Actor Koji Yano Keen to Build Japan’s Ties with China

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Koji Yano talks about his career during an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Actor Koji Yano is these days often described as the most-famous Japanese person in China. His path to success in movies and TV took more than 20 years and was built on a foundation of hard work with a determination to improve ties between the two countries.

Born in Osaka Prefecture, Yano was an unknown talent when he made his debut playing a Japanese exchange student in a Chinese romantic TV drama in 2000. His grasp of Chinese was poor, but he managed his role thanks to the kind support of the program’s crew.

The following year, he decided to throw himself into an acting career in China, believing he could be a trailblazer for Japanese actors performing in China.

However, Yano was almost always asked to play a Japanese soldier expressing anti-Japanese sentiments. Complete strangers even called him a derogatory term stemming from the fact that he portrayed cruel Japanese soldiers.

All the while back in Japan, a dispirited Yano was being criticized for pandering to China.

So, Yano decided to adopt a new approach.

“I wondered if I could convey the goodness of Japanese people even when playing a villain,” Yano, 53, recalled. He convinced a director to include some natural Japanese gestures and lines in the script. This resulted in viewers developing greater affection for Yano, and he went on to regularly host a TV variety program that featured skits and games.

Several Chinese actors had suggested Yano should become a “go-between” for Japan and China, and he strongly feels this is his calling.

When in China, Yano speaks about his observations on Japan in Chinese; he describes his experiences of China in Japanese to convey his thoughts to a Japanese audience.

With more than 20 million followers on social media, Yano has contributed to mutual understanding between Tokyo and Beijing and, in 2015, was awarded the foreign minister’s commendation for his efforts.

Last year, Yano also won a prize in an essay competition about bilateral exchanges for a piece that detailed some of his unforgettable moments in China.

Yano was a personal assistant to former Chiba Gov. Kensaku Morita — himself a former actor — from 1992 to 2000. Political issues have often strained Japan-China relations over the years. However, Yano says true to his attitude that “what will be, will be.”

“I will simply keep doing what I can,” Yano said, adding that he sincerely hopes continuing to convey the good points of both sides will help improve bilateral ties.