National / Social Issues

A day in the life of Kurdish asylum-seekers in Tokyo

by Chisato Tanaka

Staff Writer

Tokyo offers an almost limitless variety of awe-inspiring tours but one recent addition guided visitors on a truly unique journey — into the settlements of Kurdish asylum-seekers.

Port B, a theater art performance organization, is offering a collaborative refugee tour experience, giving participants firsthand insights into the lifestyle and daily struggle of asylum-seekers and evacuees. The first of three planned tours focused on the Tokyo area’s Kurdish community and ran from July 13 to 15.

Rather than simply visiting communities, participants plan their own tour of the city together with refugees — and then visit the asylum-seekers’ resettlement towns, as well as other locations of significance to the refugees or places where they feel a sense of connection.

It’s part of an endeavor named the New Tokyo School Excursion Project that comprises the one-off tours with the aim of letting tourists observe the capital from the perspective of refugees and evacuees.

Under the theme of “war,” the Kurdish tour started with a visit to the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in Minato Ward, where many of the Kurdish asylum-seekers with expired visas, most of them men, are detained. Both refugees and tour organizers served as guides, and participants listened to their narration through a wireless audio system while walking freely around the locations on the tour.

On the second day, around 50 participants strolled through the city of Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, where more than 1,500 Kurds reside, and visited spots where many refugees gather.

They made Kurdish dishes together with refugees in a cooking class, held at a community center where Kurdish wedding ceremonies often take place.

Hidenobu Matsuzawa, the head of a Kurdish support association who joined the cooking session, said that this kind of event not only enhances mutual understanding between the mostly Japanese participants and asylum-seekers, but also improves relationships between Kurdish children and their parents.

“Kurdish parents who speak little Japanese and face difficulties communicating with local citizens often struggle with maintaining their dignity and gaining respect from their children, many of whom grew up in Japan and speak Japanese,” Matsuzawa said. “However, kids start respecting their Kurdish culture and their parents more after they see them interact with Japanese people who praise their cooking skills.”

After the cooking session the event’s director and founder Akira Takayama, who attended high school in Warabi, led the participants on another facet of the tour — a trip to the McDonald’s near the local train station where Kurds often gather.

“It’s often said that ‘if you want to meet Kurds, come to the McDonald’s in Warabi,’ ” Takayama said over a microphone. Sitting in the shop with participants gathered around, he explained that McDonald’s — typically regarded as symbolic of cheap fast food — often serves as a sanctuary for refugees and homeless people, where they can nurse a ¥100 coffee in relative comfort.

The tour also included a trip to the well-trodden Asakusa district, but participants did not enter its famous Sensoji Temple. Instead, they stopped by a construction site near the main avenue that leads to the temple — where Kurdish asylum-seeker Ali Ayyildiz recounted the times he discovered buried debris from World War II while working in the district.

“I often find bricks and broken pieces of gravestones when I tear down 50- to 60-year-old houses in Asakusa,” Ayyildiz said. “And an old man who lives near the construction site where I previously worked told me that he had recovered human bones from the ground.”

Ayyildiz, who was detained twice by immigration authorities for overstaying his visas and now lives on provisional release status, added that many Kurds face the same situation as him. They are making up for the labor shortage in Japan’s construction industry in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Erika Kotabe, a 21-year-old tour participant, said: “I felt different (about Asakusa) when I was listening to Mr. Ali’s story at the construction site. I have been to Sensoji a few times, but the place seemed quite different when I observed it from his point of view.”

The tour is not an entirely new concept. Welgee, a nonprofit organization that supports refugees, holds similar tours in which participants cook Kurdish food together with asylum-seekers and listen to their stories.

However, rather than seeing it as a tour primarily to create opportunities for Japanese to understand the lives of refugees, the Port B group has developed the excursion as a theater project created around the idea of a “learning play,” a concept originally conceived by German dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht. In such productions the audience becomes part of the play and actors often learn from the experience as well.

Based on that notion, Port B treats the tour as a play and the participants, asylum-seekers and organizers are its ensemble cast.

To help participants become fully immersed and allow them to actively engage in the process, three workshops were held before the tour. There, a few participants heard the stories of Kurdish asylum-seekers and discussed potential sightseeing plans. Even members of the media who observed the workshop were asked to participate in the tour’s development.

Amy Loo, a 22-year-old Chinese-American who participated in both the workshops and the tour, said that socially-engaged performances are quite rare in Japan, let alone ones featuring asylum-seekers.

“Performance-based learning is not something new in the U.S. and I believe it could be an effective way (for Japanese people) to learn history and politics, rather than receiving a one-way flow of information,” she said. “It could become a new style of education.”

The project has received funding from the Kawamura Arts and Cultural Foundation, which supports “socially engaged art” activities that aim to drive change among existing rules and systems through proactive participation and communication within society.

The group’s other upcoming tours will focus on Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and school children who evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture after the nuclear crisis triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.