Akio Yabata: Once thought China was the happiest

Narrator: Akio Yabata|Journalist

Akio Yabata, born in Tianjin in 1972, is a well-known Japanese journalist and commentator on current affairs. He was the Beijing correspondent of the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun from 2007 to 2017, and is now based in Taipei, where he is the Taipei branch chief of the newspaper.

Akio Yabata has a legendary family history; in 1926, his grandfather crossed the sea from his family’s home in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan, to Beijing to run a light bulb factory. At the end of the Sino-Japanese War, he was called up by the Japanese army and later became a prisoner of war of the Soviet Army, where he died in detention. My father was born in 1942 and was only three years old the year Japan lost the war. His grandmother entrusted him to a Chinese family and then remarried. During the Cultural Revolution, the father, a Japanese orphan, was branded as a “Japanese spy” and suffered severe political persecution. The bad luck did not end until 1972 when then Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited China.

As a child, Akio Yaban was educated by the Communist Party in the same way as other Chinese children. He was interested in international politics from an early age, although at that time he could only get his information from the official news. In his book “Once Thought China Was the Happiest,” published in 2020, he recalls that most of those reports were biased and distorted, with the basic framework being – the world is full of evil countries; the United States is the biggest villain of all; the situation in foreign countries is getting worse every day… …

In 1988, at the age of 15, Akio Yabata moved his family back to Japan. Japan’s clean air, beautiful city, gentle and courteous people; police officers do not beat up suspects in police stations; government clerks greet people with smiles …… all these things made the teenager who had been living in China before feel a huge culture shock.

After graduating from college, Akio Yabata, who aspired to a career in politics, enrolled in the highly competitive Matsushita Institute of Politics and Economics. During this time, the behavior of some political figures disappointed him and made him realize that the person who changed the current situation was not actually a politician, but a journalist. His life has since switched runways. He finished his PhD in philosophy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing in three years, and chose the path of a journalist at the age of 29.

I have interviewed dozens or hundreds of petitioners, all of whom have various tragedies, most of which are actually caused by the system. The happiness of a country depends mainly on whether the people at the bottom are protected and whether there is someone to speak for you. The weak in China are very poor. China is not a happy country.

My grandparents were both Japanese. My grandfather came to Beijing from Japan in 1926 to run an electrical appliance company that made light bulbs. In the spring of 1945, because of the shortage of Japanese soldiers, my grandfather was conscripted into the army, or in our words, “received a red letter”. He boarded the ship from Dalian and was captured by the Soviets without taking part in the war, and went to Siberia, where he died. My grandmother was left with my father and aunt.

My father was born in December 1942. Soon after Japan lost the war, my grandmother, because she did not have a job, placed my 3-year-old father and 5-year-old aunt in the home of two Chinese employees of their factory and remarried them to a Chinese man. My father was raised by the Chinese.

By the time of the Cultural Revolution, he was branded as a Japanese spy because he was Japanese. Originally he worked in a photo studio in Tianjin as a photographer. Because of this, he lost his job, and then he went to a bathhouse to help people scrub, and was often put into study classes, and suffered a lot of persecution.

Akio Yaban’s mother was Chinese and taught in a high school. After the birth of his older brother, the family’s life became very difficult. To make ends meet, his father had to go and sell blood once every three months.]

This situation continued until 1972 when Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited China. I was born a week after Kakuei Tanaka’s visit to China, and later I heard from my family that China needed to establish diplomatic relations with Japan at that time, and my father’s situation improved very significantly, and he went from being a Japanese spy to a foreign friend overnight. He was once again offered a job as a photographer and was also elected to the Tianjin CPPCC.

Although our whole family lived under Chinese names and spoke Chinese, we were still not immune to being treated as aliens. China is still basically a society controlled by state security agencies, and people with outside backgrounds still have to be watched and information gathered. At school, my classmates knew that I was Japanese, and the Party organization and teachers at school also took special care of us. Although it was much better than the time of the Cultural Revolution, it was still a time when such traces were obvious.

When I was a child, the school would organize us to see parades, shoot people, and attend public trial meetings. In retrospect, according to the concept of a democratic country, China was a country with a lot of human rights problems in all aspects, but in those days, it was an everyday thing.

However, basically from the time I can remember, after I started elementary school until the time before the Tiananmen Square incident on June 4, China was a country full of hope. A lot of things were slowly getting better. We were slowly moving from a very restrictive and tightly controlled country to reform and opening up. Of course there were all sorts of problems compared to the West, to the democracies, but it was probably the best period in China’s history in the last hundred years.

At that time, our lives were already quite stable and we had a certain social status, but my father insisted on taking the whole family back to Japan because he had a strong feeling of returning to his roots and because he felt that in a very unstable country like China, he would be sent to the 18th level of hell without doing anything, and he would be treated with courtesy without doing anything, which was like a roller coaster ride. This kind of unstable life is still something he does not want to experience again, right? That generation also did it for the sake of the children, so that our generation could receive a better education and participate in a fairer competition in Japan.

[Editor’s note: In 1988, a year before the outbreak of the 1989 school movement, 15-year-old Akio Yabata returned to Japan. In his book “I Thought China Was the Happiest” published in 2020, he said that for him, who had been living in China, being in Japan was like being in heaven. When he was in China, he heard that Japan was hell, so he came back with the mindset that “it could be worse, but the moment he stepped on Japanese soil, his first thought was, “What a wonderful country this is!

I think Japan was a bit of a utopia at that time. Everyone was friendly, and all the policies were for the sake of the weak. There was very little injustice in society. The underdog was well taken care of, and it was a very, very ideal society. But even then, the Japanese media basically does not give much credit to Japanese politicians, and criticizes them very harshly almost every day. Unlike China, where every day they talk about how great our leaders are and how great they are.

[Editor’s note: After returning to Japan, Akio Yabata studied Japanese hard, hoping to integrate into Japanese society soon and aspiring to become a politician. By chance, he started his career as a journalist at the age of 29. In 2007, at the age of 34, Akio Yabata returned to China as a reporter for the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun in Beijing].

As a journalist in Japan, it is very difficult to reflect the voices of the weak, to speak for the weak, to expose injustice, and to uncover the hidden truth, because it is not very common. But in China it feels too fulfilling, and there are that kind of phenomenon everywhere.

I have a friend named Xu Chongyang who did a very big business in Hubei, with all kinds of travel companies and transportation teams. Later, because he had to cooperate with a high-ranking Communist Party official, he was cheated out of all his assets, and then he started to go on the road of petitioning. When I first started to interview him, he was not very much suppressed yet. But to be honest, every time I saw him later, he was imprisoned and beaten again, and I slowly watched him being tortured and weakened. And every time he petitioned, his crimes increased by a few. It was a very sad feeling. He said, “In this country, no matter how rich you are, you can’t sleep in peace. You don’t know when the nightmare will come down on you.”

I have interviewed dozens or hundreds of petitioners, and all of them have various tragedies. In fact, most of these tragedies are caused by the system, because there is no power to speak for the weak in China, and the voices of the weak are not reflected. They have become a very helpless group in China. The happiness of a country depends mainly on these people at the bottom. Each of us can become weak at any time. When you become weak, whether you can be protected, whether there is someone to speak for you, I think this is the most important indicator. That’s why I say that the weak in China are very poor, and China is not a happy country.

Once in a petition village in Beijing, I met a man in his 40s from Guizhou and an old woman from Hunan, who was about 60 or 70 years old. The old lady was a permanent petitioner there. I overheard the conversation between the two men. The one from Guizhou had just arrived and didn’t know where to buy food. They have a lot of very cheap meals for petitioners, what writers, a complete industry chain in it. The Guizhou man just arrived, he did not understand. The old lady taught him what to do; when the police came, how to run.

After that, she asked him, “Is your grievance big?” The Guizhou man thought for half a day, and then said, “It is not big, but not small.” Then the old lady said, “Let me advise you, if your grievance is small, you should bear it. If it’s big, you’ll die with them. Petition is a road of no return, you’ll be here for life.” I was very emotional when I heard that. There are very, very many stories like this. After Xi Jinping came to power, he cracked down even harder on petitioners. That’s why Chinese people are even more unfortunate.

In the eyes of the Chinese government, I am a hostile force outside of China, and I am basically under their surveillance all the time, and I am often invited to have tea and sometimes dinner. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in particular, has often asked me to talk to them. But I won’t speak for them. They have mouthpieces. I told those Chinese officials that if someone pointed out these problems, China would actually become better, but if no one pointed out these problems, China would become worse and worse.