Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 25

By Gordon G. Chang

The Chinese gangs, as they have penetrated Japanese society, have gone beyond robbery and burglary, have branched out into more sophisticated criminal activities like forging credit cards and rigging pachinko machines. And kidnapping the innocent. As time has progressed, their acts have become more chilling. The Mainichi Daily News reports that Chinese criminals first began kidnapping their fellows more than a decade ago. But last year, for the first time, they crossed the line and snatched a child, a young child.

He Risheng, whose parents came from southeastern China’s Fujian Province, was abducted while playing in a supermarket complex in Tokyo. That evening his parents received a call. “You guys have been in Japan for more than ten years, so you must have money stashed away,” one of the kidnappers told He Huoguang, the boy’s father, over the telephone. Mr. He obediently paid the ransom by leaving a bag containing 3.3 million yen in a Yokohama park. But he was not so obedient about something else: He contacted the police. The kidnappers apparently knew that the He family was in Japan illegally and specifically instructed the parents not to enlist the help of the authorities.

Young He Risheng was released. Six alleged kidnappers are now in custody, but only because they were unlucky. Snatching illegal Chinese immigrants in Japan is usually a safe bet: “They are in Japan illegally. It’s easy money,” says one long-time Chinese resident of Japan. “They choose to pay the ransom over deportation because they can make in two weeks what it takes to earn in China in a year.” Often the ransoms are paid on the mainland, because Chinese gangs in Japan operate in the People’s Republic as well.

In the case involving poor He Risheng, the police got a two-for-one deal. Not only did they apprehend suspected kidnappers, they also nabbed the He family for immigration violations. Both the mother and father, industrious folk who worked in the same noodle shop, had overstayed their visas. The entire family ended up on the wrong side of the law.

In their predicament, they had plenty of company. There are approximately half a million Chinese nationals in Japan, and about a fifth of them are illegal immigrants. In 2001 the number of foreigners arrested for immigration violations jumped by 17 percent to 6,177, according to the National Police Agency. Chinese accounted for about 40 percent of those detained for this reason, far and away the largest ethnic group.

Does deporting the He family make sense for Japan? It does not appear so. Of course, getting rid of those who somehow sneaked into the country always sounds like good policy. Yet the issues regarding illegal immigration are complex. For one thing, the nation could use the contributions that He Huoguang and his wife could make to the country. That’s why Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has talked about reexamining the nation’s laws with regard to immigrants, including illegal immigrants who are otherwise law abiding. “Being an illegal immigrant is not the same as being a criminal,” says Duan Yue Zhong, author of the Data Book of Chinese in Japan. “Most Chinese staying in Japan illegally are earnest, hard-working people.”

Another reason for keeping the He family in Japan relates to curbing vicious criminal activity. He Huoguang could have paid the kidnappers and not reported the abduction. Yet he called the police, even though he knew that he and the rest of his family might eventually be deported. As a result of his actions, a suspected kidnap gang was taken off the streets.

Japan is plagued by crime, especially crimes where illegal immigrants are the victims. If the victims did not feel vulnerable, there would be fewer incidents of criminal behavior. Unfortunately, not all people are as civic minded as He Huoguang. “We are sure that the actual number of robberies happening out there is at least three times the number of cases that get reported,” said a Metropolitan Police Department official early last year. What’s true for robberies must also be true for kidnappings, rapes and burglaries.

Japan is plagued by crimes that illegal immigrants commit. According to National Police Agency data, the criminal activity of “foreign visitors” almost doubled every year in the late 1990s. Ethnic Chinese from the Mainland, Taiwan, Malaysia and other Asian countries were responsible for a disproportionate number of these crimes.

The problem has not gotten any better in the new millennium. The National Police Agency reported that the number of nonresident foreigners arrested or detained by police in Japan in suspected crime cases in 2001 hit a record 14,660, an increase of 15.3 percent over 2000. The comparable figure for all people, Japanese and foreign, was up only 5.1 percent. One ethnic group supplied most of the suspects: 43.7 percent of foreigners detained were Chinese. In fact, the percentage of Chinese detained is more than three times the percentage of the group in second place (Brazilians).

The crime statistics are frightening, and they would be even more so if all the numbers were multiplied by three, as the official from the Metropolitan Police Department suggests that we do. Even without multiplication, the figures paint a depressing picture of lawbreaking by illegal migrants. It is therefore no surprise that crime is becoming a political problem. And crime committed by foreigners is also a foreign relations problem, at least for Japan.

In an ideal world, crime committed in Japan would be considered a purely domestic matter. Yet other Asian nations, and especially Mainland China, take an avid interest in what happens inside Japan’s borders. The concern is that one day Beijing will take it upon itself to “protect” the Chinese who live in the Japanese homeland.

Does that sound impossible? Mainland leaders, remembering the horrors of the Second World War, today tell their Japanese counterparts what they can put in their textbooks, how they can pay respects to their ancestors, and the means by which they can defend themselves. “Can we call it anything but their interference in our internal affairs?” asked Katsuei Hirasawa, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and former police chief in Okayama Prefecture, last August. Beijing makes anything involving Japan its own business when it chooses to do so, and now the Japanese, most of whom were born after World War II, resent China. One day Mainland leaders may decide that the plight of illegal immigrants on Japanese soil is a suitable topic for their attention.

That day may be soon because Tokyo is hard pressed to stem the tide of illegal immigration. Japan sometimes fears what appears to be a resurgent China, but the reality is that the two societies are still far apart in almost every way. Yasuro Morita, the author of a book on illegal Chinese immigrants, points out that “the economic disparity between Japan and China” is a major cause of illegal migration. Yet there is another factor at work here: People don’t like living in the hardline authoritarian dictatorship that the Communist Party of China insists on maintaining.

Unless and until China becomes both prosperous and free, Japan will have to fight an unending struggle. Human smuggling from China “has no parallel in any other country,” one American observer notes. Japan, which sits close by to the colossus of China, is a natural destination for the flood of Chinese. The Golden Venture and Dover incidents may grab headlines, but the reality is that illegal Chinese immigration is more a problem for the Japanese than the Americans or the British.

So Tokyo is at a disadvantage when it comes to stopping illegal immigration. There is little that Japanese politicians can do, as a practical matter, to cut down on the tourists who overstay their visas short of stopping all entries from the Mainland. That, of course, is not an option.

There is one important thing within Tokyo’s reach, however. A large portion of the illegal flow of humans into the Japanese islands is controlled by gangs in both China and Japan. National Police Agency officials say that they have increased cooperation with their Mainland counterparts to crack the smuggling rings. Here there is scope for even more help from Beijing because Beijing is embarrassed by the torrent of its citizens slipping out of the country. Especially after the deaths in Dover in 2000, Mainland police have stepped up their efforts against the “snakehead gangs,” or groups smuggling people out of China. The snakeheads have sophisticated networks that span the globe, but they can be beaten with concerted effort in both China and destination countries such as Japan.

The flow of people into Japan is not just a matter of law enforcement, however. These days governments seem essentially helpless in stopping the human tide, which respects few borders.

The larger issue is how the Japanese–and others–can benefit from the pool of talent that travels the world. As Duan Yue Zhong points out, in the early 1990s Chinese coming to Japan “arrived with heavy luggage.” The author notes that they brought with them “pots, pans and blankets.” Today, the story is different. The Chinese arriving in Japan come to study. They travel light, bringing only “little baggage” and usually a notebook PC.

My father was a destitute immigrant once. Today, he supports universities in his new homeland because he feels the need “to give something back to society.” He is grateful and proud to be an American, even if he became one only because of an accident of history: He could not go back after Mao Zedong routed the forces of Chang Kai-shek. I would like to think the United States is stronger for having him live there and contributing to his community.

Americans come from every nation on the face of the earth. China, among other countries, has learned the value of diversity. So Beijing competes against other nations as it tries hard to attract overseas Chinese as well as others.

“Forget oil, gold, land, the ocean floor or the reaches of outer space,” says American futurist George Guilder. “The single greatest untapped resource in the world economy is the Chinese people.” The Chinese people are in motion now, and they are changing the face of Japan, the United States and the rest of the world.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, published by Random House.

China Brief is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation, a private nonprofit organization. Neither the Jamestown Foundation nor China Brief receives funding or support from any government or government agency. The opinions expressed in it are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jamestown Foundation. If you have any questions regarding the content of China Brief, please contact us directly.

If you would like information on subscribing to China Brief, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at, by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington, DC 20016.

Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of China Brief is strictly prohibited by law.

Copyright (c) 1983-2003 The Jamestown Foundation.