I was sitting at the international terminal of Tokyo’s Narita Airport waiting for my flight back to the west coast when I saw an Iran Air 747 pull into gate 33. I had not seen an Iran Air jumbo jet in years. It was a curious sight. I looked over the glass window wondering what the passengers would look like. The door opened and they came out a few at a time. They were all men in their late 20’s and 30’s. There were hardly any women or families. The passengers didn’t look like tourists. Most of them wore dark suits and no ties. They looked tired from their long flight from Tehran, and seemed worried and unsure about what was ahead of them.
I had been coming to Japan for the past couple of weeks working on a project for our Tokyo office. I met Sean on the first day after I arrived. He was the marketing guy assigned to help me with the project. Sean was a soft spoken, blond guy from the Midwest. He told me that his mom was a harp player for the Cleveland Philharmonics. He spoke perfect Japanese, and more importantly, he had the right body language which really matters in Japan. He had studied Japanese while he was in college in the US and then came to Tokyo to continue his studies. He fell in love with Yukiko and decided to stay in Japan. Sean became my translator, my guide and advisor about everything Japanese!
Sean and I connected immediately. He appreciated my curiosity about the Japanese culture. Once we became friends and he learned that I was from Iran, he told me about the Iranians in Tokyo. “Like most aging western countries, Japan has a cheap labor problem. They didn’t want to bring in people from China, Philippines or Korea because of the historical animosities. So Iran became an attractive source of manual labor, like the Mexicans are in the US. Every week hundreds of Iranian men are coming to Japan looking for work. Japanese want them to do the manual work and then become invisible. And that’s the problem. These people don’t speak Japanese, they don’t understand the culture, and they really stand out. They hang out in groups of 10 or 20 on weekends. They stare at women and talk and laugh very loudly. Japanese people are intimidated by them.”
On Saturday morning, Sean met me at the hotel lobby. He had planned a full day of sightseeing around Tokyo. We took the train to Harajuko Station in Shibuya to see the Meiji shrine. As we walked by the park, Sean nudged me, “There they are, your countrymen!” And there they were, around 50 or 60 Iranians gathered in groups of 10 or more, talking loudly and looking at the people as they went by. It reminded me of the crowds back in Tehran in front of the movie theatres or sports arenas. The only thing missing was some sun flower seeds (tokhmeh) or zaalzaalak! As the Japanese families walked by, you could tell that they were intimidated by their presence.
Whoever came up with the idea that Iranians make good cheap labor in Japan had no clue about either culture!
Sean told me about an article that he had read in the paper a few weeks earlier. In Tokyo, garbage collection and recycling is a serious business. Everyone is supposed to follow the strict guidelines in separating their recyclables from their garbage. The garbage men can see through the clear plastic bags if everything is placed properly. So when in one apartment building with two Iranian men sharing a small one bedroom place, the garbage collectors noticed that someone had put a couple of soda cans in the garbage, all hell broke loose! That was a serious “no, no” in Tokyo.
Everybody in the building assumed that it must be the “foreigners”, the Iranians that had disregarded the rules. The neighbors immediately shunned them. The news made it to the local paper. But then a few days later, a Japanese tenant came forward and admitted that the soda cans belong to him! He could not bear to witness that the Iranians were being blamed for mixing the recyclables with the garbage. And at the end the “foreigners” turned out to be innocent.
This was all in the paper! As Sean was telling me the story, I didn’t know if I should be laughing or crying! All this commotion was over a couple of misplaced soda cans!
On Saturday night I treated Sean and Yukiko to dinner. They took me to a Shabu Shabu restaurant. That’s the kind of restaurant where you sit at the counter and they place a boiling pot of hot water in front of you. You then dip the raw beef, vegetables and noodles in the water and cook them. The owner stood behind the counter and passed on the plates as they were coming out of a small square hole from the kitchen. I noticed that the guy in the kitchen was an Iranian. He was happy to see me and I smiled at him. He whispered, “Salaam, khoobin?” I whispered back. The restaurant owner told him in Japanese to not to talk to the customers. But once in a while, when the owner was busy, he would stick his head out of the hole and whisper something to me. His name was Hamid and he had been working in Tokyo for about six months. I asked Sean to talk to the owner and see if Hamid can come out of the kitchen for a few minutes and have a beer with us. Sean bought the owner some good sake to smooth things out.
Hamid was so thrilled to be out of the kitchen for a few minutes and talk. He was a few years younger than me. He told me about his life, how he went to the university during the revolution, ended up on the front line of the war and was in prison for a couple of months for political activities. He couldn’t find a job and wasted a few years of his life driving a private taxi. When the opportunity came to come and work in Japan, he jumped on it immediately. But all he could find was working here in the restaurant.
I told him about my work, the life in the US with all its challenges and opportunities. He listened very carefully to everything that I said. I gave him my number and told him to look me up if he ever made it to the west coast. We said goodbye.
As I sat by the window in my small hotel room overlooking the peaceful gardens at the Imperial Palace, I wondered about the randomness of life and how unfair it was. If Hamid was born only a few years earlier, he could have left Iran for the west the way many of us did and could have made something of his life. Instead, he got trapped in the revolution, had to go to the war, the prison and now working in a small kitchen of a Shabu Shabu restaurant in Tokyo.