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Affluent Chinese have been moving to Japan since the COVID lockdowns

Jackie Lay / NPR

TOKYO — As China's economy continues to grow at a slower pace than in recent decades, Chinese businesses and households are moving money overseas at the highest rate in seven years, according to government statistics.

But while the U.S. has long been a preferred destination of wealthy and middle-class Chinese emigrants, they are increasingly headed to Japan, according to analysts and immigration consultants.

Among the recent arrivals is a former Beijing-based journalist who moved to Japan last year. He asked that NPR not use his name to protect family still in China.

The journalist says that many of his friends among China's elite were avid cheerleaders for the government policies that had brought them affluence and success. But he says that strict COVID lockdowns changed their minds.

"They discovered their advanced degrees, money and connections could not help them with their most basic travel and living needs," he says, "and it was a big blow to them."

So, middle- and upper-class Chinese are increasingly joining a migration wave to Japan, he says.

British immigration consulting firm Henley and Partners estimated in June that 13,500 Chinese millionaires (in dollar terms) would emigrate in 2023, more than from any other country. And China's middle class is following their lead.

Chinese already made up the largest group of foreign nationals in Japan overall. Recent news reports suggest that the number of Chinese citizens entering Japan on business manager visas hit a record of more than 2,000 last year.

Migrating down to a science

Last year, Chinese residents coined a buzzword — "run-ology" — a play on words in Chinese referring to the art and science of emigrating. In Mandarin, the word for run also means profit.

There are plenty of reasons lately for China's middle class and elites to vote with their feet: a government crackdown on tycoons, a faltering real estate sector and geopolitical jousting with the United States.

But the journalist says that for people like himself, it basically boils down to three things.

"One is your children's education and medical care," he says. He explains that there is a huge gap in educational opportunities among China's social classes, and for many middle-class families, emigration or getting their child into an international school in China are the best options.

"The other is the long-term safety of your family's assets," he adds. "And for people in the fields of culture and media, there's another demand, which is freedom of thought and speech."

The journalist says that moving to Japan emboldens some Chinese to criticize their government.

China tries to slow the run

But others, like himself, are more careful, he says, because authorities sometimes pressure their relatives in China to discourage them from speaking out. Of course, he says, there are workarounds.

"If you write a letter to your mother," he says, "stating that you've severed relations with her, and she gives that to the police, then they may stop bothering her."

Some worried parents won't resort to this workaround, he adds, even if it's just a tactic to get the authorities off their backs.

There are also financial hurdles for Chinese seeking to move to Japan. To prevent capital flight, China allows each citizen to buy only$50,000 in foreign currency each year.

But when authorities block one channel, another springs up. To end-run the restrictions, Chinese resort to underground banks and art auctions to move their money.

One auction house employee, who wants to use only her last name, Cheng, because of the sensitivity of evading government controls, says that as regulations tighten, her company is holding fewer auctions.

"Chinese authorities have said that we must prevent foreign exchange flowing out of the country through trade in cultural relics," she says, adding that the restrictions are detailed in official documents.

A view of Tokyo's new skyscraper, the Azabudai Hills Mori JP Tower complex, after its official opening earlier in the day on Nov. 24. The tower has residential units and office space.
Richard A. Brooks / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A view of Tokyo's new skyscraper, the Azabudai Hills Mori JP Tower complex, after its official opening earlier in the day on Nov. 24. The tower has residential units and office space.

Buying up flats in Tokyo

Many who manage to get their money out are investing in Japanese real estate.

A Chinese consultant surnamed Liu, who advises Chinese investing in Japan, says her clients prefer to buy homes in Tokyo's posh apartment towers. She also asks to use only her last name, because emigration in China is a sensitive topic.

"In Tokyo, I advise them to purchase property near subway stations or those which have a view of Tokyo tower, because I'm sure their price won't go down," Liu says.

Liu says she has interviewed hundreds of Chinese who have gone to Japan, roughly a quarter of whom are wealthy, with incomes of 10 million yen ($70,600) or more, while the rest are mostly middle class. In recent years, she says she has seen Chinese people increasingly choose to relocate to Japan over English-speaking countries.

Chinese have been emigrating, sojourning and going into exile in Japan for a long time. They include people such as statesmanSun Yat-sen. In the early 1900s, he established a revolutionary party in Japan that overthrew the last Chinese imperial dynasty and replaced it with a republic.

"One hundred years ago, all those revolutionaries came to Japan and found Japan as a good base, as it were, to prepare for the political change," says Akio Takahara, a political scientist and China expert at the University of Tokyo.

"And it is possible that Japan will play some kind of a role similar to that in the future," he adds.

Conditions for that may not be ripe now, he says. But Chinese can still inject some much-needed vigor and vitality into Japan's aging and shrinking workforce.

Japan has long had a reputation for being largely closed off to immigrants. Foreign nationals made up just 2.2% of the population in 2022, with Chinese the largest group at 29%, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But in recent years, as its national workforce ages and declines, Japan's government has let in some laborers and set up residency programs for professionals, although it hasn't adopted a formal immigration policy. Japan received 67,000 immigrants in 2021, according to the OECD.

As Chinese immigration to Japan increases, Akio Takahara says, both sides will need to adapt to each other.

"Japanese will have to find a way to coexist in a peaceful and comfortable way. And so that is going to be a challenge to the Japanese society."

And, he says, Japan will have to manage risks, such as immigrants driving up real estate prices, or even working as agents of China's government.

Despite such risks, Japan continues to be attractive to immigrants from China, partly due to geographic closeness, as well as shared cultural traditions.

That closeness is on display at the One Way Street bookstore in Tokyo's Ginza District, where people come to read books and listen to lectures in Chinese.

Bookstores in mainland China used to hold symposia like this where ideas and current events were debated. But in China's tense current political environment, that's no longer possible.

One of the symposium speakers is Hu Ang, a professor of architecture at the University of Tokyo. He explains that he was drawn to Japan by the cultural environment in Kyoto, Japan's former capital, where Japan's import of Chinese culture and technology are visible in exquisite Buddhist temples and serene gardens.

"In Kyoto, you can see the graceful architectural style of Tang and Song Dynasty China," Hu explains. "It's preserved in some places in China, but the place to find traditional Chinese culture preserved in a systematic and complete way is actually in Japan."

Hu studied in the United States and taught at the University of Oxford. But he says it was not until he came to Japan that he felt he returned to his cultural roots.

"When you see so many beautiful gardens and traditional architecture, it helps you to see your cultural lineage clearly," he says, "and slowly, the feeling of recognizing your mother culture comes to you."

And in that sense, Hu's move to Japan was less an emigration than a homecoming.

Chie Kobayashi and Takehiro Masutomo contributed to this report in Tokyo.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.