Mention 'the war' and Hifumi Arai won't lower her head, bow, and keep quiet. The columnist once gave one of her articles - written in Chinese for the Chinese - the title: 'Chinese racism' and another: 'The hard life of being a Japanese'. What makes 34-year-old Arai an oddity in Hong Kong is not only her unique strong-mindedness that most of us forget exists in some Japanese women - but also the fact that she survives 'racist' Hong Kong; and has made her name here. As columnist for four Chinese dailies and two monthlies, Arai is fast becoming one of the more accomplished exports from the island country. If anything can be read into her success, it is that she has given thousands of faceless Japanese women living in Hong Kong an identity. Suddenly, they are no longer housewives who shop at Yaohan and live in Taikoo Shing. Arai is divorced, lives in a one-bedroom flat in noisy Wan Chai, and does not giggle. There is no certainty she ever wears a kimono and performs tea ceremonies. She did not offer tea - or anything at all - on the sweltering day of our interview. A pungent smell of tobacco filled her flat. 'Japanese women do smoke and drink,' she said. Otherwise, Arai is polite, hospitable and easy-going despite her sudden rise to star status. She is at a loss herself about her popularity: Cable TV profiled her the day we met. Her telephone nearly rang off the hook when Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda's backdoor diplomacy was splashed across the local media. 'The local newspapers wanted to know what I think. And I am going on radio tomorrow to talk about his visit,' she said. So what is it about her that sells? It seems her currency is her ideas, her insights, and her adventurous spirit. Her key to survival is her sensitivity in handling sensitive issues. When asked who she thought owned Diaoyutai Islands, she said: 'I am not a political commentator. I regard it as a problem that needs to be discussed and resolved, rather than something that has been resolved like the minister said.' Her other trait is her ability to handle rudeness and racism. She wrote about a train trip in northeast China: 'I was surrounded by local travellers, one of whom told me his friend's father was shot dead by 'you Japanese'; and another asked me whether I was there to reminisce. 'I could not be reminiscing. I was born 20 years after the war. It was the longest night I ever experienced.' And of course, without her fluency in the Chinese language (she speaks fluent Putonghua and English and can read and write Chinese and English), she would only be able to nod, bow and keep quiet when we mention the war. Fellow columnist Chua Lam used to think Arai was a Chinese using a Japanese pen name because she is so articulate. Lee Yee, who publishes the Chinese-language monthly The Nineties, to which Arai is a contributor, said her articles did not require editing. Arai herself thinks Chinese is a 'sensual' language. She was not reared as an adventurous Japanese woman. The second of five children in a middle-class family in Tokyo, she was the only 'strange' child. 'None of my siblings are strange. They all get married and have children,' she said. Do her parents want the same of her? 'I have married once, am divorced now and I will marry again. But I am not like my brothers and sister. 'Since I was a child I have always been rather strange. I like to ask 'why'. Most children, when they reach a certain age, will stop asking why. I didn't.' Arai's resume is impressive. She is a political science graduate of Waseda University in Tokyo - the only woman in her class; and she was an ardent feminist. She said being a minority on the campus probably drew her to feminism. 'I want to be with women like me, who are not satisfied with society.' She now blames her extreme revolutionary views and the way she put them into practice for the failure of her marriage. Arai left for China in 1984, when she won a scholarship to study Chinese. For two years, she travelled extensively and usually on her own there. On her return to Japan, she published a book about her experience in the country. She has also worked as a reporter on Asahi Shimbun, covering the crime beat. When she got fed up with the long hours (she said she used to work 17 hours a day), she left for Canada where she married a Canadian. She spent six years there, mastered her English and contributed to the English-language Toronto Star. She moved to Hong Kong in 1994. Arai's interests in Hong Kong and the Chinese culture dates from 1983, when as a student studying Chinese as a foreign language in Tokyo, she subscribed to the Hong Kong political monthly The Seventies (now renamed The Nineties ). She was introduced to Lee Yee in Tokyo the following year. Her graduate thesis was 'Hong Kong and 1997'. When she left for Beijing in 1984, she had been studying Chinese for three years although she said she could barely speak it. In a year, however, she was already writing for Lee. Arai likes to correct people when they say she does not fit into the traditional stereotype of Japanese women. 'If they meet my Japanese girlfriends, they would say the same thing. 'But the truth is that the situation in Japan has changed quite drastically in the past 20 years but people's perceptions of Japan and its people have not. I am not that typical but I am not unusual either.' But then Arai is always slightly different. On the assumption that all Japanese women want to get married and have children, Arai is shocking with her frankness: she has had an abortion - and in China. She described her almost comical experience in an early article: 'The doctor examined me: 'You look pregnant,' she said. 'The urine test showed positive results. So, I say it is very possible that you are pregnant'. ''Can you not say for sure?' I asked her. 'I have never been in a place like this. This doesn't fit in my impression of a hospital. 'Doctors I know all have a certain style . . . They always seem to know everything; understand everything; and are absolutely reliable. 'Here [in China] they are not. Maybe it is because their uniform is not starched white; or because of the mess in the operating theatre; or because they chat with the nurses while working on patients. Anyhow, they are not different from a chef, from a carpenter . . .' Arai is critical, too, of other China and Hong Kong phenomena. She is critical of Lu Ping's view on freedom of speech; of Hong Kong losing its identity as 1997 approaches. 'I still find China a difficult place in which to live. There is too much control; too much politics in everyday life. Freedom is restricted everywhere, and there is unfairness.' She said that Hong Kong was 'gradually but surely' becoming another city of China. 'Hong Kong was a very simple place. People used to say what they meant. But now, people say one thing and mean another because the political situation has become complicated.' She said she had experienced censorship. 'A freelance writer interviewed me about my book. 'She told me she was contributing the article to a left-wing newspaper. Two weeks later she rang to say they were not publishing the article. 'There was no explanation. I have no evidence but I think the situation implies there is something politically sensitive, or incorrect, about my writing, or my background. 'In Hong Kong, you cannot see faraway places; you cannot see faraway time. I mean that literally and figuratively.' Arai said she was planning to leave Hong Kong after 1997. 'I came here to observe this period of transition. I have not planned a long stay. 'If there was no such thing as 1997, I might stay here longer. 'But it has been said that supporting or advocating the independence of Taiwan or Hong Kong after 1997 will be considered a criminal act. 'I am not used to living and writing in these kinds of conditions. 'I do have have an opinion on these issues, but I believe in self-determination. 'I have been to Taiwan many times. I know Taiwan is a separate social, cultural and political entity from the mainland. So 'one China, one Taiwan' is a fact.' Arai said that although she was 'quite tired' of the issue of Japanese aggression towards China, she saw it as her role to 'talk to people in other countries, to communicate with them'. 'Japan can be a faceless society. We sold many goods abroad but our views have not really been heard. 'Japan has not made enough effort to make itself understood. So when I write articles for Hong Kong media I try to show that as human beings, we are the same. This simple fact sometimes slips people's minds.'