Commentary / Japan | SENTAKU MAGAZINE

China moving slowly into Hokkaido

by Senkaku Magazine

Chinese money is pouring into Hokkaido at a much greater scale than imagined. In his recent visit to the island prefecture, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attended a forum of Japanese prefectural and Chinese provincial governors in Sapporo on May 11, but a Chinese diplomatic source said he was just using the meeting as an excuse for touring the island.

His destinations of choice for the observation tour were Toyota Motor Hokkaido Inc., Toyota Motor Corp.’s wholly owned subsidiary producing transmissions and other automobile components, and a state-of-the-art vegetable plant, both in Tomakomai — apt choices for Li, who in 2015 initiated the “Made in China 2025” economic reform plan to upgrade the Chinese economy and industry.

But greater importance seems to lie in the simple fact that the Chinese premier chose to visit the prefecture. The penetration of Chinese money into Hokkaido has been progressing quietly but steadily. According to statistics released by the Hokkaido government, Chinese capital last year purchased more than 2,400 hectares of forestland and an estimated 4,000 hectares of land for solar power generation — together equivalent to the area encompassed by the Yamanote Line in Tokyo. No doubt, there are additional land purchases by Chinese money not reported to the government.

More ominous is the acquisition of farmland by Chinese capital. For example, an agricultural production corporation, established by a Japanese trading firm with close ties to China money, has bought up at least 1,100 hectares of farmland. Of that land, over 100 hectares in the town of Biratori in southern Hokkaido has not been cultivated and remains unused.

The investor may be waiting for a reclassification of the purchased land to non-agricultural use. People close to the trading firm have reportedly been approaching the local agricultural committee, which has the power to change the classification. But it is unthinkable for a company to leave purchased land unused for a long period of time.

Chinese investments are particularly active along the Pacific coast of Hokkaido, especially in the cities of Tomakomai and Kushiro, both equipped with port facilities.

Tomakomai, which Li visited, has become a major foreign investment target for land acquisition and hotel construction since it has good access to New Chitose Airport and is viewed as a leading candidate to host “integrated resort” facilities.

Last year, Tomakomai Komazawa University was handed over free of charge to a Chinese-funded school operator and a plan is afoot to build a Chinese international school in the area.

The eastern Hokkaido city of Kushiro, meanwhile, has been frequented by high-ranking Chinese officials, including the ambassador to Japan, since the Kushiro Japan-China Friendship Association was established in 2011. That body has never failed to send delegates to meetings of the Japan-China Friendship Association in places like Tokyo and Sapporo, and opened a representative office in Beijing in 2016.

The Chinese side, meanwhile, has sounded out the city about opening a Confucius Institute in the city. Suspicion is strong that Confucius Institutes established in various parts of the world are espionage fronts for the Chinese Communist Party. According to an informed source, the location in Kushiro is likely to be inside Kushiro Public University of Economics. If the plan materializes, it will be the second Confucius Institute in Hokkaido following the one established at Sapporo University.

China’s penetration is more clearly visible in the town of Shiranuka, which lies next door to Kushiro. High schools there have designated Chinese as a selective foreign language subject for second- and third-year students. The municipal government, meanwhile, has injected more than ¥100 million in subsidies into a Chinese-run factory there. Inside the plant compound is a heliport — an unlikely facility for such a site.

Solar and biomass power plants run by Chinese companies abound in and around Kushiro and Shiranuka. It is not clear, however, whether they are making a profit, leaving locals to wonder about the reason for such large investments.

Resort facilities in Tomamu and Sahoro are well-known as instances of investments in Hokkaido by Chinese. The Tomamu resort was suddenly bought up by a Shanghai company 15 years ago and what used to look like a ghost town has developed a completely different face. But unlike other resorts, which are visited by tourists from a variety of foreign countries, most visitors to Tomamu are from Asia in general and China in particular. In the nearby village of Shimukappu, non-Japanese accounted for 25 percent of its residents as of the end of February. JR Tomamu Station looks like a facility for Chinese. A colony in which owners, employees and visitors are almost exclusively Chinese has sprung up. Symbolic is the fact that Chinese and Japanese are the only languages used for announcements in limited express trains connecting Kushiro with Chitose and Sapporo.

Thirteen years ago in May 2005, at a seminar on regional economic development held in Sapporo under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, a Chinese businessman running language schools in Hokkaido spoke about increasing Hokkaido’s population to 10 million, almost double the population of between 5 million and 6 million then and now.

The person mentioned achieving the increase mainly by inviting foreign citizens to Hokkaido, with Chinese numbering 2 million. Although such a scheme was thought at the time to be absurd, Chinese are coming to Hokkaido today in large numbers. Although the land they have acquired may not be put to use immediately, the new owners have already secured energy sources, transportation means, water and other necessities, according to a well-informed Hokkaido local.

China has seriously started thinking of turning Okinawa and Hokkaido, both well-suited for advance into the Pacific, into buffer zones, according to the Chinese diplomatic source quoted at the outset of this column. Although Hokkaido has strategic importance in navigation to the Arctic Ocean, nothing has been done about it so far, the diplomatic source added. The source mentioned that China has started doing in Hokkaido what it has been doing in Okinawa — acquiring real estate with Chinese capital.

What China is doing in Hokkaido is far from constructing strategic bases in foreign lands as part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative to connect it to Europe. But China’s intention of slowly penetrating Hokkaido over a long period of time is clear. Beijing’s ideal outcome is to create a situation in which people in Hokkaido cannot move forward without relying on China, the diplomatic source said. China seems to be really serious about its strategic moves in Hokkaido.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the May issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. More English articles can be read at www.sentaku-en.com.