Business is business in Japan’s Chinatown

By Yoko Kubota and Chris Buckley

YOKOHAMA, Japan (BestGrowthStock) – Even with festering strains between China and Japan, business is business, and in the Japanese city hosting a regional summit the bonds binding Asia’s top two economies can be counted in pork buns and chestnuts.

Yokohama will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ meeting this weekend, giving Japanese and Chinese leaders another chance to grapple with tensions over territorial claims. The port city is also home to Japan’s biggest Chinatown.

On alleys crammed with Chinese restaurants, shops and stalls selling roasted chestnuts, Japanese and ethnic Chinese vendors and visitors said the political rancor could not crowd out the more pressing business of making a living.

“The governments have to deal with the problems, but ordinary people have to deal with their own problems,” said Tian Chao, a chestnut vendor in her thirties who said she migrated to Japan over a year ago from Harbin in northeast China.

“As Chinese people, we all care about the Diaoyu islands issue, but that’s mostly for people at home to care about. Here we have to think about getting by and making money,” she said.

That conclusion generally applies to the Sino-Japanese relationship as a whole. For all the ructions over disputed islands in the East China Sea, both countries have a big stake in bilateral trade, which has become all the more important with U.S. and European markets weighed with economic woes.

Japan and China together account for about 17 percent of the world’s economic output and China, edging past Japan as Asia’s biggest economy, is Japan’s biggest trading partner with bilateral trade worth $270 billion in 2009.

On the streets of Yokohama’s Chinatown, that trade amounts to sales of Chinese tea, panda dolls and trinkets.

“Japan is the world’s second-biggest economy, and there are many things we will have to learn from them,” said Huang Faxue, a part-time vendor who migrated from China’s eastern coastal province of Fujian to study business in Japan.

“Japanese people think Chinese people are very crude, rough and uncivilized,” he said between scooping chestnuts into a bag. “But when they have personal contact with us they say, ‘You’re not like I thought Chinese people were like.’ But each side has its prejudices about the other.”

SINO-JAPANESE TIES DETERIORATED

That mutual wariness has rebounded in recent months.

Relations deteriorated sharply in September when Japan detained a Chinese trawler captain after his boat collided with Japanese vessels near disputed isles in the East China Sea.

Concerns grew in Japan that the row over the isles, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, could spill over into business ties, especially when China imposed shipment restrictions on rare earth exports to Japan after the spat.

Mutual mistrust divides the publics of each country, but both ethnic Chinese and Japanese workers in the 150-year-old Chinatown said they were focused on doing business.

“Relations between people are different from politics. Everyone from China has been nice,” said a Japanese shopkeeper in her 60s who declined to give her name.

Some 680,500 Chinese were registered in Japan as residents or visitors in 2009, data from Japan’s Justice Ministry showed. That figure has more than doubled in the last ten years as the two economies became increasingly intertwined.

Speculation is simmering over whether Chinese President Hu Jintao will formally meet Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan during APEC, after Kan had to settle for brief informal chats with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on two previous occasions.

On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said he had no news about any possible meeting, but said Beijing wanted “further development” of ties with Tokyo.

“I hope that they do meet,” said Walter Chow, a 59-year-old shopkeeper and a naturalized Japanese citizen who came from Hong Kong, an autonomously administered enclave in southern China, as a child.

“It’s hard for me to decide which side to stand for. These are issues that cannot be resolved soon, but the best is if they can cooperate with each other.” (Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby in Beijing; Editing by Ed Davies)

Business is business in Japan’s Chinatown