February 2008


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UVM Japan Program News and Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Steve Cavrak <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 3 Feb 2008 10:36:13 -0500
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Bridging an East Asia divide
Staff writer
Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008

Unpretentious, hard-working and humble, writer Yang Yi bears more  
than a passing similarity to the eponymous lead character in her  
novel "Wang-chan," titled after the nickname of a Chinese woman who  
moved to Japan as the bride of a Japanese factory worker and then  
tried to carve out a career as a marriage broker for other Chinese  
women seeking to marry Japanese men living out in the sticks.

Yang Yi laughs during her recent interview with The Japan Times.  

In "Wang-chan," 43-year-old Yang's first attempt at a Japanese- 
language novel, first published late last year in a literary  
magazine, the rural cultures and customs of China and Japan are  
colorfully contrasted — along with rich and bittersweet interactions  
between the central character and others, including her dying  
Japanese mother-in-law and a sex-starved Japanese man in search of a  
Chinese wife.

The native of Harbin in northeastern China (former Manchuria) caused  
a sensation in Japan when, in October last year, she won the literary  
magazine Bungakukai's prestigious biannual award for new writers. She  
created even more ripples last month when she became one of the seven  
nominees for the Akutagawa Award, one of Japan's most glittering  
literary accolades.

Although she actually missed out on that top honor, Yang, who teaches  
Chinese as a day job, was a much talked-about candidate, being the  
first-ever Chinese to be considered for the highly publicized award.  
Nonetheless, Yang remains humble about her literary feat, saying she  
will never become a celebrity novelist. "I am more like a craftsman,"  
she said when asked about her aspirations as a writer.

Last month, Yang published her first book, titled "Wang-chan," which  
comprises that story and "Roshojo (Old Virgin)," another story that  
is a tragi-comic account of an unmarried Chinese psychology  
researcher who fantasizes about a romantic relationship with a  
handsome Japanese professor.

Yang, who is divorced from a Japanese husband and now lives with her  
teenage son and daughter in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, recently sat down for  
an interview with The Japan Times to recount some episodes in her  
adaptation to life in Japan and how she picked up the language at  
supermarkets. She also shared her impressions of the enormous changes  
in people's values in China these days, along with her take on the  
often thorny matter of Japan-China relations.

How did you react to being nominated for the Akutagawa Award — and  
then to the news that you didn't win it?

I was exhilarated and it was a nice surprise. I had no idea I would  
be considered for the Akutagawa Award; I thought it had nothing to do  
with me. When I learned I didn't get the prize, I was neither sad nor  
disappointed, because I didn't expect to get it from the beginning  
and I was really happy just to be a candidate.

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born in Harbin and grew up there, except for three years during  
the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when we spent time in a small  
farming village to the north. That was because of kaho (the "Down to  
the Countryside Movement," in which [Communist Party of China  
Chairman] Mao Zedong [1893-1976] ordered urban intellectuals to live  
in villages and be re-educated by farmers). My parents were both  
teachers — my mother was a schoolteacher and my father was a college  
literature professor — and a certain percentage of teachers in each  
school were affected.

I had four sisters and brothers, but my oldest sister died after she  
was expelled alone, at age 16, to a village on China's border with  
Russia after graduating from high school. She died in a traffic  
accident there.

How did you come to Japan?

I had relatives in Japan and became interested in the country through  
photos and other things they sent to our family. I also had a dream  
to go abroad. Back then, China was not open to other societies, so we  
had no knowledge of foreign countries.

You came to Japan in 1987 as a student at age 22. Where did you study?

Well, I quit a Chinese university, where I had majored in accounting,  
before coming here. First, I went to a Japanese-language school in  
Kabukicho in Tokyo's Shinjuku district (laughs). Next, I was enrolled  
at Tokai University as an auditor, then I moved to Ochanomizu  

Why accounting? Were you interested in that?

No (laughs). I chose accounting because I thought it would be useful  
for my future.

After graduating from Ochanomizu University, I believe you started  
working at a Chinese-language newspaper.

Yes, that was a little bit later, because after graduating from  
university, I became pregnant with my daughter. When she turned 3  
months old, I put her in day care and started to work at a Chinese- 
language newspaper here. Then I worked at a few other newspapers for  
Chinese residents in Japan. At the first one I was doing  
administrative work, but I wanted to do reporting, so I went to  
another newspaper, where I worked as a reporter/editor.

What was it like coming to Japan from China 20 years ago?

There were very few Chinese students, so it was very difficult —  
first to get a visa. When I applied, I had very little information  
about Japan, but when I got it I felt I needed to go right away.

What were your impressions of Japan at that time, when the bubble  
economy was in full swing?

Before coming here, I really knew little about Japan and its customs.  
I was so worried about what I would encounter that I brought  
everything with me, even my futon set, because I wondered if they had  
futon in Japan (laughs). I had no knowledge about Japan whatsoever. I  
was like one of those people who show up at Beijing Station from the  
countryside for the first time and are wandering around, carrying  
many big bags with them.

So were you like an onobori-san (first-time visitor to a big city)?

Yes. When I think about it now, it's really embarrassing.

I was living near a Tokai University campus in suburban Hatano City  
in Kanagawa Prefecture. In March (when the school year ends in  
Japan), I learned that Japanese students throw everything out, from  
TVs to fridges! Back then, average Chinese families didn't have a TV  
or a fridge, so I was really shocked. So later, when I moved to the  
Kitasenju area in northern Tokyo, I didn't buy anything, because I  
thought I could pick up all the dumped stuff. After I moved to Tokyo,  
at 8 or 9 p.m., I would roam around my neighborhood looking for  
dumped goods, but I couldn't find anything (laughs). So I experienced  
many inconveniences for a while. . . . But looking back, those were  
really fun times.

Yang Yi on holiday in Kanagawa Prefecture's mountainous Tanzawa area  
in May 1991 (top)

; at her graduation ceremony from the prestigious, all-female  
Ochanomizu University in Tokyo in March 1995 (above);

and in Fukuoka with her two children in 1997. PHOTOS COURTESY OF YANG YI

Did you speak Japanese when you first came here?

No. But it was so much fun. At my Japanese-language school, I learned  
new things every day, so after school I really wanted to practice my  
Japanese. I would grab any Japanese person as a conversation partner.  
I would go up to ojisan (middle-aged men) working at bicycle-parking  
sites, and I would talk to them, even when I had nothing important to  
say. So the ojisan were pleased and chatted with me a lot. On my way  
home, at the supermarket I would try to strike up a conversation —  
even though you really don't need to talk at supermarkets. I would  
grab someone and say, "Give me a discount!" But Japanese people don't  
bargain (laughs). It's embarrassing when I think about it now, but  
back then I was audacious.

So did you learn Japanese through everyday conversations like that?

Yeah, I spoke to everyone casually. Chinese people are brazen at  
times, you know! (Laughs.) I took an Odakyu Line train every day, but  
Japanese passengers are very quiet. In the rare cases when I heard  
somebody talking on the train, I would lean over and try to listen to  
what they were talking about. In the beginning, I couldn't understand  
anything. But gradually, I began to hear a few words, such as kino  
(yesterday), and when I could understand even a few words in their  
conversation I was elated. It made me excited throughout the whole  
day. I'm that simple (laughs).

Had you written novels in Chinese before?

I wrote many short fiction stories when I was working at a newspaper.

What was your first story about?

I don't remember; it was part of my job. I had to write so many of  
them, and I was writing under different names every time, so I don't  
even remember which are mine (laughs).

Were you told by the newspaper to change your pen names?

Well, Chinese-language newspapers (in Japan) are very different from  
Japanese ones because they have a very low budget. They can't hire  
many reporters, so reporters would also work as editors, and  
contributions from outside writers are also limited.

At that weekly newspaper I was in charge of editing five pages per  
week, so I had to make one page a day. I had difficulty filling the  
space, especially when there were few contributions from the outside  
— and most of those were of low quality. So I thought it would be  
quicker to write something myself rather than spend ages fixing up  
such articles. But because I didn't want people to think that the  
same writer was writing every week, I wrote under many different  
names so it would look as if we had lots of writers! (Laughs.) Back  
then, I wrote not only fiction but also essays, poems and even  
stories about fashion trends. I made up the trends myself because I  
really didn't know what the latest fashion was.

Did you work long hours back then?

No. Because I had young children, I worked fixed hours, and did no  

When did you start writing in Japanese?

This is my first work in Japanese (pointing to "Wang-chan"), from two  
or three years ago.

How long did it take you to write it?

Not so long. I wrote it in about two weeks. But I had probably been  
thinking a lot about it for a long time before actually writing it,  
though I don't remember the process now.

Where did you get the idea for the plot?

I wasn't really thinking so much about the plot. I mean, I have  
always loved writing; I have struggled a lot in my life; but I also  
had lots of fun in the process. When I was working as a reporter and  
editor, my coworkers always said that it must be really hard to put  
together five pages, but it was no burden for me, because I really  
enjoyed that job. I like teaching as well, especially to advanced  
learners, but with beginners, the lessons are more or less the same  
every time, and I find it boring, though I know this is a rude thing  
to say.

So I thought about my life and I thought I didn't want to end up just  
doing this routine. I then thought that I would really like to write  
— but I wondered how I could make a living from writing. If I  
continued to write in Chinese, I felt that would not be so different  
from the times I was working at the newspapers. Even if I wrote for  
publications in China, I felt that my values and common sense had  
become different from today's values in China. So I thought it would  
be difficult for me to be accepted.

Then, in my environment in Japan, I realized that if I was to really  
make a living out of writing, I would have to be accepted in  
mainstream Japanese society. That's why I decided to write in  
Japanese. If I am targeting Japanese readers, I must write stuff that  
Japanese people would want to read. So I decided to create a story  
that has both Japanese and Chinese characters. Where would Chinese  
people interact most with Japanese? Probably if a Chinese gets  
married to a Japanese. That's how I came up with this story.

Your descriptions of an "arranged-marriage tour" — in which a  
Chinese woman, as a marriage broker, takes Japanese men looking for  
brides to a Chinese village, are very vivid. Are such situations  
happening in real life?

I think they are. Many people told me after I wrote the story, "I  
didn't know you were doing that marriage-broker work!" Well, I have  
never been engaged in such work, so the story is based on my  
imagination and real-life inquiries from such brides to the  
newspapers. I don't know what the situation is really like.

Did you never hear directly from such women?

I never heard direct episodes from them, but when I was working for  
the newspapers we often received phone calls (asking for help) from  
women, and when I asked them how they came to Japan, they would say,  
"through an introduction." So I imagined what they might have gone  

Both "Wang-chan" and "Roshojo" feature a Chinese woman living in  
Japan as a lead character. Do you have any observations on the social  
position of Chinese women today?

Yes, that's exactly why I wrote these novels. The sense of morals and  
the values that they (the Chinese characters) brought from China are  
no longer accepted in China. Not only I, but many Chinese women in my  
generation who came to Japan around the same time as I did, have  
certain fixed ideas about morals and about how women should behave,  
but they are shocked at the sense of morals Japanese people have.  
After living here for a long time, they get used to how Japanese  
feel. But when they go back to China, they see a Chinese society that  
has completely changed. The problem is, they haven't lived the  
changes themselves. So they are shocked again and feel lost.

Is such a sense of disconnection the inspiration for your works?

Well, how can I say it? . . . To me, the lead characters are — even  
though they take the form of humans — the old Chinese morals. They  
are old-fashioned by Japanese standards. But then, even if they go  
back home, they are not accepted because Chinese society has changed  
so much. These people are not bad, but they are lost in between.

The principal character in "Roshojo" is depicted a bit comically. I  
almost found the character pitiful.

Yes. To me, that's exactly what the old Chinese values are — pitiful  

Which other countries have you been to? How do you feel about women  
in those countries?

I've made very short trips to places such as Singapore and South  
Korea, places that are not that different. What struck me as  
interesting was that, while Singapore is a country of many races, I  
had thought it was a country mostly consisting of Chinese people. But  
it was different. This is based on my experience of just using the  
airport and taxis and other things, and I've never lived there. But  
if you ask what language Singaporeans are best at — Chinese, English  
or Malay — it is a mishmash of all these languages. If you asked  
them, "Please do not use English or Malay, just speak Chinese,"  
nobody could do it. I felt that people in Singapore have an  
inferiority complex. In other words, they have no strong cultural  
base, they don't know where they belong culturally, and that seems to  
be their inferiority complex.\

Marriages in the making

"Wang-chan" is the story of an eponymous Chinese woman,  
affectionately so named by the author because it was her Chinese  
family name. In the story, though, Wang-chan is known by all the  
other characters as "Kimura-san," following her marriage to a  
Japanese assembly-line worker living in a village in Shikoku, whom  
she met through a marriage broker.

Wang-chan came to Japan because she was desperate to leave her  
womanizing ex-husband, who would show up again and again after their  
divorce to finagle money out of her. No matter how many times she  
moved to various cities in China to start her life again, her good- 
for-nothing ex-husband would find her, turn up at her workplace and  
take her hard-won money away by making her feel guilty about  
abandoning their son, who has turned out to be exactly like his dad  
and regards her only as a cash cow.

Now a Japanese national, Wang-chan is in a loveless marriage with the  
ominously quiet husband in Shikoku, who, when he is not at work, does  
nothing but lie around at home watching television. While she finds  
interactions with her lonely mother-in-law comforting, she is scared  
by her unemployed brother-in-law, who once gave her a lustful look.

To become economically independent, Wang-chan starts a marriage- 
brokerage business aiming to hook up female Chinese villagers with  
Japanese men living in the countryside. One time, she takes a group  
of these men from desolate villages to a similarly depopulated  
farming village in China. There, she introduces the men to local  
women who, due to various circumstances, are dying to meet nice and  
relatively affluent husbands.

Wang-chan tries hard to equate the various demands and expectations  
of the women, their families and the Japanese men — one of whom,  
old, dirty-minded Uno, is fond of leaving the group to visit "massage  

But then, as Wang-chan busies herself with this work, and also cares  
for her dying mother-in-law, she finds herself gradually attracted to  
one of her Japanese clients, who is the hard-working owner of a  
vegetable store — but who has already picked his bride . . . (Tomoko