Megan Mulrooney, a former director at Nino Mier, will open her own gallery in his old Los Angeles space
July 3, 2024
100 Life-Sized Elephants Lumber Along a Newport Cliff in a Global Conservation Project
July 4, 2024
Megan Mulrooney, a former director at Nino Mier, will open her own gallery in his old Los Angeles space
July 3, 2024
100 Life-Sized Elephants Lumber Along a Newport Cliff in a Global Conservation Project
July 4, 2024

The Japanese art scene is experiencing a renaissance, fuelled by big events, a revitalised global cultural presence and—perhaps most strikingly for a country sometimes perceived as insular—new faces. Along with Western expatriates and unskilled workers mostly from South and Southeast Asia, the country is seeing a notable influx of mainland China’s educated middle class, including many artists and cultural workers. Cultural overlaps, geographic proximity and accessible residency in Japan mean mainlanders are finding a new artistic diaspora refuge there.

“Compared with Western countries, Japan’s culture is more similar to China’s, and Japanese is easier to learn for native Chinese speakers,” says Alex Wang, an editor of the Japanese art magazine BijutsoTecho. “Additionally, Tokyo, as one of the most international cities in Asia, offers a rich cultural and artistic scene.”

Wang came from China to Japan as a student in 2014. “When I started my current job in 2018, there were probably fewer than ten Chinese people active in the Tokyo art scene,” he recalls. “In recent years, many galleries founded by Chinese have emerged in Tokyo, and many medium and large Japanese galleries have employed staff from mainland China or Taiwan. Some museums in Japan also have Chinese curators or media officers.”

They are part of China’s ongoing “runxue”, a bilingual pun on the Pinyun for run, referencing the emigrations driven by growing frustrations under zero Covid and now exacerbated by poor economic prospects as well as increasing censorship. The culture-working middle class want an outlet of safety and openness but want to maintain close personal and professional ties in China. Political upheaval, xenophobia and anti-Asian violence have rendered many Western countries less appealing for China’s literati.

According to Japan’s Immigration Services Agency, as of 2023 Japan had 821,838 Chinese residents, up 60,275 or 24.1% from 2022, making this a sizable community within Japan’s total cohort of nearly 3.5m foreign residents. Many of them are people working in the arts, design, media and architectural fields. A number of established mainland artists have moved to, or at least established second homes in Japan, for example, while at least five Tokyo galleries—MJK Gallery and Blank Gallery among them—have Chinese founders. However, no recent migrants consented to be identified when contacted by The Art Newspaper, with reluctance due to entrenched Sino-Japanese geopolitical and historic hostilities.

An installation view of MJK Gallery in Tokyo

Japan’s brutal invasion and occupation of China, which began in 1931 and ended in 1945, still haunts the Chinese psyche, a bruise frequently poked by China’s government and netizens to agitate nationalism. The continued embrace of Japan’s Yasukuni war shrine—which commemorates those who fought in conflicts including the two Sino-Japanese wars—by right-wing politicians further fuels animosity. Japanese culture is widely, wildly popular in China, but any public expression seen as pro-Japan, even as innocent as cosplays, can prompt accusations of being anti-China. Last week, a stabbing at a Japanese school in Suzhou, which led to the death of a bystander who intervened, is believed to have been xenophobia-driven.

“Growing up in China, my impression of Japan was not good, yet Japanese dramas made it seem like a completely different place,” says the artist Han Ishu, who followed his parents to Japan from Shanghai in 1997, when he was nine. Han’s family moved to the small Japanese city of Aomori, where “there were no other Chinese kids like me, it was a very special environment, so I learned to camouflage, containing it all within myself.” He recalls watching events such as China’s 2005 anti-Japan protests on television.

Ishu Han

Han, a Japan permanent resident and Chinese national with a Japanese spouse, explains in Mandarin that he dreams in Japanese, which forms a fluid identity he explores in his art. His multimedia and installation works channel memories such as, in pre-internet times, spending half his monthly allowance on a three-minute call to his grandparents who initially raised him back in China.

Yet despite this nostalgia connected to his homeland, Han says he does not think of himself as an immigrant, because of how young he was when he travelled.“ Adults can decide to go back, and already have formed their own identity [before they move],” he says.“As a kid, identity is physical like a body, it is very complex.”

A country opening up

The influx of Chinese artists to Japan can at least in part be explained by the growing ease with which foreigners from all over the world can emigrate there.

Han and his parents were part of the last major wave of migration to Japan from China, mostly from Shanghai and Fujian, which took place in the 1990s, shortly after Japan had eased its immigration laws.That cohort largely self-identified as the “New Overseas Chinese”, and often applied for permanent residency—instead of Japanese citizenship—so that they can maintain a dual existence in both countries, according to research by the sociologist Gracia Liu-Farrer. “Japan does not recognise dual citizenship, so applying for Japanese citizenship means you must renounce your original nationality,” says Wang.

Previously, permanent residency has required ten years’ continuous residency, but the Japanese government recently introduced a “highly skilled professional” visa, relaxing the conditions for permanent residency to between one and three years for qualified applicants, Wang adds. “Additionally, due to Japan’s declining population, there is a labor shortage in all industries, making it relatively easy for foreigners to find a stable job in Japan and stay legally.” Japan now has an average birthrate of 1.3 children per woman, with over 25% of its population over age 65, and its population shrinking by over half a million people per year.

Han explains, however, that despite the apparent opportunities for emigration, from his experience it is not straightforward. “Japan has fewer workers, but it still is not that welcoming” of immigration, he says. Now a teacher at Joshibi University of Art and Design, he has many Chinese students, “more and more” of whom want to stay – but not all can get the visa and residency. Even if they do, the studio-like living space available is cramped and expensive.

Wang acknowledges some of these difficulties: “Since Japan is not traditionally an immigrant country, integrating into Japanese society poses certain challenges,” she says. “However, if you can speak Japanese fluently and proactively engage with local Japanese people, most Japanese are very friendly towards foreigners.” Recently, he says, overtourism from the depreciating yen has sparked domestic media to query the effect foreign visitors are having on the country. “But as far as I know, the attitude of Japanese people towards long-term foreign residents, including Chinese, has not changed significantly. Japan has always accepted a large number of immigrants from mainland China at different times.”

Ink painter Lou Zhenggang first moved from northern China’s Heilongjiang to Japan in 1986, because, she says, “I simply wanted to challenge my creativity by exposing myself to something completely new to me.”

A view of L Gallery in Tokyo, established by billionaire Takaya Awata to house his collection of Lou Zhenggang’s work

Lou has been embraced by Japanese collectors, including the udon restaurant billionaire Takaya Awata. This April, Takaya opened L Gallery in Tokyo’s Hiroo neighborhood—established exclusively to display his collection of Lou’s works.

“Although I don’t have any particular thought on how I have been regarded as a foreigner, as a human being, I simply wish to share what I see through my works,” Lou says. In Japan, she has been able to do this.

First appeared on…

Comments are closed.