The Chinese residents who call Japan home
- 13 August 2013
- From the section Asia
It is widely assumed that Japan and China hate each other and will never get along. Look at the anti-Japanese riots in China last year where some protesters openly called for the Chinese government to strike Japan with nuclear weapons.
Look at the increasingly tense encounters between Chinese and Japanese ships in the East China Sea as they vie for control of a small group of islets. In Japan the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talks more and more openly of China as a threat.
And yet there is another side to this relationship which gets much less attention.
I am standing in a vegetable field in the baking sun, two hours' drive north of Tokyo. This is Ibaraki, the garden of Japan. The deep alluvial soils can produce up to five vegetable crops a year if properly looked after.
In front of me a line of young men are bent double, a knife in one hand a basket in the other. They are rapidly cutting the tall, green spinach and placing each bunch carefully in a basket. The only Japanese man working here is Yoshinori Kitajima, the farm's owner. All of the others are Chinese.
For the last 10 years Mr Kitajima has been hiring Chinese "trainees" to work on his farm. He admits his business would not survive without them. Young Japanese simply would not do this sort of work anymore.
Working side by side with the young men from poor villages in central China has given Mr Kitajima a new regard for his Chinese neighbours.
"When I work with these trainees, I can feel they are pure and genuine," he said.
"They remind me of Japanese people from a previous generation. They still have the spirit of working together. This is something we in Japan have lost."
He calls them trainees because officially they are here to study and can only stay three years. But across the country, there are now at least 100,000 Chinese "students" working on Japan's farms and in Japanese factories.
There are also many more Chinese who are coming and staying. In 1990, there were around 150,000 Chinese living in Japan. Today, there are more than 700,000.
Ask Japanese people about that number and they will often express surprise. One reason is that Chinese immigrants blend in so quickly.
In Tokyo's famous Harajuku shopping district, I am waiting to meet a rising fashion model called Leena. When she steps from a taxi, she is everything I had been led to expect - tall and beautiful with a winning smile and for a Japanese girl, exceptionally long legs.
Except of course, Leena is not Japanese. She was born in a small town in Shandong province in eastern China. Her father, an engineering professor, brought her to Japan when he came to teach here 10 years ago.
Today, Leena is thoroughly Japanese. She even claims her spoken Japanese is better than her Chinese these days.
"Most people here have no idea I am Chinese. When they hear me speaking Chinese they say, 'Oh wow, Leena can speak Chinese!'
"I recently started going on TV shows here to talk about China… and people were surprised. They said, 'Really, Leena is Chinese?' But most people I know just don't care."
Certainly the young Japanese men crowding around her do not. All they want is a photo on their smartphones with the rising fashion star.
Leena came here as a child, so perhaps it is not surprising she found it easy to assimilate. But by far, the largest group of Chinese immigrants come as university students.
Guo Ke is one of them. The 28-year-old works at a real estate business that helps finds Tokyo properties for Chinese investors.
"Each week, I have two or three Chinese clients fly in to look at property," he said.
"They like Tokyo because it's a big international city, it very modern, it's clean, it's close to China… and actually property here is now cheaper than in Beijing or Shanghai."
Despite the recent political turmoil between China and Japan, Guo Ke says the number of Chinese buyers coming to Tokyo is going up, not down.
Today, he is showing a young Chinese woman from Shanghai around apartments in northern Tokyo.
Lin Qian Yi is another student who never went home. She married a Japanese man and they are soon hoping to start a family. Lin Qian Yi reveals another thing that you do not often hear in the media - a lot of Chinese people really like Japan.
"Here it is very safe, the air quality and water quality are good," Ms Lin said
"The food is great and Japanese people insist on very high standards. Also the Japanese government supports people who want to have children."
I ask Ms Lin what it is like in her house when tensions between China and Japan get bad, like they did last year.
"We don't really talk about that," she said, with a laugh.
Then she turns serious. "I really hope China and Japan can be friends. We are neighbours, so we have to deal with each other. So the best way is with peaceful co-operation. That's good for both countries."
It is a sentiment farmer Yoshinori Kitajima would strongly agree with.
We are now sitting around a large table in Mr Kitajima's farmhouse, eating Chinese food cooked by his "students". With ice-cold Japanese beer, we toast each other in Japanese and then in Chinese.
"I am sure there are some people back in their hometowns who hate Japanese people," Mr Kitajima said.
"But when they go back to their hometown, I hope that they will tell their friends and family about what Japanese people are really like. This is a tiny cultural exchange, but an important one."