The Nigerian Union in Japan is the central civic organization for immigrants from Africa’s most populous nation. It has foundered twice in 21 years and its current incarnation is less than a year old. Its mixed history is a reflection of the social and economic turmoil Japan’s Nigerian community has endured over the past two decades.

Members have been factory laborers, globe-trotting entrepreneurs and nightlife industry pioneers. They’ve also been blamed for some of Tokyo’s most publicized crime problems, notably a series of drink-spiking and bill-padding incidents that led the U.S. Embassy to issue a warning in 2009 against visiting Roppongi. With the exception of those incidents, their history has hardly been written about.

Union president Honorable Okeke Christian Kevin knows he has inherited an image problem that verges on unfixable, but which must be addressed if he wants to increase his constituents’ social mobility. To that end, the Nigerian Union has held two fundraisers to benefit tsunami victims, hoping to portray Tokyo’s Nigerians as socially conscious immigrants invested in the welfare of their adopted home. The second occurred during several months of reporting I dedicated to the Nigerian community.

There are reasons to hope. Okeke’s speech at the second fundraiser revealed a gifted leader who possesses a critical awareness of the issues his community is struggling with and speaks candidly about them. This includes condemning Nigerians engaged in illegal activity, but also criticizing outdated “adult entertainment” laws that effectively criminalize all nightlife establishments in Japan and make Nigerian business owners vulnerable to profiling at the whim of police.

He wasn’t the only talented leader at the fundraiser. Chief Kennedy Fintan Nnaji is the current chairman of Imo State Union, among the largest and most active of the Nigerian Union’s member organizations. Founded in 2002, it has persevered ever since, even when the Nigerian Union was inactive. Nnaji is seeking nonprofit status for his organization, a complex and lengthy process, but one he is equipped for — his Japanese is impeccable and he’s a veteran organizer. If he’s successful, Imo State Union will be the first Nigerian-run nonprofit in Japan.

Okeke and Nnaji preside at a moment that is among the most hopeful in Nigerian history. The second fundraiser was held on the day of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s inauguration. Many in Japan’s majority-Igbo Nigerian community — officially numbering 3,500, but possibly several times that in reality — hope that the fair and transparent election of an ethnically Ijaw political outsider to the presidency signals an end to the marginalization they feel characterized life in their home country. It remains to be seen if the new Nigerian Union can address its own political challenges, which include finding a way to enfranchise smaller state unions without clinging to a controversial quota-based leadership system that hearkens back to old-style Nigerian politics.

At the fundraiser Nnaji openly and aggressively attacked that system, something Okeke can’t do given his position. The debate Nnaji’s rhetoric sparked would have been more meaningful if the 40 Nigerian Union officials present hadn’t outnumbered the 36 attendees, the low turnout pointing to the greatest obstacle the new Nigerian Union faces: deep bitterness felt by the large number of Nigerians who work in Japan’s nightlife industry, many of whom feel they’ve been victimized by a closed society in which their success has been met with racism and xenophobia.

Only one of them attended. Bosco works for a nightclub in Kabuki-cho. The father of two and Imo State Union member is, at least from a civic perspective, a model citizen. He showed up to the fundraiser on his only day off, gave an impassioned speech and donated generously. Bosco maintains a sense of poetic possibility about the future. Asked if he thinks the stereotypes that plague Nigerians in Japan can be overcome, he answered, “It will happen. The truth is a living being, and it cannot be killed. It is always manifesting itself and revealing itself in new ways.”

Among those who didn’t attend the fundraiser was Saint, a Roppongi tout newly arrived from Malaysia, where he was an electrical engineer until 16 months ago. Most Nigerians arrived in Japan between 15 and 20 years ago, which makes Saint’s recently acquired hostility particularly illustrative. In February, an errand to Western Union ended in detainment by police and a strip search. Saint, predictably indignant, was held until his wife could fax a copy of his passport. The reason he was initially questioned? His visa was printed on the back of his alien registration card instead of the front.

“The tsunami was God’s vengeance on the people of Japan for their racism,” Saint says. It’s an awful sentiment, but understandable coming from the deeply religious Saint, whose life is characterized by contradiction. A near-fanatical Christian, he listens to Bible verses on headphones while he shepherds strangers into the gentleman’s club he works for. Though he resents the Japanese, his income depends on his ability to establish an immediate rapport with potential Japanese customers.

“Among those immigrants who come here as working-class people there are two types,” Kennedy Fintan Nnaji told me. “Those who want to make as much money as possible in a short time and then return to their country, and those who join the process and try to make a place for themselves in Japan.”

Most Nigerian immigrants aren’t yet part of either category when they arrive. Whether they decide to invest in the culture depends on their experiences here, and circumstance may turn more than a few who might otherwise “join the process” into hardened, opportunistic cynics.

Okeke Christian Kevin knows it, and he knows he can’t break that cycle without the support of Nigerians who believe it can’t be broken. “I’m disappointed. Nigerians didn’t support us tonight,” he said of the fundraiser’s attendance. “Their ideology is that nothing can be changed, so they shouldn’t even try.” Okeke offered this sentiment as he carried dozens of boxes of leftover food out of the event hall’s basement. The fundraiser had ended hours earlier. Everyone else had gone home, leaving him to do the work no one else had done.

JJ, a Kabuki-cho tout who in August will open a hostess club, has a personal history that illustrates the economic migrations Nigerians have made since arriving in Japan. He arrived in 1995 to take a job cleaning oil drums. Like other factory jobs that fueled Nigerian immigration, his required a self-financed trip to Japan for an interview, an initial month of probationary employment, and wasn’t with a company that relied heavily on immigrant labor — he was the only foreign employee in his section.

JJ quickly found his way out of the factory, turning a weekend gig selling secondhand clothes at flea markets into a full-time job selling hip-hop clothes to retailers, then opening two stores of his own. Immigrant communities often operate on shared expertise, and as factory employment succumbed to outsourcing, Nigerians increasingly turned to hip hop apparel to earn a living.

Many recall that time fondly, JJ included. The business offered a chance for global travel and represented an acquisition of socioeconomic status that affirmed flattering stereotypes about the Igbo diaspora, who perceive themselves as uniquely industrious people capable of quick success under difficult circumstances. But the stereotypes cut both ways, and the culture’s money-mindedness led some to seek shortcuts. Business ownership brought sudden visibility to the Nigerian community, and problems quickly followed.

In 2005, customs began seizing shipments of brand-name hip-hop apparel belonging to Nigerian business owners. They occasionally turned out to be counterfeit. The resulting response from media and local politicians contained racist and xenophobic undertones, advocated profiling toward Africans by Japanese authorities, and conflated the crimes with the ethnicity of the perpetrators.

The backlash succeeded in driving most hip-hop stores out of business. Some owners turned to exporting car parts or electrical components, but many lacked the necessary expertise. By 2006 the Nigerian community was in the midst of another economic migration, this time to the nightlife industry, and primarily to Roppongi, where a few pioneering Nigerian businessmen were already major players.

Almost immediately, accusations of drink-spiking and bill-padding started to fly. The complaints were too numerous for the U.S. Embassy to ignore, and it issued a warning that named several clubs.

The alleged crimes captured the public’s imagination in a way counterfeit apparel smuggling hadn’t. Nigerians weren’t always implicated, but many of the businesses named were Nigerian-run and the resulting media coverage had a strong enough racial slant to ensure Nigerians in Japan would long be identified with criminal activity.

After speaking with several alleged victims and implicated club owners, reviewing documentation provided by both parties (credit card records in particular) and examining the police investigations that followed, I became convinced that while some drink-spiking did occur, most of the incidents that led to allegations of drink-spiking didn’t involve anything criminal. They only involved an aggressive opportunism that, for better or worse, defines the business model employed by the hostess clubs that are often the business of choice for Nigerian nightlife entrepreneurs.

The model works like this: Customers are enticed by the promise of unlimited drinks for a fixed amount of time. In the club, a working girl sits down next to the customer and asks to be bought a drink, which costs extra. The girls often work on commission — they pressure customers to buy pricey stuff and to share in what has been bought so the drinks go fast and the customer gets blindingly drunk. Depending on the club, a customer will be kept aware of his tab to varying degrees. Frequent billing disputes and drunken blackouts result. Whether these incidents should be blamed on customers’ bad judgment or clubs’ unscrupulous opportunism is a matter of debate.

This version of events is supported by the frequency with which alleged victims’ stories didn’t match the narrative that emerged in press coverage of the incidents. Few woke up in a strange place without their wallets, and most could only cite an unusually severe hangover as evidence their drinks had been spiked, a common complaint in Roppongi, where even izakaya pubs often add hard liquor to the first few beers in unlimited drink packages.

At least as culpable as any customer or business owner are Japan’s obsolete nightlife laws, originally enacted during the American Occupation. Hostess clubs are forbidden to operate after 1 a.m., and no club or bar may allow dancing past that hour. Compliance precludes profitability. The law remains on the books to facilitate punitive enforcement by police, who often target Tokyo’s most popular nightspots in sensational raids that seem more arbitrary than strategic.

“These laws are made to control our people,” said Patrick, another tout in Roppongi. The laws also encourage the short con — a club owner who may have his license revoked tomorrow, or may even go to jail, has little reason to forego any opportunity to profit today.

Nigerians in the nightlife industry tend to feel they’ve had their hand forced, and then been called cheaters for playing it. Many wish they could return to the stability of factory employment. Though one can’t necessarily fault Japanese society for being relatively closed, neither can they fault Nigerian immigrants for their deep resentment of how harshly they’ve been judged for trying to find their place at its periphery.

‘No matter how long you live in Japan, you can never be a friend to a Japanese man,” said Basil, owner of Treasures Gentlemen’s Club in Roppongi. Through 14 years of failed marriage to a Japanese woman, his in-laws refused to meet him. He predictably plans an eventual, permanent return to Nigeria, where he’s since remarried and had children.

Saint likewise plans to take the money he earns in Japan back to Nigeria, where he still owns a home. “I don’t discuss this with my wife because I’m young and flexible,” he says. “This is the time in my life for making money.” Perhaps like Basil he won’t have children in Japan. If he does, his fatherhood will be complicated by more than just his own ambivalence.

Most touts work six nights a week. If they’re lucky they get Sunday off, when their children will be home. Child rearing is left mostly to their wives, and Nigerian men often worry about the potential estrangement of their children, who may not spend much time with their fathers and risk growing up with little knowledge of their Nigerian heritage.

The diversity of Nigerian immigrants’ families, however, defies generalization. Bosco and JJ are among the many Nigerians who are permanently invested in their marriages and make ample time for their children. JJ’s wife has long wanted to take their family to Nigeria, but he has demurred. “For a Japanese person, Nigeria is too harsh,” he explained.

What’s true in all cases is that the nightlife industry, with its demanding schedule and inherent volatility, makes successful fathering difficult for many Nigerians in Japan, and families are not always insulated from its miseries. JJ hopes to get out of the hostess club business as quickly as possible by investing his club’s profits in a more stable venture.

“Some people want money,” he told me. “I just want peace. I’m a father, you know.”

The challenges faced by Nigerians’ families hint at the hidden social costs of the Nigerian community’s marginalization — costs that cannot be conveniently restricted to Roppongi, or to the immigrant population.

After the fundraiser, Okeke sought press coverage for a charitable donation. He has no public relations background or media contacts, but he secured the first major Japanese newspaper and magazine coverage in the Nigerian Union’s history. He also reached out to multinational non-profits in an effort to establish partnerships with organizations more experienced in publicizing charity work.

At every juncture he’s had to contend with decades of resentment. In June, the nonprofit receiving the fundraiser money arranged a joint donation drive with the Nigerian Union in the hopes of attracting further coverage. Less than 24 hours before the event, Union members intervened to cancel it, complaining they’d already done enough and that it was undignified to ask the Union’s president to solicit donations from Japanese citizens.

Okeke wasn’t discouraged. “I’m fighting to ensure that everyone sees the meaning of unity,” he told me. “And my top priority is cleaning the image of Nigerians here so that it reflects the contributions we make as productive members of society,”

Whatever the outcome, Kennedy Fintan Nnaji will play a key role. If he succeeds in registering Imo State Union as a nonprofit organization, he will have created the Nigerian community’s best-ever opportunity to assert itself as a genuine contributor to Japanese society.

“My mission for Imo State Union is to get people involved in civil society and community service,” he said. “We are strangers. It is our obligation to show Japan who we are and what we can do. If we display humility and work diligently, we will be recognized.”

Okeke’s and Nnaji’s agendas may just be shrewd enough to work, and they give formal voice to the indefatigable hopes of their less hardened constituents. But they’ll accomplish little if the community at large is too weary to hear them out.

“To work individually is difficult in a strange land,” Nnaji said. “We must speak in one voice.”

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