

Waves of immigrants

While Chinatowns are still the most visible landmarks of Japan’s Chinese population, their older generations are now a minority amid big waves of immigration in the past few decades.

According to government records, there were 32,889 registered Chinese residents in Japan in 1947, including those from Taiwan and Hong Kong. By 1973, there were 46,642, mainly offspring of the earlier immigrants.

By 1990, after diplomatic ties were normalized, the number jumped above 150,000. At the end of last year the registered Chinese population stood at 335,575 — nearly 20 percent of all registered foreigners — next only to the North and South Korean residents.

Of the registered Chinese, nearly 150,000 had permanent residential status in Japan. There were also 27,582 Chinese who had overstayed their visas at the start of this year.

The recent wave of Chinese immigration to Japan began in the early 1980s, when China started to fund students at Japanese colleges. Later, local governments in China and the Japanese government began scholarship programs for Chinese students to study in Japan.

The number of Chinese students coming to Japanese colleges or language schools at their own expense has also gradually increased since the mid-1980s, although some have spent some of their time working illegally.

Many such Chinese residents, often referred as “shin-kakyo.” or new Chinese, have chosen to stay on in Japan, after finding jobs at corporations or schools, or establishing their own businesses.

While he was studying at the University of Tokyo’s medical school, Yan Hao, who came to Japan on a Chinese government scholarship, established EPS Co. in 1991. EPS offers a variety of medical services, including analyzing the results of clinical examinations.

Yan was one of about 100 members of a second group of students who came to Japan on Chinese public scholarships in 1981.

“New Chinese are characterized by their relatively high educational background, which enables them to enter various sectors of Japanese society, such as schools and major corporations,” he said. “Many of them have stronger personnel connections with the current Chinese society, which give them business advantages.”

EPS, which now has more than 500 employees, was listed on the Jasdac stock exchange last year.

More assimilation

The young entrepreneur now serves as chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Japan, which has 160 member firms owned by Chinese residents in Japan. Hao claims there are at least 3,000 corporations owned by Chinese newcomers, and more than 1,000 Chinese teaching as professors and assistant professors at Japanese colleges.

“Another characteristic of Chinese newcomers is that they are less hesitant about assimilating into Japanese society, compared with the prewar immigrants, who lived in an era of harsher prejudice against ethnic minorities,” Yan said.

Makio Morikawa, a professor of sociology at Kyoto’s Doshisha University who studies Chinese ethnic communities in South Asia and North America, said waves of Chinese immigrants have been observed everywhere since China altered its rigid economic policy in the late 1970s.

“The expanding Chinese market has become a meeting point for Chinese businesspeople who run their firms around the world, establishing a loose network of Chinese businesses that has benefited both China and their current home countries, including the United States and Southeast Asian nations, in the past decades,” he said.

Chinese wield a strong influence on the economies of many Asian countries outside China, including Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand, which accepted a huge number of Chinese laborers in the 19th century, he said, adding their descendants now enjoy prosperity.

Compared with those countries, early Chinese immigrants to Japan were few, and their businesses were confined to trading or restaurants until recent years, he said.

“Though Chinese businesses in Japan are still peripheral, the increasing number of Chinese firms and business leaders can at least provide personnel connections between the two countries in the future,” he said.

Ethnic identity

The key to understanding the ethnic identity of Chinese residents in Japan, whatever the generation, can be seen in the curriculum of private Chinese ethnic schools, of which there are five nationwide.

The Yokohama Chinese School in Naka Ward provides education through the junior high level.

Students study Chinese language, history and culture while engaged in the necessary studies to enter Japanese high schools, said Minsheng, the school’s principal.

“Our prime goal is to instill students with a sense of pride as Chinese, but, unlike other international schools, we provide education to help them get through the Japanese school system after they finish our junior high,” he said.

The school currently has 364 students, most of whose parents are newcomers. All of those enrolled will advance to Japanese high schools, Pan said.

“Japan is culturally and ethnically quite homogeneous, exerting very strong pressure on its foreign population to assimilate,” he said.

“It is necessary to provide students with education that will help them live in Japanese society, but before that we must help them establish a positive identity as ethnic Chinese living in Japan.”

He said the bilingual education helps the students seize job opportunities at Japanese companies that are seeking more Chinese-speaking employees in the current economic environment, in which ties with Chinese firms are expanding.

Zeng Deshen of the Chinatown trading firm graduated from the Chinese school 33 years ago and went on to study at a Japanese high school and college.

“Unlike Japanese, to whom ethnicity, nationality and language must always match, Chinese people are not hesitant to have multiple identities at once,” he said.

To explain the Chinese people’s cosmopolitan way of thinking, Zeng cited an old Chinese saying: The four seas make one’s home. This means a person can establish a home anywhere in the world, he said.

Asked where he thinks his “home” is, he replied Yokohama Chinatown, which, he said, boasts a great mixture of Chinese and Japanese culture.

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