Ruby restaurant in Takadanobaba is one of a growing number of ethnic restaurants that now dot the landscape of Tokyo. Like many others, Ruby is run by members of Japan’s small but growing community of immigrants, many of whom have risked their lives to escape persecution in their native countries and start afresh in Japan.
Kyaw Kyaw Soe and his wife, Nwe Nwe Kyaw, fled Burma, now known as Myanmar, 23 years ago to escape a brutal government crackdown on democracy activists. Their life represents one of Japan’s rare positive asylum stories: They have managed to build new lives in a country that is notorious for its closed-door policy toward asylum seekers. Still, as is the case with most foreigners who settle in Japan’s famously homogeneous society, this does not mean they do not yearn for home.
Over a cup of steaming oolong tea, Kyaw, now a gray-haired 50-year-old, says he has never considered the possibility that he might never return to the country of his birth. If he thought otherwise, he explained, that would mean the dream he has nurtured in his heart — one that has helped him through his darkest hours as he struggled to build a fair and equal Burmese society from his base abroad — would have died.
“In Japan I feel like a stranger despite being fortunate to have a stable life here,” he says. “Returning to Burma is natural, and I feel this especially now that the country is opening up to the world. I can contribute to making Burma a democratic country — one that protects the rights of its multiethnic citizens.”
Kyaw and Nwe Nwe established Ruby in 2002, having come to the conclusion they their status as refugees meant there were few attractive job options open to them in Japan. Noticing that Asian cuisine was slowly catching on in Japan, particularly among the younger generation, the decision to open a restaurant serving Burmese food seemed like an obvious step. The young Burmese couple had barely any savings, but with the help of three other refugee families, the restaurant was launched one beautiful spring morning after the couple asked the spirits for their blessing.
Seeking refugee status in Japan usually involves coping with a string of crushed hopes, periods in detention and excruciating loneliness. Pure determination can be the only friend on this long road. Having heard the heartbreaking stories of countless others who have sought recognition of their status as refugees in Japan, almost all of which ended in failure, Kyaw is acutely aware that he has been extremely lucky. He also acknowledges that he has been able to draw on a network of supporters including a dedicated lawyer, Shogo Watanabe, the Japan Association for Refugees, other rights activists and like-minded compatriots living in Tokyo.
“I guess it’s my good fortune that I was able to access the right kind of support in Japan. Somehow, miraculously, I met the right people and things fell into place. Without that special blessing, I would not have survived,” he says with a grin.
Kyaw won official recognition of his refugee status in just 18 months. While he puts this achievement down to a combination of luck and support, Jotaro Kato, of the Asian People’s Friendship Society (APFS), thinks Kyaw is being too modest.
“It was the strong optimism of Kyaw and his unflinching determination that was responsible for the successful result,” Kato says.
Seeing Kyaw’s story as an inspirational tale that could offer hope to other refugees, APFS has produced a film, “Life in a Foreign Land: Burmese in Japan,” about Kyaw’s life.
Kyaw is well aware of the long struggle required to gain the freedom he wants to see flourish in Burma.
“My father encouraged me to leave because of my democratic work in the ’80s, when Burma was under the grip of the military junta that led the country since 1962,” he explains. “It was getting too dangerous for people like us, with the secret police watching everyone who could appear a threat to the dictatorial government at that time. I am deeply proud, though, of the fact that my family never asked me to stop my democratic activities.”
That steadfast faith in their youngest son, a graduate of the Rangoon Institute of Economics, has helped keep Kyaw going for the past two decades in Japan. As the democracy movement in Myanmar grew and pressure on the military regime to release National League of Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest intensified following the NLD’s landslide victory in elections in 1990, the junta responded by refusing to recognize the result and clamping down harder on the restive population. That was when Kyaw decided to slip out of his beloved country and into Thailand on a three-month visa. He joined compatriots there who were also seeking new bases from which to advocate for democracy without fear of arrest, torture or worse.
With his visa period rapidly running out, Kyaw decided to apply for a tourist visa to Japan, having heard that the Japanese Embassy in Bangkok was granting visas at that time to applicants who “could prove they had a bit of money,” he says.
Finally, armed with this visa, Kyaw arrived at Narita airport in 1991 clutching a Burmese passport and an itinerary to show the immigration officer at the gate that said he “would be doing all the nice, innocent touristy things.”
Leaving the airport, Kyaw found himself sitting, incredibly, on a bench outside, breathing fresh air again. A Burmese friend picked him up and took him to an apartment in Tokyo. His support network then helped Kyaw find odd jobs.
Kyaw managed to scrape by in Japan without a valid visa until 1997, when he applied for refugee status. As soon as Kyaw had been recognized as a refugee in 1998, Nwe Nwe, who was then his fiancee, slipped into Thailand, and the couple were reunited in Japan in 1999.
Having grown up in a dictatorship where access to information was tightly controlled, Kyaw found the openness in his adopted home country liberating.
“In Japan I was suddenly able to read the books I wanted. I spent all my spare time in Kinokuniya bookstore poring over English books on democracy,” he recalls, adding that he found the story of Martin Luther King Jr. the most inspiring. “I was able to learn about people in other repressive countries. It was a new world for me.”
Consequently, he says, through his experiences in Japan, he learned a fundamental lesson: that with freedom comes responsibility.
“My activism began to change slowly,” he says. “For example, while I continued to lobby for democratic reform in Burma, I put equal emphasis on raising donations for local groups helping the marginalized people on the ground there.”
The change in thinking also led him to expand his work for refugees striving to build new lives in Japan. Kyaw believes foreigners seeking asylum need extensive long-term psychological support to cope with the unbearable stress that comes with the desperate search for a new home. With this in mind, Kyaw and some friends set up a project to help asylum seekers in Japan celebrate their traditional cultural festivals — an initiative, he says, that helps foster enormous solidarity and hope.
Kyaw lives today without a passport, traveling instead with a special permit issued by the Japanese government. He has yet to hear back from the Myanmar Embassy in Tokyo about an application for a visa to visit his home country that he filed nearly a year ago. While he waits, Kyaw continues to politely decline invitations from fellow activists to join them in larger Burmese expat communities in Europe and North America.
“Naked adoption of another country, which I view as the fate of most refugees, is a life I will not accept for myself,” he explains quietly. “I am grateful to have a life in Japan, but I have not assimilated enough in another country to become another person. That is the fate of most asylum seekers, but I protect my fidelity to Burma fiercely,” he says, sipping his tea slowly.
Refugees fight against the odds for chance to stay
Despite having ratified the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981, Japan granted refugee status to just 18 people in 2012, a year in which it received more than 2,500 applications. The highest number of applicants were from Turkey (16 percent), followed by Myanmar (14 percent) and Nepal (12 percent).
Justice Ministry data shows that the number of asylum seekers has surged in the last three years, a trend Jotaro Kato from the Asian People’s Friendship Society (APFS) puts down to more visa overstayers applying for the status given the near impossibility of gaining a proper working visa in Japan.
International pressure has forced Japan to implement several reforms in the asylum procedure over the years, such as setting up an independent body outside the Ministry of Justice to hear appeals filed by applicants. While Japan does not extend government-sponsored legal aid to unsuccessful applicants, there are pro bono attorneys working with the United Nations’ refugee agency who can help asylum seekers appeal in Japanese courts after their applications have been rejected.
Despite these reforms, Japan’s system for dealing with asylum seekers continues to draw criticism from human rights groups. In October 2013, for example, an asylum seeker from Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority died in his cell at an Immigration Bureau detention center. The People’s Forum on Burma reported that the man, who had applied for refugee status, suffered a seizure but was not treated because staff at the center did not want to disturb the resident doctor, who was on his lunch break at the time.
Another tragic story concerns Ma Ingyin Aung, an activist from Myanmar who arrived in Japan with her husband and young daughter in 2000 hoping to start a new life. Instead, divorced and with no tourist visa — her ex-husband having remarried, to a Japanese woman — she was locked up in the detention center for foreigners in Shinagawa for 18 months, where she says she was treated like a criminal. APFS helped her apply for refugee status, and she was finally granted a one-year special permit to stay in Japan.
“The permit is extended each year but I still shake with worry when I go to renew my visa,” she says.
In 2004, Kurdish asylum seekers began a lengthy sit-in in front of the U.N. building in Tokyo to protest the government’s decision to deport them back to Turkey. Their story briefly made headlines in Japan before fading away just as quickly when they were ordered off the premises by the authorities.
Activists have also published accounts from a number of refugees of highly stressful conditions in detention centers and of a lack of access to medical treatment.