China’s Elite School Targets Abolished School in Japan to Build Base
Two white three-story school buildings stood quietly at the foot of the mountains, while cicadas cried loudly in the background complementing the summer heat. It is a former site of Higashikagawa Municipal Fukuei Elementary School, which closed at the end of March 2020.
A large sign at the front of the building read, “Fukuei kids are full of vitality.” I can almost hear children playing on the school grounds.
In late July this year, I visited Higashikagawa City. Located in the eastern part of Kagawa Prefecture, the former Fukuei Elementary School was about a ten-minute drive south of the city center facing the Seto Inland Sea. The abolished school became the stage for controversy over an exchange with China that rocked the entire city.
Higashikagawa City is a small city with a population of about 32,000. It has Japan’s largest glove manufacturing industry boasting a 130-year history. The industry manufactures gloves from leather, wool, and cutting-edge high-performance textiles, using delicate and outstanding craftsmanship. They range in variety, from functional to athletic, firefighters’ gloves to simple and inexpensive gloves (according to the website of the Glove Industry Association).
Currently, about 90 percent of gloves made in Japan are manufactured by companies in Kagawa Prefecture, mainly in Higashikagawa City. The gloves used by the men’s épée fencing team, which won a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, were also handmade in Higashikagawa.
Since its opening in 1892, the former Fukuei Elementary School, located on the outskirts of the city, had been attended by children of workers in the glove industry and agriculture. However, as is the case with many depopulated areas in Japan, the number of children continued to decline due to the outflow of residents. Sadly, at the end of March 2020, its 128-year history came to an end.
The school site looked like an unremarkable closed-down school, but last spring, it was suddenly thrown into the spotlight.
A plan for an elite school in Beijing, under the strong influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), to build a base in Higashikagawa City to advance into Japan, came to light. It came as a surprise to most of the residents. This is not a school from a Western or Southeast Asian country that shares universal values such as freedom and democracy. It is an elite school for children of the CCP leaders who are criticized and sanctioned by the international community for oppressing the Uyghurs and Hong Kong. The residents of this idyllic countryside were shocked.
Municipality Happily Welcomes Beijing School
The residents first heard of the plan to host an overseas base for the Chinese elite school in December 2019, a few months before the demonstrations broke out. At a regular public meeting, City Councilor Michiko Miyawaki of the Happiness Realization Party raised the issue.
Miyawaki was elected for the first time in April of the same year. After she was elected, she was appalled to discover that a plan was underway to rent out the site of the former Fukuei Elementary School free of charge as an accommodation to a Chinese school with which the city had exchanges, without informing most residents. If this was realized, it could mean the site of the former Fukei Elementary School could be China’s “advance base” in Japan. It appeared that the CCP was setting up a beachhead using the school as a cover. The remarks by the Chinese side introduced in the latter part of the article will reveal that this expression is not an exaggeration.
It seemed for China, the aim of establishing a base was to create a Chinese community that will serve as a receiving platform for immigration. Through practical training in satoyama (the agricultural area between the mountain foothills) and yacht training by the beach, China would secure a place of settlement in Japan and expand the area. It is a historical fact that China repeats this method, one that can be seen through changes in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. In some places, such as Shibazono Danchi in Kawaguchi City, Saitama Prefecture, and public housing in Mihama Ward, Chiba City, the number of Chinese and other foreign residents exceeds the number of Japanese residents. This is problematic in its own right, but while densely populated metropolitan areas have the physical space to absorb these immigrants, sparsely populated towns are a different story.
The reason why this event in Higashikagawa City, which faces the Seto Inland Sea, is important is that it is an ongoing problem facing Japan. This can happen in municipalities with similar environments throughout the country, especially in depopulated areas. It is also a story that symbolizes a trend that may already be steadily progressing, even though it has not come to the surface.
The deep root of the problem lies in the fact that the receiving side in Japan does not even try to probe deeply into the other party’s true intentions, and innocently invites organizations that are detachment forces of the communist party.
Modern Version of “Red Guards” Aiming Overseas
The school in question is Beijing Haidian Foreign Language Shi Yan School based in Beijing, China. Established in 1999 with the approval of the Beijing Municipal People’s Government, Haidian District, it is an integrated boarding school consisting of a kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, and high school. School buildings, dormitories, sports facilities, and a zoo are built on a large site of 280,000 square meters, which is equivalent to six Tokyo Domes.
The school has about 6,000 students. About 260 of them are learning Japanese. They have around 1,000 teachers, some of them recruited from Japan, Germany, and France. Students are admitted to its kindergarten from age two, and its dormitories from age three. Tuition and dormitory fees are said to cost 5 million yen annually for three-year-olds, and 2 million yen a year for elementary school students. It is truly a super elite school that focuses on gifted education in the fields of IT (information technology), foreign languages, arts, and sports.
Of note are the military drills similar to that of the People’s Liberation Army. Minors march with their chests puffed out while shouting, just like the Red Guards, a group of outlaws mobilized by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution who shook the country.
In the video posted on the school’s website, one can see the gallant procession that could easily be mistaken for the People’s Liberation Army. A group of men in military uniforms and guns, march with straight legs. It looks just like the march in front of Tiananmen Square, done on special occasions. The students in camouflage uniforms use the real batons held by public security police in a performance of suppressing the opponent. Considering that this is China, this is not surprising. But are these students suitable counterparts for children in Higashikagawa City to interact with?
Some of the students will likely make great use of the second and third foreign languages they have acquired while pretending to be civilians and non-combatants in various fields overseas when they become operatives embodying the intentions of the CCP. There is nothing more terrifying than brainwashing education by a one-party authoritarian state.
There are a few facts that need to be clarified. Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the protests opposing the exchange, Higashikagawa City has, at least for the time being, canceled the plan to build the Haidian school base at the former Fukuei Elementary School, and the city says they are currently not interacting with the school. However, there are hints of suggestions for the resumption of exchanges from the next fiscal year onwards, and the residents are concerned. This issue is by no means over.
“We Have a Business Relationship”
It is understandable that the residents reacted with strong opposition, as they had not been informed of the exchange program that was underway. The residents collected 3,802 signatures to petition against the plan in the spring of 2020.
The petition read, “The residents did not get a sufficient explanation. It is incomprehensible that the former nursery school ‘Yamabiko-en,’ which is adjacent to the former Fukuei Elementary School, will also be used as a lodging facility for the Haidian school.”
Furthermore, it stated, “This petition is not against international exchange per se, nor is it intended to be racist or to criticize the people of China. It is clear that the city and the city board of education are forcing a project of establishing a foreign school base in the city, which is causing strong anger and anxiety among the residents.”
Below are some excerpts from the comments received at the time of signature.
“If China comes, Japan will disappear.” (Man in his 70s)
“Japan will be taken over by China. I am absolutely against it.” (Female business owner in her 70s).
“Interacting with a country that does not understand the rule of law is dangerous. How do you plan to take responsibility if our children face danger?” (Man in his 30s.)
“It is better not to trust China. There are merits in interacting with China, but not here.” (Man in his 30s).
“Students in compulsory education do not need exchanges. An exchange program with China is out of the question. Students who want this can do so on their own under the responsibility of their parents.” (Unknown).
On the other hand, a resident who appears to own a glove manufacturing business commented, “We cannot stop exchanges with China, for reasons having to do with our family [business].” She added, “I know China is scary but we have a business relationship with them, so we have to engage with them.” (Unknown).
I spoke on the phone with Higashikawa City Councilor Sadao Tanaka of the Liberal Democratic Party, who supported the exchange with the Haidian school, on July 30.
“The plan to build a school base at the former Fukuei Elementary School has been canceled. But isn’t it ok to resume interaction? Other regions all over the country are conducting interactional exchanges.”
“You say the Haidian school is conducting military training. All Chinese schools are doing it. Japan’s foreign ministry says that there is no problem in interacting with the school. In today’s world, the economy does not operate without China. Why do people only criticize Higashikagawa City?” He could not hide his frustration.
On the other hand, Satomi Kudo, secretary-general of the LDP’s Shiratori branch, who has been looking into this issue, said, “Neither the city, the city council nor the residents who support the exchange understand the dangerous nature of the CCP. It’s truly dangerous to be ignorant about China.”
Resident Explanatory Meeting Becomes Intense
On March 22-23, 2021, one year after the submission of the petition, the city finally held an explanatory meeting for the residents. According to the recordings by residents who attended the meeting, many of the remarks resembled the comments sent to the organizers during the petition campaign. However, the remarks at the meeting had more weight as they were not anonymous and were made in the presence of Mayor Ichiro Uemura and Superintendent Tomoharu Takeda. About 100 people attended the briefing over the two days. Below are excerpts from the exchanges.
Resident A: “I saw with my own eyes the problem of buyouts with the Chinese capital in Tokyo and Hokkaido. Higashikagawa City is too carefree and has no sense of danger. Is it because the glove companies have relationships with China?”
Mayor Uemura: “There were indeed talks of using another elementary school as a lodging facility, but the Haidian school said they preferred the site of Fukuei Elementary School, which is in satoyama.” (He did not answer the question about the glove industry.)
Resident B: “If the aim is to learn English, why the Haitian school from China rather than one from an English-speaking country?”
Mayor Uemura: “There are two types of English education: one with native English speakers and English exchanges with people whose native language is not English. I learned English in Korea when I was in middle school.”
Resident C: “Are you going to continue the exchange?”
Superintendent Takeda: “There are concerns with the safety of our children. Unless the international situation improves, I think it will be difficult. If the relationship between the countries is bad, the children can be held hostage. It’s doubtful that we can guarantee the safety of the children we send [to China] and the children coming here. We should not have exchanges while this remains a concern. It’s not possible unless the concern is solved.”
Resident D: “If you criticize the CCP, they will detain you. There is an example of a Hokkaido University professor who was detained in Beijing after being invited to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) as a guest. They may detain children too. Is it correct to understand that exchanges are indefinitely suspended?”
Resident E: “Why do you try so hard to have an exchange with such a dangerous place? It makes one wonder if you have hidden interests. Is it because the glove industry cannot cut ties with China?”
Resident F: “I was shocked to see a world map with China at the center in the office of the president of a glove company. This company thinks China is at the center. I feel terrified of the glove industry. I would like you to think about the safety of the residents and have an awareness of Japan as a nation, rather than letting China take over our sovereignty.”
Mayor Uemura: “You say you wonder if we have interests, but I assure you that there is no money trap, buyout, honey trap, or excessive business entertainment. If there is, I will immediately resign as mayor.”
A Base for Advancing in Japan
“What are you talking about? This is the age of China! If we don’t interact with China, we can’t survive in a depopulated area like Higashikagawa City!”
It was in 2017, four years before the resident explanatory meeting, when a city councilor had yelled the above to a resident.
Residents had raised concerns after seeing a group of Higashikagawa city councilors devoting themselves to interactions with a softball team from Hong Kong. One of the councilors yelled to the residents.
The reason the interaction with the Hong Kong softball team is important is that this triggered interaction with the Haidian school.
Since around 2015, Higashikagawa City and the Hong Kong softball team made mutual visits, led by City Councilors. Higashikagawa City promoted interactions including friendly matches. When the members of the municipal assembly visited Hong Kong, representatives from the Haidian school were present. From this day, the exchange plan between the city and the Haidian school progressed at a rapid pace.
The year 2015 was around the time of the Umbrella Movement, in which Hong Kong citizens staged protests for days to demand democratic elections. It was around this time that the city was introduced to the Haidian school through interactions with the Hong Kong Softball Association.
In 2017, the exchange between elementary and junior high school students in Higashikagawa City and the Haidian school began. In the following year, from July 10-16, 20 junior high school sophomore students and teachers visited Higashikagawa City to experience farming and fishing and make a courtesy call to the then mayor of the city, Hideki Fujii.
It was around this time that the city decided to close the former Fukuei Elementary School. The Haidian school approached Higashikagawa City requesting to make Higashikagawa their base for advancing into Japan. In the following September, the chairman of the Haidian school visited the city.
The following November, a delegation of the city councilors, invited by the Haidian school, visited Beijing. The councilors received an offer from the chairman of the Haidian School, who said, “We want to make this the first Haidian school overseas base in Japan.”
From July 8-18, 2019, 28 elementary school students and 25 junior high school students from the Haidian school visited Higashikagawa City and paid a courtesy call to Mayor Uemura and Superintendent Takeda.
The city refurbished a building of the former nursery “Fukuei Yamabiko-en” adjacent to the former Fukuei Elementary School, to accommodate the students. However, after the guests complained that the place smelled of fresh paint, the city rushed to move the students to a city hotel. At the request of the city, residents ran a kitchen. However, the Chinese students and faculties did not seem particularly keen on interacting with the local children and residents.
“They just wanted to use us as cooks,” said one resident, who said the atmosphere was awkward.
A Red Carpet Welcome
The Higashikagawa City Council began a close relationship with the Haidian school in November 2018, when they visited the school for the first time. Mayor Uemura, Superintendent Takeda, and others were invited to Beijing for the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Haidian school. One assembly member who took part in the visit describes the reception they received.
“We were treated like VIPs. We were greeted with a red carpet and a table full of food that I had never seen before. While we were eating, dancers in beautiful costumes came up to our table, took our hands, and danced in a circle on the spot. The students were fully demonstrating the fruits of their daily orchestras and dance practices. I had some doubts about the interaction with the Haidian school, but I thought maybe it was ok to have the exchange if it is with such a proper school. That’s how overwhelming our reception was.”
In fact, during Mayor Umemura’s video speech, the mayor’s face was projected onto a huge monitor at the venue, and the audience applauded with cheers. Giving guests an extravagant enthusiastic welcome is a common tactic used by the Chinese authorities.
Although Mayor Uemura denied at the resident explanatory meeting in March that there was no money or honey trap or excessive entertainment, sweet traps had been set here and there.
Mayor Implies Resuming Exchanges
On July 19, 2021, I visited Mayor Uemura and Superintendent Takeda at Higashikagawa City Hall. What surprised me when I was researching the mayor’s biography was his experience as a member of the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) from 1996 to 2001. Although his background may not be directly related to the exchange with the Haidian school, the Chinese side will of course be aware of this. After retiring from the GSDF, Mr. Uemura graduated from Chuo University, worked as a secretary to a Diet member, and was elected mayor in 2019 at the young age of 38.
Mr. Uemura clearly stated, “Considering the international situation, the exchange may stay canceled, or it may resume.”
Superintendent Takeda, who was also present, added, “Last year, due to the COVID pandemic and the international situation surrounding China, the event was canceled for the time being. Under the current circumstances, it is hard to think about resuming exchanges.”
Although their words suggest that the project will stay canceled in the future, I got the impression that both were not fully given up on the idea.
How does Representative Yuichiro Tamaki of the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) , a member of the House of Representatives whose constituency is Higashikagawa City, view this situation?
“We have to be careful when interacting with schools where the CCP has a strong influence. I often talk to Mayor Uemura about that. This is a symbolic example of how Japan’s security may crumble starting with depopulated areas. Exchanges with China are also a matter of economic security, so we must closely monitor them. At the same time, it is essential to create a system in which the government and municipalities can properly support regions that are struggling to revitalize,” Mr. Takaki said.
Hiromi Takashima, an alumnus of a local high school and former admiral, warned, “I am very concerned. You will make misjudgments if you interpret this as a problem that is unique to one rural region. The former mayor appears to want to promote exchanges with the Haidian school to revitalize the local economy, but it is an extremely high-risk double-edged sword. Some say politics and education are separate, but as long as the other side (China) is a monolith, that logic will not work. We need to make judgments about whom we are dealing with.”
“We should understand that the Chinese authorities must be carefully collecting information and performing detailed analyses and that they have reached us with a long-term strategy. They pinpoint and approach vulnerable areas. I guess there is also an economic aspect, but I just hope that my beloved hometown will not fall into the hands of the other party,” he added.
In China, the communist party, which is higher than the Constitution, operates laws arbitrarily. There are Japanese companies that had been on friendly terms with the Chinese authorities when they advanced into China until suddenly the authorities changed their minds and robbed the companies of everything they had there. As Mr. Tamaki and Mr. Takashima point out, there is always a danger when dealing with China.
It is important to know different cultures and deepen mutual understanding. The protest is not against municipalities, which are struggling with declining populations and are trying to revitalize their regions, taking initiatives to promote international exchanges. However, interacting with people who do not share the universal values of freedom and democracy also entails educational risks. How will they talk about the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Hong Kong, and the oppression of the Uighurs? The city should cool its head and abandon the plan for exchanges with the Haidian school.
This article is a translation of the Japanese original published in the October 2021 issue of Serion magazine.
Rui Sasaki is an editorial deputy chief writer for the Sankei Shimbun. Born in 1964, he became a reporter for the Sankei Shimbun, after graduating from Waseda University. He covered society and politics, before becoming the Washington D.C. bureau chief. He worked as the newspaper’s editorial writer, and later as the Kyushu and Yamaguchi bureau chief. He was appointed as deputy chief writer in 2018. He is the author of Shizukanaru Nihon Shinryaku and Nippon Fukkatsu! (both in Japanese, from Heart Shuppan).