Overseas Chinese: Lessons in Identity and Flexibility

In discussing issues in international affairs—whether they pertain to territorial disputes, historical perceptions, or Olympic competition—we tend to take the primacy of the nation for granted, peppering our discourse with observations along the lines of, “Japan sees things this way, while China sees things that way.” Perhaps we should begin asking ourselves whether this is a constructive approach.

Needless to say, I am not suggesting that we abandon the practice of analyzing the policies and actions of national governments in disciplines like international affairs. To the contrary, there is a real need for objective analysis of individual countries’ regimes and leaders. The problem is that, when speaking of the policies and attitudes of the Chinese government, analysts are in the habit of referring to “China” or “the Chinese,” and their listeners or readers tend to take that substitution at face value, equating the actions of political leaders with the will of the entire nation.

The reality, of course, is much more complicated. In addition, we must ask whether the mindset that sees the world as a collection of nation-states has yielded positive outcomes overall. A relatively benign manifestation of this mindset is the modern Olympic Games. [1]

A much more destructive expression is warfare, with nationalism also leading to countless instances of brutality on a smaller scale. We need only recall the events triggered by the nationalization of the Senkaku Islands by the Yoshihiko Noda administration last year: In China, demonstrators vandalized Japanese department stores, Japanese cars, and just about anything with the word “Japan” in its name; in retaliation, there were threats against the ethnic Chinese community in Japan, including a fire at a Chinese school in Kobe. These incidents are but a tiny sampling of the appalling behavior that blind and bigoted patriotism has fueled over the course of history.

Meanwhile, the focus on nations and national governments diverts attention from other potentially important players. One example is the Chinese community in the United States, which is rumored to be deeply involved in the Senkaku Islands issue.

Instead of accepting the primacy of the nation-state, should we not be embracing (and nurturing) a new and flexible outlook appropriate to the globalized society in which we live? At the very least, those who do approach issues from a nation-centric perspective should have the wisdom to seek win-win solutions, instead of proceeding on the assumption that global affairs are by nature a zero-sum game.

The value of a flexible, adaptable approach is attested by the enduring vitality of the overseas Chinese community, to which I have devoted years of research. Close to 40 million ethnic Chinese are now estimated to be living in countries around the world. Referred to in recent years as the “Jews of the East” and the “hidden power” behind the Asian economy, they have flourished in their adopted countries despite their outsider status. The source of their vitality is a willingness to adapt and a flexible, can-do approach to life and business. These are the qualities that have allowed them to leave home penniless, adjust to a completely new environment, and turn adversity into opportunity time and again.

In the following, I examine these qualities in action, focusing on the recent evolution of the overseas Chinese schools in Japan, in hopes of gleaning a lesson relevant to the conduct of international relations in our global society—and particularly to the management of Japan-China relations. In so doing, I am eschewing the government-centered, top-down vantage point favored by political scientists and economists for a bottom-up examination of the culture and worldview of the people in the community.

Adapting to Change

Yokohama Overseas Chinese School.
Yokohama Overseas Chinese School.

The two Chinese schools in Yokohama have a long and distinguished history, extending back more than 110 years. They both trace their origins to the Datong School, established in 1898 at the instigation of Sun Yat-sen, who expounded the importance of ethnic education among speakers of varying dialects while he was in Japan drumming up support for his revolutionary movement. [2] All classes at the schools today are taught in Chinese, and at the elementary school level, all teaching materials are also in Chinese, except for those used in Japanese- and English-language instruction.

The Chinese schools are classified as “other” schools, that is, institutions outside the accredited school system as defined in Article 1 of the School Education Law. This has raised obstacles to students seeking to continue their education at Japanese high schools or universities, and applications to the schools had been dwindling as a result, with enrollment dropping to less than 10 students per grade.

However, recent years have witnessed a major turnabout. About a decade ago, the number of applicants began to climb, and the schools began screening students with an entrance examination. Unable to accommodate all qualified entrants in a single class of 36 students, they began dividing grade levels into two classes—and still they have been obliged to place applicants on waiting lists. [3] Along with enrollment, the cultural diversity of the student body—including Japanese nationals—has increased.

Every education system is shaped by the needs and expectations of the nation and society in which it operates. The Chinese schools in Yokohama have adapted flexibly to society’s changing demands while staying true to their own educational mission. This can be seen in the way they have grasped and responded to the evolving educational needs of prospective students, even while opening their doors to students of other ethnicities (Sugimura 2011) .

For many years the Chinese schools focused on educating children of the so-called ro-kakyo , or “old overseas Chinese,” members of a community going back some 150 years. But a new wave of migration from China has made the shin-kakyo (“new overseas Chinese”) an increasingly influential presence over the past two or three decades. Though sharing the same ethnic identity, the “new overseas Chinese” are in many ways culturally distinct from the ethnic Chinese who have been in Japan for generations. Their presence alone introduced a new level of diversity into the student body of Japan’s Chinese schools. Then, when Japanese and other non-Chinese students began enrolling in the schools, the campuses became truly multicultural, and the schools’ educational goals began to change accordingly.

Back when the Chinese schools catered exclusively to the children of Chinese immigrants, their mission was simple and straightforward: to preserve and strengthen ethnic identity through the teaching of Chinese language and culture. Now that they are admitting students from other backgrounds, they have broadened their goals without abandoning their core mission.

Beginning in the first grade, all students receive instruction in Chinese, Japanese, and English, ensuring that students of all nationalities and ethnicities mingle and learn side by side. The goal is to nurture people with a multicultural viewpoint and the resources to pursue a wide variety of professions and lifestyles, so as to fulfill their maximum potential in whatever society they choose to live (Chen 2007) .

The schools’ history curriculum epitomizes this approach. Rather than inculcating students with rote knowledge and preconceived interpretations, the schools introduce historical events from both the Japanese and Chinese perspective and allow the students to develop their own opinions. In doing so, they are nurturing the capacity to think critically and make independent judgments and decisions, an increasingly essential skill in today’s global society.

Flexible, Long-Range Thinking

The new educational policies adopted by Japan’s overseas Chinese schools offer a valuable lesson for the rest of us. They raise the possibility of a way of life in which people strive to accept and live with others even while remaining true to their own core identity.

In today’s world, the ability to deal with each challenge constructively is far more valuable than any rigid nation-centric approach. What we need today are people with the independent judgment to distinguish between the two and choose the most productive path in any given situation. Only by fostering such an outlook and nurturing such people will we reach a level of dialogue oriented to win-win solutions and the peaceful resolution of international disputes.

As immigration and intermarriage blur the boundaries between “us” and “them,” the world is entering an era of shared risks and benefits. Instead of squabbling over national boundaries and national resources, should we not be working calmly and diligently to secure peace and mutual prosperity for our children and grandchildren? From this standpoint, I believe that both Japan and China have much to learn from a people who have mastered the art of life on the periphery—the overseas Chinese.


Sugimura, Miki. 2011. “Hen’yo suru Chuka gakko to kokusaika jidai no jinzai ikusei” (The Changing Chinese School and Human Resources Development in the Age of Internationalization). In Kajin to wa dare ka : Kyoiku to aidentiti (Who Are the Overseas Chinese: Education and Identity), ed. Chen Tien-shi, Kakyo Kajin Kenkyu , no. 8 (Special Issue), 75-77.

Chen, Tien-shi. 2007. “Taminzokuka suru Nihon no Chuka gakkou” (The Multiculturalization of Chinese Schools in Japan). In Gendai Nihon o meguru kokusai ido (Japan and International Migration), Ajia Yugaku , no. 104 (Special Issue), 142-50.


1. On the other hand, there has recently been a growing number of athletes who have changed their citizenship in order to compete in the Games.

2. When Sun Yat-sen came to Japan in 1897, he called for the creation of a “Chinese-Western” school for expatriates. The following year saw the establishment of Yokohama’s Datong School, which in 1952 split into the Yokohama Overseas Chinese School and Yokohama Yamate Chinese School owing to growing political tensions between Taiwan and mainland China. The Datong School is considered the first overseas Chinese school in the world.

3. Some Chinese schools in Japan have erected new school buildings to accommodate the influx of students.

Tienshi Chen

  • Associate Professor, School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University