Building a ‘Little Yangon’ in Tokyo

For Tokyo’s community of Burmese, however, Takadanobaba is something much more important: a home away from home. In fact, so many of them have gathered there that it has come to be known as Little Yangon. Although they number only a few thousand, the mutual support and sense of community have been vital for their survival in a country that offers precious little official support to refugees and migrants.

Japanese employers are sometimes hesitant to hire foreign staff, concerned that there may be problems due to language and cultural differences.

Phone Hlaing, the vice president of a Burmese labor union, admits these concerns can sometimes be justified. “Half of the problems the union sees are because of misunderstandings, because of language problems. So foreigners should learn the Japanese language.”

Phone also wishes the hosts would be more accepting of other cultures. “Japanese also think they are superior to other Asians. This is the mindset,” he says. “There is discrimination, but we have to show that we can work together.”

For the children of Burmese immigrants, the struggle is less about language and more about their place in society. Often, they have been placed in the public school system and can speak Japanese and understand Japanese culture, but are unable to shake their status as outsiders, leaving them stuck between a native country they don’t quite remember and a host country that doesn’t quite accept them. Reports of bullying are not uncommon.

The number of Burmese community groups operating in Tokyo is truly astounding considering their relatively small numbers. There are workers’ unions, student unions, groups for many of Myanmar’s hundred-plus ethnic groups, religious organizations, political advocacy groups, government lobbyists, a Burmese library, and even Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has a branch here. And every Burmese adult belongs to at least one of these groups.

This high rate of political participation is key to understanding the character of the Burmese community in Japan. Contrary to the popular belief that all refugees want to permanently settle in their host countries, most Burmese would not settle in Japan long-term if they were given the choice.

As Saw Ba [Saw Ba Hla Thein, vice chairman of the Karen Nation League Japan and a consultant to the Japanese government on issues affecting the ethnic Karen community] puts it, “The Japanese love Japan and they want to live in Japan. We also love our country and want to live there. We want to live in our native land.”

For the Burmese, all of the protests and attempts to influence Japanese policy are done in the hope of one day being able to go back to a free and democratic Burma. They may have created a Little Yangon in Takadanobaba, but for most of them it is at best a temporary replacement they would leave in a heartbeat for the real thing.