Events | WHERE IT'S AT

'Sour Strawberries' spotlights plight of non-Japanese 'trainees'

by Tomoko Otake

The plight of foreign “trainees” in Japan, who often provide cheap labor at factories and in farm fields with no access to labor rights protection, is usually not something you discuss leisurely over a cup of coffee or a mug of beer. But people who showed up last month at Ben’s Cafe in Tokyo had an opportunity to do just that — at the screening of a German-Japanese collaboration, the documentary film “Sour Strawberries.”

The night’s event, organized by Amnesty International Tokyo English Network (AITEN), started with a brief background briefing by Debito Arudou, a human-rights activist and Japan Times columnist who also appears in the hourlong documentary.

The film, directed by Germans Tilman Koenig and Daniel Kremers, takes its name from a strawberry farm in Tochigi Prefecture, where one of the Chinese “trainees” appearing in the movie picked strawberries 365 days of the year.

The film also features the stories of two people of Japanese descent — a Bolivian man and a Peruvian woman — who found, only after arriving in Japan, that they would be working as de facto unskilled laborers.

Tensions rise toward the end of the film, when Chinese trainees who sought help from a labor union are forcibly taken to Narita airport to be sent back to their countries.

The subsequent scuffle — between the workers and the private security guards hired by the employer — was videotaped by union officials — and provided to the filmmakers to be incorporated into the film. Another highlight is where Arudou takes the film crew to Kabukicho — Tokyo’s night-life mecca in Shinjuku — for a showdown with officials from a nightclub with a sign out front saying “Japanese only.”

The screening was followed by a Q&A session led by Arudou. Members of the audience shared a variety of thoughts, many of them unrelated to the film and ranging from free language lessons for foreigners, anti-foreigner comments by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, to stringent conditions attached to Filipino and Indonesian caregivers here.

Despite the movie’s heavy theme, many participants said they enjoyed the screening, with some wondering about ways to take the discussion outside the cafe and into their own communities.

Marian Hara, a private school teacher from Tokyo’s Meguro area, said she wants to use the film for human-rights studies at her school. “It would have a lot of impact on (the students) if they learn there are issues in Japan and that they are connected to things like the strawberries they are buying,” she said.

For German Hartwig Mau, who came to the screening with his sister living in Kawasaki, the screening provided an opportunity to reflect on migrant worker issues in his own country. “It was a very interesting evening for me,” he said. “It reminds me of the situation of people (in Germany) without passports, coming from Africa.”

Meanwhile, Adrian Francis, a documentary filmmaker from Australia, said he is thinking of making a movie himself on illegal immigrants in Japan, and refers to the recent case of the Calderons.

In that case, the Japanese Immigration Bureau decided to deport the Filipino couple on grounds that they had entered Japan with illegal passports. Only their 13-year-old, Japan-born daughter was permitted to stay.

“There are so many people here (like them). And of course, technically, they are working here illegally, but at the same time, the economy needs them, and the government knows that,” said Francis. “So I thought, nobody’s heard their story, you know?”

But can a film like “Sour Strawberries” reach out to a majority of people in Japan who care little about migrant workers or their struggles?

Cyrus Nozomu Sethna, an actor who runs a translation/narration company in Tokyo, believed that people may only feel others’ pain when they themselves are the victims of discrimination. “Nobody really cares about things that do not apply directly to them,” Sethna said.

“It’s not just in Japan or in the United States. It’s everywhere. It’s usually the people who have been the victims themselves that will understand how you feel as a victim.”

In the end, though, the event was a “roaring success,” in the opinion of Arudou, who was to continue on a screening tour of the film throughout Japan. Chris Pitts of AITEN agreed. “How companies treat their workers is something that concerns all of us,” he said. “(The movie) encourages people to know that even these people — in the worst possible conditions — can, when they fight, win.”