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Hilmneh Tegegn walks into Little Ethiopia Restaurant & Bar in Katsushika Ward, Tokyo, and points to a television playing Ethiopian music videos in the back corner.

“That dance with the shoulders,” Tegegn says, gesturing to the TV screen. “It’s really challenging.”

The restaurant is strung with flashing red, green and blue lights, and the beer taps are capped with mini Santa hats in honor of Ethiopian Christmas, which is celebrated on Jan. 7 rather than Dec. 25. The restaurant is festive and warm, welcoming its diners as family rather than customers.

Tegegn, 49, greets a friend sitting at a table doing work on his iPad before turning around and yelling something in Amharic to the owners in the back. A young girl hurries out and peeks over a swinging wooden door. Tegegn speaks to her in Japanese.

“She understands everything her parents say to her in Amharic, but she only speaks Japanese,” he says.

This little oasis of Ethiopian culture sits in the neighborhood of Yotsugi, which is known around these parts as Little Ethiopia. Tegegn has known the family that owns the restaurant for years. He goes to church services with them, spends time with their kids and brings new customers to their bar.

The family who owns Little Ethiopia Restaurant & Bar had enough money to apply for a business visa, allowing them to open up their restaurant despite the fact that they haven’t been officially accepted as refugees in the country. While they’ve been able to build a life in Japan, Tegegn’s stay has felt more temporary. He left Ethiopia for Japan 11 years ago, when his wife was pregnant with their third child. Eleven years later, he has still not received refugee status and he has still not met his daughter.

“As a man, I cannot cry in front of others,” Tegegn says as he lays out 11 years worth of photos of his three children on a table: Saron, 16; Nahusenay, 13; and Veronica, 10. The photos illustrate the childhoods he has missed out on, from the faded shot he brought with him to Japan to the image of his eldest daughter, now a young woman. “I cry at home,” he adds.

Tegegn is in Japan on karihōmen (provisional release) status, which suspends the possibility of detention and deportation while his application or appeal is ongoing. He is still considered an asylum-seeker, so he’s unable to leave the country or bring his family to him.

“I don’t think I am a burden for the Japanese government,” he says. “I work and pay all my taxes, I follow all their rules, I don’t commit any crimes. But I still don’t get a visa. My future is uncertain.”

Changing attitudes

Japan is the world’s fifth-largest donor to the U.N. Refugee Agency, yet it accepts less than 1 percent of asylum-seekers. This staggeringly low acceptance rate has earned it a reputation for turning away refugees. In December 2018, the government introduced an immigration policy that welcomed foreign laborers in an attempt to fill the rapidly widening gaps in Japan’s aging workforce. However, the policy did not address any responsibility to asylum-seekers. As the Diet liberalized its strict immigration policies, it tightened the rules for refugees. In 2018, it cut the rights of asylum applicants to work while their applications are under consideration.

The government’s rigid refugee policies don’t appear to reflect public sentiment, however. Based on a poll last month by The Nikkei Shimbun, 70 percent of Japanese people said they believe an increase in foreigners is “good,” with a majority of that group citing the need for laborers as the primary reason. Even people who said they were not excited at the prospect of an influx of foreign residents answered, “I don’t like it, but it can’t be helped.”

Before entering the rubber business, Tegegn was employed at Subaru’s factory in Ota, Gunma Prefecture. There he was a link in a chain of workers assembling parts of the car. He had seven-minute breaks throughout the day.

“After you go to the bathroom and get water from the vending machine, you have just two or three minutes to sit down,” he says.

Warmest regards: Hilmneh Tegegn hasn't seen his children in over a decade. When he left Ethiopia, his wife was pregnant with their third child at the time. | JESSE CHASE-LUBITZ
Warmest regards: Hilmneh Tegegn hasn’t seen his children in over a decade. When he left Ethiopia, his wife was pregnant with their third child at the time. | JESSE CHASE-LUBITZ

In an NHK poll also taken last month, the majority of respondents said they think the government accepts too few refugees, with 24 percent saying Japan should accept more of them. While that’s not a majority, it is still a substantial portion of a country that’s never been partial to immigration.

The Japan Association for Refugees (JAR) thinks there’s an increased interest in helping refugees in Japan and is working to make Japanese people a more significant part of its donor base.

JAR focuses on supporting refugees in Japan with legal assistance, counselors, meals, clothes and a space to rest or sleep during the day.

“Society has become more open to foreigners and more used to living with them,” says Eri Ishikawa, chair of the board for JAR.

This shift is partly credited to universities integrating more coursework on immigration, as well as Tokyo’s transition to becoming a tourist-friendly city in advance of this summer’s Olympics.

The Nikkei poll also found that the younger generation is more open to foreign workers, with 48 percent saying that Japan should actively accept them.

JAR is trying to keep this momentum going by holding a seminar twice a year that provides more information about displacement and resettlement. They are attempting to override misunderstandings about refugees as criminals or abusers of the system. The last one hosted 3,000 people.

“Compared to other countries it’s still really small. But from our perspective, more and more people have shown interest,” says Ishikawa. Between the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years, the number of donations increased by 1,000 from both individuals and corporations.

“Donations are really expanding from civil society,” Ishikawa adds.

Another door opens

Despite Tegegn’s negative experiences with immigration officials, he has had only positive interactions with Japanese people.

“Japanese people are willing to give their time and energy to teach their language and introduce their country,” Tegegn says. “The people are not hostile.”

When he arrived in Japan, an organization called Refugee Assistance Headquarters (RHQ) gave him a place to sleep and eat for six months while he got his bearings. They set him up with Japanese language classes and trips to see different parts of Japanese culture.

“Once you get used to the community, they will accept you,” Tegegn says. “People are good as long as you respect their culture.”

As the number of asylum-seekers has increased, the assistance organization is only able to give that kind of support to a few people. “People spend months knocking on their door,” Tegegn says.

RHQ was crucial for Tegegn because it helped him begin Japanese lessons, which he says is the biggest hurdle for newcomers to the country. Tegegn was an English teacher in Ethiopia and has a knack for picking up languages, so he got to the point where he could communicate with Japanese people and develop close friendships with some of them. He studied hard and passed a Japanese-language fluency test, but then he got the news that his asylum claim had been denied and became discouraged. He stopped taking classes after that and began the process of applying for asylum in the United States, where he has family.

While positive sentiment surrounding immigration is spreading among Japanese people, it is seen largely as passive acceptance and unlikely to trickle upward and impact policy any time soon, according to Yoji Masuoka, a member of Refugees International Japan Board of Directors, a Tokyo-based assistance organization.

“When I ask my friends, ‘Why aren’t you raising your voice?’ they say they don’t want to be seen,” he says.

But in the meantime, Japan is losing valuable citizenry and desperately needed workers.

Just last month, Tegegn found out that his application to the U.S. was accepted and he is now eager to leave Japan.

“I was so excited about Japan when I arrived. I learned the language, the rules, the culture,” he says. “But now I am tired of the food, I have given up on the language. I can’t wait to leave.”

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