Although not known to welcome them with open arms, Japan is a magnet for immigrants. Just in my own neighborhood there are several French-speaking Africans and a Chinese woman who runs her own bar. The Brazilian population of Japan is large enough that it is possible to buy newspapers in Portuguese at some of the Kiosks in Tokyo’s gigantic Shinjuku Station. Even suburban Kawagoe has its own Brazilian grocery store.

Some of these people are here legally, but some are not. Last month a boatload of illegal Chinese immigrants made news when they were intercepted in broad daylight just off the tourist island of Enoshima, not far from Tokyo Bay. Many more slip in undetected.

Freedom and relative wealth are probably the two most common goals, although some take one at the expense of the other. Vincent (which, like all the names in this story, is not his real one) is a Burmese civil engineer who works as a waiter in Tokyo. He complains that he can’t find a job in his field of expertise because the Japanese are prejudiced against other Asians. On the other hand, he is afraid to go home because Burma has controlled by a military dictatorship for more than a decade.

Vincent told me that he plans to go home next year because democracy will have been restored to Burma by then. I don’t know of anyone else who thinks so. Vincent has been here for five years.


Some stories have a happier ending. Tina is an American who first developed an interest in Japan when she had a Japanese pen-pal in high school. She spent her first summer of college in Nara on a Youth For Understanding exchange program. It was such a good experience that when the summer ended she changed her major to International Relations. After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1987, she came to Japan on the JET Program.
The JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program is a system by which the Japanese government hires native speakers of various languages to work as assistant language teachers for one year in public school classrooms. In 1987, Tina began working as an English teacher in Chiba. She came to realize that one year was going to be “too short to appreciate the experience” so she decided to stay for at least two years before returning to the United States for graduate school. But then she met Kenji, also an English teacher. They began dating, but she wanted him to be under no illusions about her long-term plans to return to America. She told him “quite clearly” that she didn’t believe in international marriage for a number of reasons. Luckily, he was not deterred. Tina and Kenji recently celebrated their 8th wedding anniversary.

“Obviously,” she says today, “I changed my mind.”

Tina is now in her 12th year as a resident of Japan. She describes the experience in overwhelmingly positive terms. She has a “great” husband, a “good” job, and a variety of Japanese and foreign friends. She and Kenji have a nice house and garden and their Japanese neighbors have fully accepted her. Tina describes Chiba as a good place to live in Japan because it has many government and commercial resources for foreigners. The one slight drawback she mentions is “occasional run-ins with in-laws, especially about religion [and] privacy, but nothing too bad.” This kind of thing happens in most families, and since her elder brother recently married a Japanese as well, she has someone with whom she can compare notes.
Tin’As Japanese life is basically pretty nice.


Getting married is at least one part of Tin’As experience that Dariush would like to emulate. He’s in Japan illegally, and finding a Japanese wife is the only way he will be able to get a valid visa. Tall, handsome, athletic, and amiable, Dariush looks like he should have no trouble in this department. He’s easy to believe when he says that Japanese women often approach him in Roppongi bars.

The trouble is, they approach because they think he’s an American, and they want to practice their English. Dariush is from Iran, and he does speak some English although he is not fluent. The women quickly lose interest once they realize this, and the fact that Dariush IS fluent in Japanese is not enough to save him. Another problem for him is the very negative stereotype of Iranians that most Japanese seem to hold.
Dariush loves his native country, but he is not happy with its government. He is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War. In that conflict, he says, Iranian leaders were constantly exhorting “Islam! Islam! Islam!” Dariush shakes his head and insists that the war in fact had nothing to do with Islam.

Upon his return to civilian life, he tried to get a job as a truck mechanic. He had an interview with the manager of a garage, and thinks that he did a pretty good job of establishing his expert knowledge of truck engines. When that part of the interview was over, the garage manager reached into his desk, took out a copy of the Koran, and began to quiz Dariush on specific verses. His disenchantment was now complete, and he decided to leave Iran.
But for where? Dariush chose Japan for at least two reasons. One is that Iranians going to the West often find it difficult to get permission to leave the country. The government is more lenient with citizens who wish to travel in the non-Western world. The second reason was that he had a friend in Japan who already had a job and said he could get Dariush one too. And he did.

The job was killing chickens in a rural Japanese poultry plant. He hated it. Realizing that he would never find a better job until he could speak Japanese, he devoted every spare moment to study. Eventually he went from being someone who could just label chicken parts in Japanese to someone who could carry on a real discussion.
Finally he had the good fortune to be taken under the wing of Mr. Tanaka, a businessman in the automotive industry. He was able to use his mechanical skills at last and now describes Tanaka as a surrogate father. Tanaka supplied him with an Alien Registration Card that is good enough to pass muster with the local police, but which probably wouldn’t fool the more practiced eye of an immigration official. He doesn’t want to risk finding out.

After five years in Japan, Dariush is now fluent in Japanese and is the manager of the shop where he works. In his free time, he has mastered certain Japanese cultural arts to such a degree that he now actually teaches them to classes of Japanese. It would be an excellent life if not for the precariousness of it all. And so, his quest for a Japanese wife continues. For Dariush, having come this far, there is no Plan B.


Japan, like Germany or the American Southwest, is a free and prosperous land adjacent to a large region of discontent. Thousands of people settle in each of those places every year. You’ve just met three of those who came to Japan.
One is hiding out from terror at home. One is building a better life for himself
And one was just passing through when she happened to fall in love. Migration has always been a prime ingredient in the drama of human life, and there is more of it going on in Japan than anyone, including the Japanese, can ever know.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

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