Past the numerous izakaya bars and chain restaurants flanking Takadanobaba’s Sakae-dori street, there’s a simple brown building with a signboard reading “Swe Myanmar.”
Although Swe Myanmar is one of many Myanmar restaurants in Takadanobaba, known to many as Tokyo’s “Little Yangon,” its owner, Than Swe, 56, is a foreign national who has been granted refuge in immigrant-averse Japan, where only one in 250 applicants are granted asylum status.
While Than Swe and his wife, Than Than Kyaing, 56, are happy to operate the restaurant, the business was more of a last resort than a lifelong desire.
In 1989, Than Swe fled to Japan when he was just 26 in fear of government persecution for his role leading student democratic protests against the military dictatorship. Before leaving, Than Swe had worked closely with Aung San Suu Kyi as a member of the initial group that directed the popular uprising, simultaneously working as a university geology instructor.
“Seeing Aung San Suu Kyi and many protesters arrested one after another, I made up my mind to flee the country,” Than Swe says, recalling the harsh military crackdown.
At that time, Than Swe was one of a small number of people in the country, then called Burma, to hold a valid passport. Such documents were only issued to those scheduled to go abroad on approved business trips, and Than Swe had been issued his in anticipation of a future trip to Japan.
With no choice but to leave his wife, who did not have a passport, Than Swe fled by plane, first to Thailand and then to Japan.
He arrived in winter, when people were gearing up for the New Year’s holidays. With only about $1,000 (around ¥109,000 in today’s yen) in cash and the home address of a fellow countryman supplied by his parents in his pocket, he headed for that address in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district.
Than Swe then waited in front of the apartment for about five days until his countryman finally returned from work. The man introduced him to a cheap guesthouse, which turned out to be a hub for immigrant workers.
Than Swe learned that many of them were also in dire need of cash, and lined up daily at construction sites at 5 a.m., hoping to be hired as laborers. By doing the same, Than Swe soon found a full-time job at a construction company. About a year and a half later, his wife managed to get a passport and reunited with him in Japan.
He and his wife now have two children, both born in Japan, and the family was granted asylum in 1996.
Since then, Than Swe and his family have been gradually putting down roots, but the push for democratization that took place in Myanmar in 2010 compelled him to return to his motherland.
Hearing that the newly elected military-backed civilian government had granted amnesty to some political prisoners, Than Swe quit his job at the construction company and made up his mind to return to his home country for good.
He went to Tokyo’s Myanmar Embassy to discuss his departure, only to learn that he would not be allowed to return because his Myanmar citizenship was rendered null and void due to his previous involvement in the protest movements.
Out of work, and with his dream of returning to his motherland in tatters, Than Swe came up with the idea of sharing the flavors of his home country in Japan by opening a restaurant.
“We adjust the level of spiciness and the amount of oil we put into our dishes to match Japanese tastes, but we are committed to serving the authentic taste of Myanmar cuisine,” says Than Swe. “My wife cooks well, and we use the (same) essential ingredients that we used in Myanmar.”
Boosted by media coverage, the restaurant has slowly gained popularity since its launch in 2012.
Swe Myanmar’s signature dish is danbauk — stewed chicken served with oil-marinated rice. The chicken, which is simmered with a slew of spices for over an hour, is tender enough to be torn apart with chopsticks. The dish is topped with a seasoning made from ground fried shrimp, peppers and onions, creating an addictive combination of crunchy and soft.
“Garlic is used heavily in a lot of Myanmar food, so it is often very pungent,” explains Than Than Kyaing, Swe Myanmar’s head chef.
For customers looking for something milder, but still authentic, she recommends mohinga, a rice noodle dish served in fish broth often eaten for breakfast in Myanmar.
Swe Myanmar keeps the mohinga flavor authentic with broth made from fresh catfish imported from Myanmar, but substituting Japanese somen noodles to better match local tastes.
“Unlike Japanese catfish, the ones we purchase from Myanmar don’t have a muddy odor, so people enjoy eating them,” Than Swe says.
Than Swe and his wife plan to keep running the restaurant as long as it remains profitable, but he is not giving up on returning to Myanmar.
“If I could regain Myanmar citizenship, I would like to return home,” Than Swe says. Currently stateless, he can only visit Myanmar temporarily with a visa. “I want to contribute to the democratization of Myanmar if possible.”
Takadanobaba 3-5-7, Shinjuku-ku, 169-0075; 03-5937-0127; bit.ly/swemyanmar. This is the first installment in “Food of my Former Homeland,” a series on refugee chefs. An accompanying video can be found at bit.ly/SweMyanmar. For more information about UNHCR Japan, visit www.unhcr.org/jp.