Big in Beijing: Two Japanese Creative Workers Creating a Stir in China

Culture Lifestyle

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

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)

Sako Keiichirō

Born 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 work...

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.

Sako Keiichirō: Architect Building Landmarks Across China

Beijing’s Central Business District stretches out across the eastern part of the Chinese capital. In the center of the district is a massive complex of glass-sided skyscrapers full of offices and shops—this is the Jianwai Soho project, designed by Sako Keiichirō.

“This is where I came to be involved in China,” says Sako. “It all started in the fall of 2000, when the Japanese architectural company I worked for won the competition to design Jianwai Soho. We tried to get rid of the sense of confinement that affects a lot of Chinese buildings, and created a place where people can relax. The idea was to create a space that is open but safe at the same time. Our idea was very well received.”

Pixel in Beijing, one of the projects that Sako worked on. At 700,000 square meters, the massive residential complex is one of the biggest in the city.

The district includes the new offices of Central Chinese Television, a huge gate-like building designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, and skyscrapers towering 330 meters high. This area, which is seen as a proving ground for architects, is now a part of the modern cityscape and a symbol of a newly emergent China.

Sako notes that China is quite open in some respects—prominent projects entrusted to foreign firms in recent years include the “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium seen by millions during the 2008 Beijing Olumpics and the new CCTV offices.

“They are quite receptive to bold plans, so the challenge is worth taking on. There is a vigor and flexibility in the growth stage of a city that is missing from a more mature market like Japan. It requires more effort, but the work here offers more opportunities where I can really express myself.”

Pushing Forward Decisively

Sako went independent and established Sako Architects in Beijing in 2004. To date, Sako Architects has designed more than 70 large-scale constructions and interiors across the whole of China. These include Cube Tube, an office and restaurant building in Jinhua, Zhejiang Province, in which a cube-shaped building and a more tubular-shaped structure combine in perfect harmony, and Bumps, a residential complex in Beijing with a unique exterior like a pile of building blocks. Once seen, never forgotten—the novel, individual designs of these buildings have seized the imaginations of people all over China.

Cube Tube in Jinhua (left) and Bumps in Beijing (right)

Sako says he often gets requests from private-sector developers looking for him to design a building with the potential to become a regional landmark. There is fierce competition in the market, and eye-catching designs from Japanese architects are one way for planners to appeal to buyers.

“Of course, it’s not enough just to come up some eccentric shape. My aim is for a kind of architecture that fits in with the region and the environment. The important thing is to have a strong sense of responsibility for the area and the courage to forge ahead. When you’re deciding on a design proposal, you sometimes need the guts just to jump in and not worry too much.

Optimistic About the Future

In September 2012, when anti-Japan demonstrations were at their height, Sako went to take photographs of a recently completed kindergarten and primary school in Tianjin. The local manager wasn’t sure whether he should allow a Japanese person onto the site. In 10 years living in Beijing, it was the first time Sako had ever encountered such a reaction. There have been times recently when he has hesitated to take a call in Japanese on his mobile phone out of concern about the reaction of the people around him.

“I’d never felt stress like that before. Our productivity fell off, and everything took far more time and effort than necessary. But we still finished all our projects on time. Of all the Japanese companies with operations in China, it is the non-manufacturing industries, particularly creative fields like architecture, that seem to have been the least affected.”

Sako has witnessed turmoil at firsthand before since coming to Beijing: he was in the city for the SARS panic in 2003 and the anti-Japan demonstrations of 2005 and 2010. Even so, he says that the current situation is the worst he has known. Nonetheless, he remains positive and optimistic about the long-term prospects.

“It will be the same as always. There’s a backlash for a while and then things improve. It takes a lot of effort to continue being angry all the time—you just can’t do it. Japan and China need to join hands. I’m sure they’ll find a way.”

Leaving a Legacy for the Future

Sako Architects employs a staff of about 30 Japanese and Chinese workers in its Beijing office. The company is currently at work on more than 10 projects of various sizes—20 if projects in the planning stage are included. The company has also contributed to reconstruction projects, including the design for an earthquake-resistant kindergarten donated to the area affected by the Great Sichuan Earthquake, and the Tōhoku Sky Village concept, which calls for islands 20 meters above sea level to be built in Natori City, Miyagi Prefecture, to create a tsunami-safe city.

“I’ve had sleepless nights and I don’t know how many times I’ve had to go to the site to explain the design,” laughs Sako. “The question is how I can contribute as an architect in a situation where both Japan and China have both suffered major earthquakes. I want to leave something that will stand as a symbol of reconstruction—and as a source of pride for future generations.”

(Originally written in Japanese. Text and photographs by Kobayashi Sayuri.)

Tōhoku design earthquake China overseas Japan-China relations Senkaku Islands reconstruction actor Beijing television Yano Kōji play television drama Sako Keiichirō architect plan SARS anti-Japan demonstration interview