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. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

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 University.

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 overtime.

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 through.

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 (laughs).

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 parlors."

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 Otake)