Japan’s Ethnic Enclaves

New Chinatowns Take Root Around Tokyo

Society Culture

A previous article in this series described how a new community of Chinese living in Japan has formed in Ikebukuro. In this installment we look at issues affecting the growth of Chinese communities in Tokyo and the surrounding metropolitan area.

After the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a group of Chinese business people unveiled a plan to create a “Tokyo Chinatown” in the area. Due to inadequate groundwork, however, the proposal met stiff resistance from local Japanese shop owners. Japanese right-wingers were drawn to the fray, sending in blaring propaganda trucks. The situation escalated to a point where police were called in to protect the Chinese-run store Yangguangcheng. In the end, the planners reluctantly had to scrap their plan for a grand “Tokyo Chinatown.”

Reemergence of 2008 Plan

Seven years on, one long-time Chinese resident of Ikebukuro sees lack of communication as the downfall of the plan. “It was presumptuous to try and unilaterally declare part of the city to be a Chinese quarter without gaining the understanding of the Japanese,” she declares. “If there were a lot of Japanese living in Shanghai, for example, residents would not be happy if they grandly launched a Japantown without first explaining their motives.”

Chronology of Tokyo Chinatown Plan

Year Ikebukuro events Other events
1991 Entry of Zhiyin Chinese Foods
2002 Opening of Ikebukuro Yangguangcheng
2004 Opening of Shinjuku Yangguangcheng
2005 Campaign to clean up Kabukichō
2008 Attack by Chinese mafia on Japanese karaoke parlor manager Scandal involving poisoned frozen dumplings made in China
Announcement of “Tokyo Chinatown” plan Beijing Olympics Sichuan earthquake
2009 Exposure of group involved in bank transfer scams (spotlight on criminal organizations in Ikebukuro)
2010 Protests by political groups (warning of attack on Yangguangcheng)
2011 Publication of Ikebukuro Chinatown Great East Japan Earthquake
2014 Start of Tokyo China Town Online portal
2015 New Year’s gathering of the Tokyo Chinatown Promotion Committee (attended by around 200 people)
Report concerning high-rise condominium buildings in Tokyo (about half of contracting parties are Chinese)
Exposure of Daren Internet café (for using pirated software) Number of Chinese restaurants in Ryōgoku and Kinshichō areas exceed 200

Against the background of the weak yen and China’s rapid economic growth, record numbers of Chinese tourists have been coming to Japan on shopping sprees in recent years. The Japanese have looked kindly on these mainland visitors, with their prodigious spending providing a welcome boost to the economy.

Announcements in Chinese are heard on streets and in railway stations, department stores, and large home electronics stores in areas like Ginza and Shinjuku. Even the chatter of Chinese visitors is commonly heard on streets and in shops. This is especially true of the area north of Ikebukuro Station, with its multitude of Chinese-run restaurants. Mobile phone stores and real estate agents in the neighborhood commonly display Chinese notices explaining consultations are accepted regardless of nationality and without a guarantor or that Chinese clerks are on staff.

Chinese students in Japan are known for sending money from part-time jobs back home. However, their purse strings have loosened amid China’s new economic clout and nowadays they are buying everything from daily necessities to real estate. They are also apt to share information on what they buy, which has served to draw attention to Japanese products in China. In light of this new Chinese consumerism, Japanese are slowly changing long-established views of their Asian neighbors.

But change takes time. The Chinese edition of an area map issued by the tourist association in the municipality of Toshima does not mention Ikebukuro’s Chinatown. There are still those who are trying to make progress. In November 2012, a committee studying revisions to Toshima’s urban development master plan stated the idea of a Chinatown in Ikebukuro was interesting and deserved positive consideration. In general, though, the Chinatown is viewed dually as a strength (in terms of tourism) and a weakness (in terms of public order). The culture and tourism section of the local government also takes a passive attitude, saying that it will “cooperate if anything comes out of discussions in the neighborhood.”

While other local governments around the country are setting up tourist associations and taking steps to promote inbound tourism in line with the government’s target of increasing the number of foreign visitors to Japan to 20 million a year by 2020, Toshima, perhaps still haunted by the trauma of 2008, seems to be living in another world.

Chinese New Year Bash

Amid this atmosphere, the Tokyo Chinatown Promotion Committee held a party in Ikebukuro in January to mark the Chinese New Year. The invitation cards for the event read: “Today Ikebukuro is the most vibrant place for Chinese throughout Japan, with the more than 200 Chinese businesses in the area attracting attention from all quarters of the country.”

Some trumpeters of the “Tokyo Chinatown” plan, including the promotion committee, realize coordination with residents of the neighborhood was inadequate and have since been engaging in various modest activities. These include cleaning up around the west exit of the station and taking part in an international exchange mikoshi (portable shrine).

Planners of the original Chinatown idea insisted there would be no showy archway like in Yokohama and tried to assure residents there was no intention of segregating the neighborhood, but their explanations fell on deaf ears. Perhaps as a result, when a new online portal was launched in 2014, it was done quietly and without any fanfare or advertising. The site, which is called The Tokyo China Town Online, provides information on more than 600 companies, mostly in Ikebukuro. It has more than 7,000 members, and its participants include many leading Chinese businesses, although it is still difficult to find through search engines.

Promotion Committee President Hu Yifei stresses the need to tread carefully. “At that time [2008] people had an image of the Yokohama Chinatown, so they misunderstood us,” he explains. “This place comprises mainly Chinese residents of Japan, so we want to proceed steadily and in due course. It’s going to take a bit more time.” Many Japanese, as well as one Toshima official I spoke with, believe the idea has fizzled out. But in cyberspace, it has made a fresh, albeit slow, start.

Chinese Residents Concentrating Around Tokyo

The Tokyo metropolitan region has recently seen an increase in the number of Chinese residing to the north and east of long-established Chinese communities in Shinjuku and Ikebukuro.

According to Ministry of Justice statistics on foreign residents in Japan, as of the end of 2014 nearly half of Chinese residing in Japan, 313,984 people, live in just the four prefectures of the Tokyo metropolitan area (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba). This concentration is a natural phenomenon, given the economic benefits of the area, and far exceeds that for other foreigners, which is about 40%.

The dominant impression to now has been that more Chinese live in the Kansai region. But statistics show that populations in both Saitama (52,495) and Kanagawa (55,942) have surpassed that of Osaka Prefecture (51,121).

Generally speaking, Chinese select places to live according to three conditions: convenient transportation, cheap commodity and land prices, and proximity to workplace and friends. But the formation of Ikebukuro Chinatown promoted one more: the existence of restaurants serving Chinese cuisine. One elderly overseas Chinese told me shops were popping up around Kinshichō in eastern Tokyo from 20 years ago. Steep land prices in Ikebukuro and Shinjuku have provided impetus for concentrations of Chinese restaurants and other businesses to form in new Chinatowns in the Ryōgoku and Kinshichō areas and elsewhere.

According to Tokyo Metropolitan Government statistics, as of the end of April 2015 five municipalities had more than 10,000 Chinese residents (Shinjuku, Toshima, Edogawa, Kōtō, and Itabashi). Among these, Edogawa and Kōtō in the so-called Kasai area each have concentrations on par with Shinjuku and Toshima. Kasai, which includes Sumida and Katsushika, as a whole has more than 36,000 Chinese living there, pointing to the formation of a large China belt on the eastern side of Tokyo and out into Chiba Prefecture centering on the JR Sōbu and Tokyo Metro Tōzai railway lines.

Many Japanese will find it strange that young Chinese women would choose to live in these areas, which certainly cannot be described as trendy or fashionable. However, I spoke with a young woman working for a company in the stylish Roppongi district in Minato who said she prefers living in Ikebukuro, despite advice from colleagues to move to a better place. Although her views on fashion are similar to Japanese women of the same age, they diverge when it comes to where to live. “I have lived here since attending a Japanese language school,” she says with a disgruntled look. “It’s very convenient. Why should I move?”

Although the young woman does not seem worried, Chinatowns have traditionally raised concerns about public order. In the 1990s, Shinjuku’s Kabukichō was the scene of turf war between Japanese criminal organizations and the Chinese mafia (known as the “black society” in Chinese). Likewise, Ikebukuro cannot be described as a posh place with good public order. Some students of nearby Rikkyo University even profess to being too afraid to go near the entertainment district on the western side of the station.

In June of this year three people, including a highly touted young Chinese entrepreneur, were arrested on suspicion of using pirated software to hack into online sites. Such incidents undercut efforts to change persistent negative images of Chinatowns. As one overseas Chinese businessman and long-time resident in Japan put it: “Incidents and crime occur everywhere. Over 99% of Chinese are upright and hardworking.”

Homes and Education

Chinese have a reputation for being enthusiastic about education, and any discussion of Chinese communities abroad inevitably has to mention the issue.

About a 30-minute train ride north of Ikebukuro in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, is the UR Kawaguchi Shibazono Danchi public apartment complex (managed by the Urban Renaissance Agency). Located a short walk from Warabi Station, it has been known since the 1990s as a popular choice for Chinese residents as it does not require guarantors, deposits, and other rental hurdles common in Japan, earning the nickname “new overseas Chinese apartment complex.” In the past, one-third of the complex’s 2,400 households were said to be new overseas Chinese, and events for Chinese residents were often held in the local community hall and meeting rooms.

The Chinese author Yang Yi, who was the first non-Japanese writer to receive the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, wrote about the area stretching from Ikebukuro to Warabi in her 2008 novel Kingyo seikatsu (Life with Goldfish), describing how Chinese had already begun living there from around the turn of the century.

Dougen Chinese Language School, a supplementary school for Chinese children that was launched in Ikebukuro, has opened a branch in the Shibazono complex and on weekends Chinese parents from neighboring cities send their kids there in the hope that they will not forget Chinese.

Yokohama Yamate Chinese School is the only school operating in the metropolitan Tokyo for mainland Chinese children. (There are two Taiwanese schools.) However, it has been unable to keep pace with demand from the rapid increase in Chinese residents. To fill the gap, Dougen, which marks its twentieth anniversary this year, has opened nine branches, including in Chiba to the east, Koshigaya to the north, and Nagoya to the west. The chain boasts over 800 students, which is not surprising considering the number of Chinese families living in these areas.

New Developments

Earlier this year the Sankei News online site pointed to a new trend among Chinese residents in Japan. An April 20 article reported that more than half of high-rise condominiums under construction in central Tokyo had been sold to Chinese, raising rumors that Japanese buyers might cancel their contracts. The site also reported the emergence of a Chinese community in a privately owned housing development project in the Jōto area, citing friction with Japanese residents who complained the Chinese do not obey rules and are noisy. While the articles lack a positive tone and avoid providing specific details, they show that against the background of China’s economic strength, new enclaves of well-off Chinese are beginning to form in Japan.

(Originally written in Japanese by Miki Takajirō of the Nippon.com editorial department and published on August 20, 2015. Banner photo: A Chinese notice on the street announced a mobile phone shop employs Chinese staff.)

China Ikebukuro ethnic Chinatown new overseas Chinese Yangguangcheng cyberspace