‘Most familiar’ Japanese actor serves as unofficial ambassador on and off screen in China
Beyond likable
Published: Nov 02, 2022 11:41 PM
Editor's Note: 

China's modernization has been an epic journey over the past decades. Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), China has become an attractive destination for many foreigners. Many such expats in the country have fulfilled their career aspirations, while some have found love and started families in China. 

Why do they choose to live in China? How do expats in China view and interpret China's achievements and persistence measured from various perspectives? The Global Times interviewed multiple international residents in China from all walks of life, some of whom have made tangible contributions to China's development, to learn about their understanding of the essence of Chinese culture, and gain an insight into how far China has advanced in its pursuit of development and rejuvenation over the last decade.

Yano Koji in costume Photo: Courtesy of Yano

Yano Koji in costume Photo: Courtesy of Yano

Yano Koji is not only China's "old friend," but also part of the Chinese family. 

Born in 1970, the Japanese actor has lived in China for many years following his career pursuits  and starting a family. For Chinese audiences, he might be the "most familiar" Japanese actor on Chinese TV.

He told the Global Times that over the last decade, he personally felt that China's development had entered the fast lane, and the changes witnessed in the film and television industry have deeply touched him.

Being trusted

An experience in Yano's early years remains fresh in his memory. 

It was a film shoot at the front door of a hotel in China. Before cameras rolled, the director whispered to him, "Just walk over from this way." 

"I learned later that the filmmaker did not communicate with the hotel to seek permission to do the shoot and just secretly filmed the scene," Yano said. "This would not happen nowadays. If you need to shoot in China, you will definitely have to communicate with the shoot location in advance."

He intimated that in the last 10 years, the Chinese film and television industry has come further in line with international standards, and foreign actors are no longer treated differently, but are respected and encouraged the same as Chinese actors. 

Yano once portrayed a villain in a drama. In one of the scenes, he was able to summon tears on command, a skill that doesn't come easily to performers who rely on various tricks to do.  After the director yelled "cut," many of the crew members on set applauded his performance. 

When he first started his acting career in China, Yano was once known as a "specialist in devil Japs," but he gradually gained less typecast recognition with his career expanding into hosting, singing, and portraying Chinese people in film and television works. This, to him, was a sign of trust.

Since 2012, there have been more and more large-scale Chinese film and television productions. In 2015, Yano was cast in the movie Railroad Tigers starring Jackie Chan. 

He was impressed by how large and professional the Chinese film crew was. "There were hundreds of film crew on set, and ambulances were also on standby to deal with any emergencies," he said.

There are many well-known Japanese actors who also want to come to China for career advancement. On the one hand, they are eager to explore the new creative space in China, and on the other hand, they also want to work with professional Chinese industry insiders, according to Yano.

In addition to working in film and television productions, Yano has also been quite active on short video format platforms such as Douyin (Chinese version of TikTok), Kuaishou, and Bilibili in recent years. He has even started live commerce. 

"Many young Chinese people know me in these new ways, instead of through my famous TV show Zhang Ga the Soldier Boy," Yano said with a smile adding, "The diversification of Chinese social media platforms and the development of e-commerce have helped me to explore new fields to some extent."

He has also noticed that there are now many Japanese actors opening accounts on Chinese social media platforms, a phenomenon that did not exist 10 years ago.

Yano Koji in costume Photo: Courtesy of Yano

Yano Koji in costume Photo: Courtesy of Yano

Keeping in pace with China

On occasions of national significance in China such as the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the motherland and the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, Yano usually records videos to send his best wishes to his followers and Chinese people at large. 

When asked about the original intention of doing so, Yano shared a story from 20 years ago. In 2002, He forgot his birthday, but a Chinese friend secretly planned a birthday party for him, which surprised and delighted him. This also made Yano realize just how much attention Chinese people pay to festivals and anniversaries. 

During festivals, Yano has made a habit of sending his well wishes to every friend. 

"Besides, my in-laws come from Chongqing, and China is my home. It is also necessary to do something for my family."

During the interview, the Global Times found that when Yano would use the word "home" he would be referring to China and when referring to Japan, he would only do so in the context of making business trips. 

He explained, "My home is in China and Japan is far away." 

Yano has seen both sides of the cultural rift which existed between China and Japan, when he would hear negative sentiments expressed by his countrymen, and would be the victim of the slur "Jap" in China. "In the past, this kind of thing happened occasionally, but with the deepening of China-Japan exchanges, it has completely disappeared. Especially in China, many audiences know me and regard me as their own."

Yano also gives back to China in practical ways. 

When the COVID-19 epidemic broke out, he immediately donated masks and other medical supplies to the disease-stricken areas; when some Western brands spread rumors about boycotting cotton from Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Yano Koji amplified the message "support Xinjiang cotton"; after receiving the Chinese COVID-19 vaccine, Yano publicly stated that there is no discomfort.

In addition to his roles as actor and host, Yano has been an "ambassador" for non-governmental exchanges between China and Japan for many years, and was commended by the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2015. 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Japan. Yano told the Global Times that, as a Japanese actor active in China and Japan, he hopes to explore various feasible ways to sow the seeds of peace and friendship between the people of the two countries.

"In the future, I hope to continue living in China, moving in step with the country, and witness China's next brilliant decade," Yano said.