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'Neo-Chinatowns' replace Tokyo red-light districts

How Deng Xiaoping's 'reform and opening-up' policy played out in Japan

Chinese restaurants line a street near Nishi-Kawaguchi Station, north of Tokyo. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- An area near Nishi-Kawaguchi Station, just north of Tokyo, used to be a bustling red-light district. The adult entertainment businesses that once populated the area have since given way to restaurants for Chinese residents, whose numbers continue to increase.

The phenomenon is part of a broader trend of modern Chinatowns springing up in greater Tokyo.

These neo-Chinatowns can be found in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district and, more recently, in Kawaguchi, just north of Ikebukuro. Whereas their predecessors -- in Yokohama, Kobe and Nagasaki -- are tourist-oriented, these newcomers are geared to serving Chinese residents of Japan.

"I moved here a month ago after I heard this area is convenient to live in," a Chinese woman who resides in the Shibazono public housing complex in Kawaguchi said in early July. The woman was pushing her child in a stroller near the complex.

The Shibazono housing complex, built in 1978, consists of 15 buildings. Some 4,750 people live in its 2,450 or so units. In 2017, the complex's Chinese residents topped the 50% mark for the first time.

Many of the Chinese renters are men in their 30s who work for an information technology company and have invited their parents to live with them, according to the residents' association. The complex has a nursery school for Chinese children. Signs throughout the complex are written in Japanese and Chinese.

In Kawaguchi, the number of Chinese residents skyrocketed during the past decade. As of April, 19,719 Chinese nationals were living in the city, accounting for more than 3% of the population. They far outnumber residents from Vietnam or South Korea.

Chinese residents also cluster near the Nishi-Kawaguchi and Kawaguchi stations on the JR Keihin Tohoku Line.

Near Nishi-Kawaguchi Station, the number of Chinese restaurants displaying menus in Chinese is on the rise.

Most of these restaurants are run by Chinese and offer menus in Japanese. They are attracting Japanese diners looking for an authentic Chinese eating experience. But inside the restaurants, many customers speak Chinese.

A Chinese woman rides her bicycle past the Shibazono housing complex in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Why Kawaguchi? There are a number of reasons, chief among them is the area's relatively cheap rent.

After the Saitama prefectural police in 2006 cracked down on the adult entertainment businesses near Nishi-Kawaguchi Station, a large number of vacancies opened up and rents dropped.

This attracted Chinese people who work in greater Tokyo.

At the Shibazono complex, the original residents began to age and move out. This also opened vacancies for Chinese residents, who were especially attracted by the fact that public housing complexes do not require renters to provide guarantors.

In Japan, it is common for landlords to demand tenants supply well-employed friends or relatives who agree to pay the rent should something happen to the occupant.

Since public housing complexes do not make this demand, they have become popular with new foreign residents of Japan, who have difficulty meeting this stipulation.

So word about the Shibazono complex spread among Chinese living in Japan.

Another of Kawaguchi's appeals lies in its location: It takes about 20 minutes to get from Nishi-Kawaguchi Station to JR Ikebukuro or Ueno stations. This is a short commute in Tokyo, known for its densely packed rush hour trains.

China's "reform and opening-up" policy, initiated under Deng Xiaoping in 1978, caused a surge in the number of Chinese people moving overseas. Those who have migrated since 1978 are referred to as the "new generation" of overseas Chinese. While the "older generation" tends to settle in the three established Chinatowns, those of the new generation seek jobs and homes in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district.

Ikebukuro once had a police crackdown of its own. As a result, vacancies opened up, and in the 1990s Chinese residents and businesses began moving in.

Chinese, however, believe Kawaguchi is more family-friendly and therefore prefer it over Ikebukuro.

The number of Chinese living in Japan continues to grow, reaching 730,000 at the end of 2017, up more than 20% from a decade earlier.

Kiyomi Yamashita, a professor of ethnic geography at Rissho University, said the number of restaurants operated by the new generation of overseas Chinese is also increasing in the Kameido district of Tokyo's Koto Ward as well as in Osaka Prefecture's Nishinari Ward.

In Kawaguchi, there is increasing friction between Chinese and Japanese residents. There are complaints about noise, especially at night, and that trash is being taken out without first being separated.

Katsuji Nirasawa, who heads the residents' association of the Shibazono public housing complex, said the issue "cannot be quickly resolved due to the cultural differences" as well as to a lack of Japanese language ability.

Since the residents' association called on Chinese to participate, Nirasawa said, about 30 Chinese-led households have answered the call. The association now holds multicultural exchange events once a month. In June, it organized a tai chi class. About 20 residents, half Japanese and half Chinese, showed up for the event in the complex's open space.

As more Chinese participate in the residents' association, headway is being made toward reducing the friction.

There are other programs to help the district's new residents ease their way into the community. The Kawaguchi metropolitan government has deployed two "international exchange personnel" with whom Chinese residents can consult in Chinese.

The number of foreign nationals living in Japan as of Jan. 1 was a record 2.49 million, according to the results of a demographic survey that the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications released on July 11. The ranks of foreign residents is likely to grow further as graying Japan relies more on foreign labor to keep its economy going.

A Japanese who lives at the Shibazono complex said residents of any nationality should be welcomed. "The important thing," the resident said, "is that we all live together in harmony."

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