Nour Eldin Sultan, 50, is the first Arab Muslim to have been elected into a local prefectural assembly in Japan. Born in Syria and raised in Egypt, Sultan became a naturalized Japanese citizen in 2013 and was voted into the Shonai Town Assembly in Yamagata Prefecture as a councilor in 2021.
1. What brought you to Japan? In Egypt, I worked for the Ministry of Youth and Sport and as a swim coach. Through my job, I met numerous JICA volunteers who encouraged me to apply for a cultural education exchange program to teach swimming here in Yamagata for 10 months.
2. How did you end up staying here? Even after the program, I never stopped thinking about Yamagata. I eventually was able to come back to Japan to continue my studies in Tsukuba. However, after just one year, I still longed for Yamagata and so I decided to move back for work.
3. What was something that surprised you about Japan? I remember flying over the Shonai rice terraces and seeing the reflection of the airplane in the water from above. Egypt is very dry and I had never seen rice paddies before so I thought that perhaps they were large mirrors or something.
4. Before your life as a politician, what did you do here in Japan? Swim instructor, factory worker, ramen shop manager, farm worker, car salesman. I’ve worn many hats in Japan. At one point, I even had my own Middle Eastern restaurant here, but not anymore.
5. What prompted you to get involved in Japanese politics? I love living here in Shonai. But in such a rural area, there are many inconveniences such as lack of transportation and public services. My first instinct was to move somewhere else with better resources, but that doesn’t address the problem at the root. Instead, I thought I should make the changes that I wanted to see.
6. Were there any memorable moments during your campaign? I was surprised to find out that many of my supporters were older farmers. They said they were happy to support me because, as a foreigner, they believed that I would bring many new and fresh ideas to Shonai. I was very moved by their acceptance of me.
7. As an assembly member, what is your main responsibility? To listen to the people and make informed decisions that benefit the community. I and the other assembly members work very hard to let the people know that their voices are being heard.
8. How do you prepare for an assembly meeting? I first research if there have been any previous initiatives to tackle the problems brought to my attention and gather data. I then meet with the other members of the assembly and there is a lengthy back and forth about how best to resolve the issue. The whole process is very bureaucratic.
9. What are some changes that you have put in motion since taking office? A big one is that I’m trying to get a proper pediatrician for the local hospital. As of now, there aren’t any doctors specializing in children in Shonai Town. However, the ball is in motion.
10. Looking forward, what are some changes that you would still like to see? Right now, Shonai is experiencing a sharp decrease in population as many young people are moving to the city for better career prospects. By improving education, transportation, public facilities and job opportunities here as a whole, I’d like to give these people a reason to stay.
11. How do you relieve stress outside of work? Getting in touch with nature relaxes me. At my home, I have my own rice plot and I raise several animals such as ducks, chickens and even goats. I love waking up every morning and seeing Shonai’s beautiful nature.
12. Any hobbies or activities you explore outside of work? I worked as a swim coach for many years and so, even now, sports are a huge part of my daily life. I enjoy swimming, running and table tennis. However, when it comes to hiking and skiing, Yamagata’s mountains come second to none.
13. Is it difficult raising an international family in rural Japan? There are some aspects that are very hard because many people are unaware of our customs. For example, there are no mosques in all of Yamagata Prefecture so we must adapt how we pray. We also must check that the products that we consume are indeed halal because local people cannot tell us themselves.
14. What would you consider an advantage to raising a family here then? Both of my children will grow up being fully trilingual in Japanese, English and Arabic. In addition, their exposure to diverse cultures will help them have a more worldly outlook on life, which will help them down the road.
15. How has COVID-19 impacted a small rural town like Shonai? While the infection rate here is very low, our tourism industry took a huge hit. Shonai was just starting to make a name for itself for travelers before the pandemic, but COVID-19 flushed years of steady progress down the drain.
16. What are three things you love about living in Shonai? I love the freshness of the seafood, the beauty of nature and the kindness of the people. In Shonai, you do not need to ask someone for help. They will just simply offer.
17. Is there anything from Egypt that you wish you could bring over or introduce to Japan? In Egypt, even after we graduate and leave home, we always keep strong connections with our families. I am 50 years old and still talk to my family nearly every day! In Japan, however, this is not the case. I wish I could bring this cultural aspect and see it widespread in Japan as well.
18. Likewise, is there anything that Egypt could learn from Japan? In Japan, people take a lot of pride in their work. No matter if their role is big or small and regardless of the salary, they will give it their 100% effort, which I think strengthens society as a whole.
19. What is one piece of advice that you’d like to give to someone migrating to Japan? Before coming here and even after settling in, learn the language and study the culture. There is so much more you can do and learn from Japan by talking to people and hearing what they have to say. It’s difficult but worth it.
20. Many foreign residents don’t have the right to vote. What is one way they can give back to the community? Ask what needs to be done and take action. For example, there are many older farmers that could really use the help of a spry young foreigner that wants to lend a helping hand. Sometimes, listening and lending your support is the best thing you can do to help someone in need and will bring you closer to your community as well.
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