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Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008
Bridging an East Asia divide
By TOMOKO OTAKE
Unpretentious, hard-working and humble, writer Yang Yi bears more than a passing similarity to the eponymous lead character in her novel "Wang-chan," titled after the nickname of a Chinese woman who moved to Japan as the bride of a Japanese factory worker and then tried to carve out a career as a marriage broker for other Chinese women seeking to marry Japanese men living out in the sticks.
In "Wang-chan," 43-year-old Yang's first attempt at a Japanese-language novel, first published late last year in a literary magazine, the rural cultures and customs of China and Japan are colorfully contrasted — along with rich and bittersweet interactions between the central character and others, including her dying Japanese mother-in-law and a sex-starved Japanese man in search of a Chinese wife.
The native of Harbin in northeastern China (former Manchuria) caused a sensation in Japan when, in October last year, she won the literary magazine Bungakukai's prestigious biannual award for new writers. She created even more ripples last month when she became one of the seven nominees for the Akutagawa Award, one of Japan's most glittering literary accolades.
Although she actually missed out on that top honor, Yang, who teaches Chinese as a day job, was a much talked-about candidate, being the first-ever Chinese to be considered for the highly publicized award. Nonetheless, Yang remains humble about her literary feat, saying she will never become a celebrity novelist. "I am more like a craftsman," she said when asked about her aspirations as a writer.
Last month, Yang published her first book, titled "Wang-chan," which comprises that story and "Roshojo (Old Virgin)," another story that is a tragi-comic account of an unmarried Chinese psychology researcher who fantasizes about a romantic relationship with a handsome Japanese professor.
Yang, who is divorced from a Japanese husband and now lives with her teenage son and daughter in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, recently sat down for an interview with The Japan Times to recount some episodes in her adaptation to life in Japan and how she picked up the language at supermarkets. She also shared her impressions of the enormous changes in people's values in China these days, along with her take on the often thorny matter of Japan-China relations.
How did you react to being nominated for the Akutagawa Award — and then to the news that you didn't win it?
I was exhilarated and it was a nice surprise. I had no idea I would be considered for the Akutagawa Award; I thought it had nothing to do with me. When I learned I didn't get the prize, I was neither sad nor disappointed, because I didn't expect to get it from the beginning and I was really happy just to be a candidate.
Tell us a little about your background.
I was born in Harbin and grew up there, except for three years during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when we spent time in a small farming village to the north. That was because of kaho (the "Down to the Countryside Movement," in which [Communist Party of China Chairman] Mao Zedong [1893-1976] ordered urban intellectuals to live in villages and be re-educated by farmers). My parents were both teachers — my mother was a schoolteacher and my father was a college literature professor — and a certain percentage of teachers in each school were affected.
I had four sisters and brothers, but my oldest sister died after she was expelled alone, at age 16, to a village on China's border with Russia after graduating from high school. She died in a traffic accident there.
How did you come to Japan?
I had relatives in Japan and became interested in the country through photos and other things they sent to our family. I also had a dream to go abroad. Back then, China was not open to other societies, so we had no knowledge of foreign countries.
You came to Japan in 1987 as a student at age 22. Where did you study?
Well, I quit a Chinese university, where I had majored in accounting, before coming here. First, I went to a Japanese-language school in Kabukicho in Tokyo's Shinjuku district (laughs). Next, I was enrolled at Tokai University as an auditor, then I moved to Ochanomizu University.
Why accounting? Were you interested in that?
No (laughs). I chose accounting because I thought it would be useful for my future.
After graduating from Ochanomizu University, I believe you started working at a Chinese-language newspaper.
Yes, that was a little bit later, because after graduating from university, I became pregnant with my daughter. When she turned 3 months old, I put her in day care and started to work at a Chinese-language newspaper here. Then I worked at a few other newspapers for Chinese residents in Japan. At the first one I was doing administrative work, but I wanted to do reporting, so I went to another newspaper, where I worked as a reporter/editor.
What was it like coming to Japan from China 20 years ago?
There were very few Chinese students, so it was very difficult — first to get a visa. When I applied, I had very little information about Japan, but when I got it I felt I needed to go right away.
What were your impressions of Japan at that time, when the bubble economy was in full swing?
Before coming here, I really knew little about Japan and its customs. I was so worried about what I would encounter that I brought everything with me, even my futon set, because I wondered if they had futon in Japan (laughs). I had no knowledge about Japan whatsoever. I was like one of those people who show up at Beijing Station from the countryside for the first time and are wandering around, carrying many big bags with them.
So were you like an onobori-san (first-time visitor to a big city)?
Yes. When I think about it now, it's really embarrassing.
I was living near a Tokai University campus in suburban Hatano City in Kanagawa Prefecture. In March (when the school year ends in Japan), I learned that Japanese students throw everything out, from TVs to fridges! Back then, average Chinese families didn't have a TV or a fridge, so I was really shocked. So later, when I moved to the Kitasenju area in northern Tokyo, I didn't buy anything, because I thought I could pick up all the dumped stuff. After I moved to Tokyo, at 8 or 9 p.m., I would roam around my neighborhood looking for dumped goods, but I couldn't find anything (laughs). So I experienced many inconveniences for a while. . . . But looking back, those were really fun times.