Building Bridges Between Japan and China

Yano Kōji: The Japanese Actor Who’s Big in China

Society Culture

Actor Yano Kōji is one of the most popular Japanese people in China. After starting his career with repeated roles as Japanese soldiers in World War II dramas, he diversified into other roles and appears regularly on a popular Chinese variety show. Now he plans to return to Japan, but still wants to maintain a link with his Chinese fans.

Yano Kōji

Born in Higashi Osaka in 1970. Since making his debut in a Chinese television drama in 2000, he has appeared in a diverse range of productions and become a major presence on Chinese TV screens. These include the historical dramas Jiyi de zhengming (The Proof of Memory), Juji shou (Sniper), and Feicui fenghuang (Jade Phoenix); the spy action movie Dongfeng yu (East Wind Rain); and the variety program Tiantian xiangshang (Daily Progress). Author of Tairiku haiyū Chūgoku ni aisareta otoko (Continental Actor: The Actor China Loved) (pub. Yoshimoto Books).
Official blog: (Japanese), (Chinese)

Over a 14-year career in China, Yano Kōji has become a major television star. In August 2015, the actor was awarded the Foreign Minister’s Commendation for promotion of mutual understanding between Japan and China. Although surprised by the Japanese governmental award, given that he has mainly been active in China, Yano expressed his happiness at being recognized.

Endless Roles as Japanese Soldiers

When Yano first arrived in China in 2000, he became well known for playing Japanese soldiers in World War II drama series. However, as he played an endless line of brutal and callous military men, ranting and raving as they indiscriminately slaughtered Chinese people, he found the work increasingly stressful. By 2005, he found it almost unbearable, to the point where he says he would feel nauseous just looking at a military uniform. On the advice of a movie director, he decided to move on from accepting roles as Japanese soldiers. From 2008, he started appearing on the popular variety show Tiantian xiangshang and playing more diverse characters in television dramas and films.

Yano holding his autobiography.

Japan-China relations have experienced many political and economic changes over the years and in observing these Yano has remained composed and true to himself. Through the microblogging site Weibo and other means, he has endeavored to post messages that reassure his Chinese fans.

His 2011 autobiography Tairiku haiyū: Chūgoku ni ai sareta otoko (Continental Actor: The Man Loved by China) helped to bring him to the attention of the Japanese media and not always in a good way. Some outlets portrayed him as having sold his soul to China or as having won fame through opportunistically accommodating himself to Chinese views. Rumors swirled around the Internet that he had been punched and badly hurt when he came back to Japan, and then people said that this meant that he was no longer able to return to his native country.

At our interview, Yano explains that the punching incident was just an Internet lie with no foundation in reality. Another time, a story circulated online that he had married a Chinese actress, even though he was already married to an ordinary Chinese woman and had a five-year-old daughter. “It was a bit of an eye opener to see just how easy it is for the Internet to go headlong down the wrong path,” he says with a wry smile.

Yano is now planning to fulfil a long-held hope of returning to Japan as an actor, while letting fans know about what he is doing. From next year he will relocate to Tokyo. When he visited the capital on a recent trip with his family, Yano was surprised when a subway station worker took him at his word and let him through the gate after he had lost his train ticket and tried to pay again. His Chinese wife was amazed and he saw this as a good way of persuading her of Japan’s good points. He also plans to share the story with his Chinese fans.

“Just as in China, I definitely want to act in TV dramas and movies, and if I get the chance I’d also like to appear on variety shows,” Yano says, displaying his ambition. In China he mastered the language more while on the job than in classes and his Chinese skills helped him to succeed in variety while he was there. He attributes this in part to his being from Osaka, where locals love jokes and comedy, and is determined to break into variety in Japan.

In the 2015 film Lian’ai jiaofu (Romance Godfather). © Beijing Golden Pond Media

Helping to Support Japan-China Relations

Yano is determined to remember the Chinese fans who helped him get to the top though. As one of the few Japanese people known and trusted among the ordinary Chinese public, he plans to continue his role as a “pipe” between the countries, helping to maintain good relations. “I’ll tell China about interesting or funny things that happen to me in Japan.”

During the tense period surrounding Japan’s nationalization of the disputed Senkaku Islands in 2012, many Weibo users wrote that “Yano Kōji is a foreigner. But he’s not an outsider.” The actor took heart from this support as he continued working in China.

When he was regularly appearing as Japanese soldiers, his Chinese directors would often insist he play simple bad guys—“the worse the better and the more brutal the better.” Even then, he thought that “whether someone is good or bad, there is a reason for what they do,” and he tried to incorporate this thinking into his performances.

It will be interesting to follow the career of this determined actor, who also battled to overcome language barriers to win popularity on Chinese variety shows, as he returns to Japan where he is, as yet, little known. It will also be exciting to follow his continuing interaction with Chinese fans, to whom he is not a shining, impersonal export product, but a real individual with his own strengths and flaws.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on October 22, 2015, based on an interview in Tokyo conducted by Miki Takajirō of the editorial department. Banner photo: Yano Kōji in the drama Zhanshen (God of War). © Beijing Golden Pond Media.)

China variety Japan-China relations World War II actor entertainment television films