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Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010

Building a 'Little Yangon' in Tokyo

Thousands make lives in Takadanobaba but yearn for return to democratic Burma


With its proximity to the Waseda and Gakushuin universities and crisscross of train lines, Takadanobaba is known to most Tokyoites as either a college town or a commuting hub. It's a cheap place to go for a drink, a place to grab a quick bite on the way home from work, or perhaps to pick up some used books. And as the platform music at the JR station hints and any otaku can tell you, it was also the birthplace of Astro Boy.

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Yokoso Japan: Saw Ba Hle Thein translates for a newly arrived Karen refugee from Myanmar. COURTESY OF SAW BA HLE THEIN

For Tokyo's community of Burmese, however, Takadanobaba is something much more important: a home away from home. In fact, so many of them have gathered there that it has come to be known as Little Yangon. Although they number only a few thousand, the mutual support and sense of community have been vital for their survival in a country that offers precious little official support to refugees and migrants.

Most of the Burmese came to Japan to escape the violence and persecution in their home country. Going back could mean a death sentence, so the first struggle they face is gaining permission to stay. Often they apply for refugee status, but the Japanese government has been notoriously stingy with these visas, handing out just 30 last year.

Part of the problem, according to the Burmese, is a lack of understanding about the political reality in their country. They note that while the government here supports the military regime in Myanmar through trade and millions of dollars in aid, they seem to lack basic information about how the people there are treated.

Saw Ba Hla Thein, vice chairman of the Karen Nation League Japan and a consultant to the Japanese government on issues affecting the ethnic Karen community, recalls his experience with immigration. Over three months in 2004 and 2005, he was called in for a total of 11 interviews, many of which lasted a full day.

"I had trouble every day. I told the truth, but they didn't think it was the truth. (An immigration official) said, 'You're a liar,' and he threw my passport," Saw Ba remembers. "They knew about the protests in '88, but didn't know about the ethnic situation or about the Karen situation," and wouldn't recognize them as grounds for refugee status.

"I told them, 'If you don't know, you need to learn from the UNHCR or someone who knows about it,' " he adds, referring to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the world body's refugee agency.

Mai Kyaw Oo, an ethnic Palaung and a representative of the National Democratic Front, recalls a similar problem regarding his past in a resistance army.

"The place where I was living was declared a 'black area,' " Mai Kyaw explains, meaning the government had designated it an active rebel zone. Everyone in a black area is considered a rebel, and the zones are subject to frequent government attacks, during which soldiers can kill anyone they encounter with impunity, say rights groups that operate in the region.

"It's just like a war zone and the soldiers were committing human rights abuses," Mai Kyaw says. "We had to defend ourselves and our families, so I joined the Palaung army. I hated being a fighter and it was dangerous, but there was nothing I could do except that."

Mai Kyaw was finally able to flee the country in 1999 using a fake passport, and he made it to Japan. The UNHCR recognized him as a refugee but suggested he should apply for a visa from a third country, since the Japanese government would not issue refugee visas to former fighters, regardless of the extenuating circumstances.

"But I knew I couldn't leave, because I wanted to make the Japanese government understand. I wanted to keep trying until they understood," he explains. "As long as I was not made to return to Burma, I would be OK."

The progress has been slow, but he feels people in power are at least listening now. In 2004, he was able to get a long-term residency permit.

Getting to stay in the country is only the first hurdle. After that, Burmese have to find work. Japanese employers are sometimes hesitant to hire foreign staff, concerned that there may be problems due to language and cultural differences.

Phone Hlaing, the vice president of a Burmese labor union, admits these concerns can sometimes be justified. "Half of the problems the union sees are because of misunderstandings, because of language problems. So foreigners should learn the Japanese language."

And while it is the guests' responsibility to learn to communicate, Phone also wishes the hosts would be more accepting of other cultures. "Japanese also think they are superior to other Asians. This is the mindset," he says. "There is discrimination, but we have to show that we can work together."

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'I couldn't leave, because I wanted to make the Japanese government understand. I wanted to keep trying until they understood.' MAI KYAW OO, NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC FRONT REPRESENTATIVE

Another option for work, for those lucky enough to have the finances and the drive, is to start a business. Thomas Gon Aung, who was among the first Burmese to be granted refugee status here, started a moving company that largely serves the Burmese and other foreigners in the area. Even for him, though, cross-cultural communication poses problems.

"The Japanese trust each other, but I feel like there is not a lot of trust where foreigners are concerned," he says. This makes it hard for non-Japanese business owners like him, who often have to provide a guarantor for business transactions. Outside of work and his political activities, he doesn't have much contact with the Japanese, he says.

For the children of Burmese immigrants, the struggle is less about language and more about their place in society. Often, they have been placed in the public school system and can speak Japanese and understand Japanese culture, but are unable to shake their status as outsiders, leaving them stuck between a native country they don't quite remember and a host country that doesn't quite accept them. Reports of bullying are not uncommon.

Parents want their kids to take advantage of the benefits of living in a wealthy country, so they push them to speak Japanese and to excel academically. But at the same time, they want them to identify themselves as Burmese, and they worry about their children losing touch with their native culture.

"My children picked Japanese up very quickly, and now they are studying at Japanese universities," says Tin Win Akbar, a father of three. But as much as he wanted his kids to speak Japanese, he was equally concerned they might lose their mother tongue, so he devised a plan. "When I first came here, I made a rule that everyone must speak in Japanese (at home)," he explains "But after six months, I changed the rule to the opposite: Everyone should speak in Burmese."

Tin Win also restricted his work day to eight hours and didn't allow his children to stay overnight at friends' houses, in order to make sure they had the chance to speak Burmese every day.

Not all families can make similar arrangements, though. Even if they are using their native language at home, the exposure many kids have is limited. The vast majority of Burmese expats have jobs in hospitality or manufacturing, which require them to work long hours at irregular times. Like many Japanese workers, spending time with the kids takes a back seat to providing for them.

However, other than the problems that it creates for their home lives, you won't find many Burmese complaining about working menial jobs, even if they have specialized skills or a high level of education.

"Most of the people here are relieved because they are out of Burma, because they escaped from oppressive military dictators. They are living in a very advanced country and their salaries are not bad. It's much better here," explains Tin Win, who was a journalist in Myanmar but now works at a factory in Gunma. "At the same time, because this is a free society, you can do all of your political activities here without any fear of persecution."

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'It's much better here. . . . Because this is a free society, you can do all of your political activities here without any fear of persecution.' TIN WIN AKBAR, FORMER JOURNALIST

And pursue politics they do. Tin Win, despite living in Gunma, comes to Tokyo every weekend to lobby for union rights for Burmese and other migrant workers. He also consults with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on refugee issues and volunteers as a translator for the UNHCR. Saw Ba, in addition to his work on behalf of Karen, works full-time at a restaurant in Ginza, translates for other Karen in Tokyo and takes care of his wife and two small children.

The number of Burmese community groups operating in Tokyo is truly astounding considering their relatively small numbers. There are workers' unions, student unions, groups for many of Myanmar's hundred-plus ethnic groups, religious organizations, political advocacy groups, government lobbyists, a Burmese library, and even Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has a branch here. And every Burmese adult belongs to at least one of these groups.

This high rate of political participation is key to understanding the character of the Burmese community in Japan. Contrary to the popular belief that all refugees want to permanently settle in their host countries, most Burmese would not settle in Japan long-term if they were given the choice.

As Saw Ba puts it, "The Japanese love Japan and they want to live in Japan. We also love our country and want to live there. We want to live in our native land."

For the Burmese, all of the protests and attempts to influence Japanese policy are done in the hope of one day being able to go back to a free and democratic Burma. They may have created a Little Yangon in Takadanobaba, but for most of them it is at best a temporary replacement they would leave in a heartbeat for the real thing.

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