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Big in Beijing: Two Japanese Creative Workers Creating a Stir in China
Introducing actor Yano Kōji and architect Sako Keiichirō

Kobayashi Sayuri [Profile]


Although government-level relations between Japan and China remain tense, growing numbers of Japanese people have put down roots in China and are flourishing at the forefront of their fields. Beijing-based writer Kobayashi Sayuri talks to two of them about the challenges they have faced.

Yano Kōji

Yano KōjiBorn 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)

Sako Keiichirō

Sako KeiichirōBorn in Fukuoka prefecture in 1970. Completed a master’s degree at Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1996, and joined architectural firm Riken Yamamoto & Field Shop. Left to form his own company in 2004, establishing Sako Architects in Beijing. Has worked on over 80 projects in China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mongolia, and Spain. Presently Chairman of WaKyoKai Beijing, a network of Japanese entrepreneurs in China. Latest book is Kibō wa tsukuru akiramenai, tamashii no shigoto (Hope is Something You Build) (Pub. Wave Publishers).
Sako Architects:

Yano Kōji: The Actor Who Changed Chinese Views of Japan

Yano strides into the lobby of the Beijing hotel where we have arranged to meet, looking dashing in a black leather jacket and flat cap. His appearance creates a stir among the young female staff, who begin to snap away with their smartphones.

“I’m really grateful that people are still so friendly, even after all the tensions we’ve had. It’s a big encouragement,” Yano says, responding with smiles and a big wave.

After graduating from high school in Osaka, Yano did part-time jobs before moving to Tokyo to pursue his goal of becoming an actor. He paid his dues, spending nine years as an attendant for actor Morita Kensaku (now governor of Chiba Prefecture). In 2000 he traveled alone to China, where he landed his first part as a young Japanese man in a television drama, a love story set in contemporary China. Since then he has appeared in Chinese films and television dramas, playing a wide variety of parts raging from serious parts as a Japanese soldier to a comical part as a Chinese person.

Yano Kōji (far right) has appeared regularly on the Chinese variety show "Tiantian xiangshang" (Daily Progress).

Yano has appeared regularly as one of the presenters on the variety program Tiantian xiangshang (Daily Progress, Hunan Television), which commands top viewer ratings. His fan base grew as he got laughs by playing a typical Osakan funny man in fluent Chinese. As of late March, 2013, he had some 1.2 million followers on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter.

Work Drops Off as Japan-China Relations Sour

Yano has worked as an actor in China for 12 years. “It hasn’t all been plain sailing—I’ve had plenty of ups and downs,” he reflects. The most serious blow came in the fall of 2012, when Japan-China relations took a dramatic turn for the worse.

“Last fall the producers of a television series I had been booked to appear in contacted me to say they were putting my part on hold. I was also scheduled to take part in a Japan-China friendship symposium in Kagoshima City, but that was postponed indefinitely when the Chinese side decided not to attend.”

The work coming his way has dropped sharply—Yano says that anxiety over his future has caused bouts of insomnia. During a recent visit to Japan in an official capacity, the stress triggered breathing difficulties and Yano had to be rushed to hospital in an ambulance.

“The Support of My Chinese Fans Keeps Me Going”

It was a difficult time for Yano, but he was encouraged and supported by the warm words of fans and friends alike, who said they wanted to see him back on television soon.

“Even now, I still get a lot of encouraging messages over Weibo and email,” he says. “The political situation is difficult, but the Chinese fans accept me as a Japanese person. I genuinely feel that they’re the ones keeping me going here in China. I’m so grateful for all the support.”

Soldier’s Part Played with a Human Touch

Yano plays a Chinese spy.

As an actor, Yano has always had dedication to spare. His bitter experience seems to have spurred him to stop and take a good look at himself.

China’s patriotic education means that several hundred anti-Japanese war dramas are made every year. In the past, Japanese soldiers were almost always stereotyped villains, played by Chinese actors as cruel and inhuman. Yano caught people’s attention by playing Japanese soldiers with human emotions, showing grief, bitterness, and conflict.

“Actually, I was reluctant to keep on playing Japanese soldiers. As an artist, I wanted to turn down any more parts as soldiers. Lately, though, I have had time to think it over. Now I think it might be worthwhile taking a soldier’s part if the soldier is properly depicted as a human being, and if it’s a part that might change the image many Chinese people have of Japanese soldiers as nothing but villains.”

Yano has been given a part in a Chinese historical drama that will start filming in spring this year, and is currently spending his time reading through the script prior to beginning work on location.

“I do feel some anxiety that the work I get might be affected by the political situation, but my job as an actor is to be out there on location. Japan and China are close neighbors, and I believe non-governmental and cultural exchanges should continue regardless of the political climate. Ultimately I would like to be recognized as an actor within China’s entertainment world, which has enormous potential for development. I’m going to do everything I can to achieve that.”

In his off-screen life, in 2010 Yano married a Chinese woman who was introduced by a friend. He is a loving father to their two-year-old daughter—“Totally cute,” he says. He acquired Chinese nationality for his daughter, as he says he wants her to be strong like a Chinese woman, and has openly declared that he will bring her up in China.

No matter what adverse winds may blow his way, Yano is determined to establish his roots in Chinese soil.

  • [2013.05.14]

Writer and translator based in Beijing. Turned freelance after a five-year stint at a Chinese state-run magazine. Frequent contributor to Japanese publications on Chinese society, culture, and lifestyles. Translations into Japanese include Kore ga nihonjin da! (This Is What a Japanese Is!). Author Monogatari pekin (The Tale of Beijing), which has been translated into Chinese and English. Her Japanese website can be found at:

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