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Thursday, June 27, 2002

Chinese invasion making waves in Japan

From bicycle parts to esoteric cuisine, Chinese immigrants are making their presence felt

The other day, I happened to be on the platform of JR Kichijoji Station as a Sobu Line express pulled in. Wanting to be certain it would stop at the next station, Nishi-Ogikubo, I inquired to the young man standing next to me. In halting Japanese, he said that he was Chinese and didn't understand my question.

News photo
A wide range of Chinese magazines and newspapers are available in Tokyo.

The train doors had already opened, and lacking time to accost a native, I repeated my question in Chinese, which I must credit myself with having the foresight to learn many years ago -- for use someday at encounters just like this one. The man was momentarily taken aback, but knew the answer. We boarded the train together and, after exchanging a few pleasantries, I bade him a pleasant farewell and disembarked at Nishi-Ogikubo.

Actually these sorts of encounters have been happening to me with some regularity. I might be seated on a train and notice that the passenger beside me is reading a Chinese magazine. Or perhaps overhear one having a conversation in Mandarin.

It's a recent development, however. China may be a huge country with some 1.2 billion people, but before its "economic reforms" were instituted in the late 1980s, it was fairly rare to encounter people from the mainland in Tokyo. Of course there had been a steady flow of ethnic Chinese visitors from Taiwan and Hong Kong. And somewhat less often, I would spot government, trade and academic delegations from mainland China, who in those days were easily recognizable by their zhongshan zhuang attire (erroneously referred to as "Mao suits," but actually named for a much earlier revolutionary, Dr. Sun Yat-sen).

Japan has already become quite reliant on imports from China. An article appearing last month in the weekly magazine Aera noted that China currently supplies Japan with 95 percent of the bamboo skewers used for grilling yakitori and commands a major share of the market for western-style umbrellas (90 percent); green tea beverages (over 80 percent); sporting goods (70 to 80 percent); grave memorial stones (70 to 80 percent); eels (70 percent) and bicycles (49 percent).

Yet another fast-growing Chinese export is people: In terms of their numbers in Japan, Chinese may soon overtake Koreans as the largest foreign group. There are now nearly 10 Chinese for every American residing here. We are seeing the stirrings of a new immigrant community whose impact will be felt -- socially, culturally and perhaps even politically -- much the way Australia has become home for Greeks, or Southern California for Latinos.

Chinese enclaves can already be found in Shinjuku and Itabashi wards, and I understand another one has recently sprung up around Higashi Jujo, Kita Ward.

There appear to be least eight, and probably even more, vernacular Chinese newspapers published in Tokyo. Their advertising attests to the presence of remarkable economic vitality: travel agencies, bookstores, beauticians, video rental shops, herbal medicines, and so on.

For perhaps 1,500 years, Japan has absorbed Chinese cultural accouterments ranging from its writing system, calendar, and Buddhism to products that make up part of the everyday diet, like tofu and shoyu. Not surprisingly, one of the most immediate beneficiaries from this influx of new arrivals has been Chinese cuisine. In addition to restaurants, Chinese grocery shops carry an amazing supply of affordable, imported goodies.

Reveling in this newfound authenticity, I joined two Canadian journalist friends and a student from Shanghai last January to usher in Chinese New Year at a favorite hole-in-the-wall in Kabukicho. Our meal included dog meat along with other assorted comestibles. This particular shop, named Shanghai Xiaochi, occupies the same location as a long-defunct bar called Merlin that I began patronizing 35 years ago this month.

With no insult intended, I can assert that thanks to these entrepreneurial newcomers, my old hangout has literally gone to the dogs.

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