Freelance journalist Hisao Tanabe is so highly regarded by Myanmar refugees in Japan they call him “Shwe Ba,” after an actor in Burma in the 1950s and ’60s who starred in numerous movies about people fighting those in power on behalf of the oppressed.
When refugees face difficulties such as financial problems and getting recognition from the government, they often turn to Tanabe for help.
Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962 and many people have fled the country to escape government oppression. About 8,000 are reported to be living in Japan.
Tanabe, 66, assists Myanmar residents with translating their messages to the government and counsels them about making applications for refugee status and issues involving daily life. He also serves as an interpreter in lawsuits filed against the government by some of those who have been rejected as refugees.
The Kyoto native said his father was sent to Burma, as Myanmar used to be known, during World War II while Tanabe was a child. He recalls hearing tales from his father about the gentleness of the Burmese. Tanabe studied the Burmese language at Osaka University of Foreign Studies and then went to work for NHK. He produced radio programs in Burmese and is still involved in the broadcasts.
He has written about 10 books on Myanmar, including one titled “Makeruna! Zainichi Birumajin” (“Don’t lose! Burmese in Japan”).
“I want to pass on to many Japanese something about Burma,” he said.