Before Manami Ikuta steps outside of her apartment near the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, she reminds her four-year-old daughter to use English, rather than their native Japanese, on the streets outside.
For much of the past 10 days, Ms. Ikuta and her family felt besieged in their home as protesters marched back and forth along Beijing’s Liangmaqiao Road, screaming their anger at Japan – and Japanese – over Tokyo’s move to purchase uninhabited islands that China claims as its own.
Speaking English outside the home is just one of the precautions Ms. Ikuta, a 43-year-old Osaka native with dark hair dyed auburn, has been taking over the past week and a half, along with other members of China’s 140,000-strong community of Japanese (believed to be the largest group of expatriates in the country). Many say they leave their apartments only when strictly necessary. Some are getting out of China for the indefinite future, their companies flying them back to Japan until the situation stabilizes.
“I feel like I’ve been under house arrest for the past few days,” Ms. Ikuta said as she and a small group of other Japanese parents gathered with their children at a friend’s house for a Thursday afternoon playdate. Inside a gated compound on a sunny fall afternoon, it was a moment of exhalation when everyone could speak Japanese freely and discuss the experience of suddenly feeling unwelcome in the city they temporarily call home.
The hardest part, Ms. Ikuta said, was explaining to her daughter Satori what was going on around them. “She naturally kept asking me, ‘Why?’ I said: ‘There are some Chinese people out there who don’t like Japan very much right now.’ She said ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because of some little islands.’”
Those little islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, have led to large protests in more than 100 Chinese cities since the Japanese government announced on Sept. 10 that it was purchasing three of the islands from the Japanese family that had privately owned them since the 1970s. Many of the chants and banners taken up by the protesters in Beijing and elsewhere were hateful. “Japanese dogs, get out of China!” was one of the more tame slogans.
“Wherever I went, I could hear a lot of people talking about the islands and saying ‘Japanese, Japanese’ [when they saw me] – that sort of stuff,” said Daisuke Onishi, a Tokyo native who owns a bar in Beijing that remained open through the protests. Mr. Onishi, whose wife is Chinese, said he and his Chinese friends frequently discuss how a minor incident could now cause the situation to spiral out of control. “I think it might get worse. I’m quite scared, really.”
While the protests in Beijing were government-organized and carefully controlled (they came to an abrupt end Wednesday after the Public Security Bureau sent out a text message declaring that “now the protest activity is finished for a period”), the protests earlier this week were chaotic and sometimes violent in other cities. Japanese consulates and businesses were attacked, including a Panasonic factory and a Toyota dealership in the port city of Qingdao that were set ablaze. Japanese restaurants in Beijing were covered in Chinese flags and handmade signs about the island dispute, and the Japanese consulate in Shanghai reported half a dozen incidents of its nationals being attacked on the street.
Even Chinese drivers have been leaving their Japanese-brand cars at home this week after a spate of vandalism aimed at Toyotas, Hondas, Nissans and Mazdas.
Taxis didn’t feel much safer. “My friend was in a taxi and started speaking on her mobile phone in Japanese. The driver stopped the car and asked her to get out,” said Emi Aldridge, a 41-year-old mother of two whose children saw their classes at the Japanese School of Beijing, and a weekend school sports day, cancelled because of the protests.
There have also been small anti-Chinese protests in Japan, as well as minor acts of violence. A 21-year-old man was arrested after throwing two smoke bombs at the Chinese consulate in the southern city of Fukuoka on Monday. Someone set a small fire Tuesday night outside a Chinese school in the city of Kobe.
Much had returned to normal by Thursday. Flagship Japanese companies such as Toyota, Honda and Canon have all resumed normal production in China after shuttering stores and factories earlier in the week. But there’s a lingering sense that the dispute could quickly flare up again.
Ten Chinese marine surveillance ships were spotted near the disputed islands on Thursday, with the Japanese coast guard deploying some 50 craft to police waters it considers its own and has de facto control over. It’s a near-daily game of dare, with each side’s ships captains testing the nerves of the other.
Some Japanese firms believe the situation won’t return to normal any time soon. Masato Suzuki, a 40-year-old who works for a company that manufactures quality-control machines, said his company was flying him back to Tokyo on Sunday with his wife and two children. While he expects to return to China from time to time on business trips, he’s not sure if or when his family will move back.
“Our head office says this [island] problem will last longer,” Mr. Suzuki said, noting that it’s difficult for Japan to simply back down in the face of Chinese pressure. “This will not be quickly solved.”