The Iranians Of Japan

Iranians show up again and again in Speed Tribes by Karl Taro Greenfeld, another marginal invisible group like the Koreans, who live on the fringes and almost entirely criminal, as they are refused work because they are not ethnic Japanese. For instance,

The south entrance of Ueno Park was a wide, granite stairwell whose sweep and epic scale was similar to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. But the grand stairway had lately come to resemble a Middle Eastern bazaar. At open-air stalls mustachioed Iranians grilled shish kebabs and round, flat, floury loaves of bread. Music that sounded like cats in heat blared from jerry-rigged speakers. Bootleg cassettes of Arabic artists Choco Bon-Bon had never heard of were spread out on blankets along with counterfeit batteries and imitation brand-name liquor. The whole place stank like some kind of spice that Choco Bon-Bon wasn’t familiar with but that made him a little nauseated, or it could be the shabu that was making him nauseated, or the body odor of all these Iranian men milling around.

There were no Iranian women; they had been left behind in Baghdad or wherever the Iranians were from. Only the men came, to work
construction, slang some drugs and then go home, back to their wives. Or some stayed on, shacking up with Japanese girls. Choco Bon-Bon didn’t really know what all these Iranians were doing in Tokyo. He had heard they were all here illegally. But if the police were serious about deporting the Iranians they would know where to find them. There was a small police station about a hundred yards away.

An answer is provided in Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice. Adelstein writes of his experiences as a crime reporter in Japan, including a case where a woman is murdered, possibly by her daughter’s boyfriend.

The building was still cordoned off, but I could see the forensic guys poking around bushes on the far end of the crime scene, which abutted a field. Other reporters on the scene were canvassing the parking lots in the complex, hoping to talk to people on their way to work.

I was looking for another angle when I noticed, in the bushes, what appeared to be a drainage ditch and a culvert in an embankment adjacent to the housing complex. I guessed it would lead out to the field and under the yellow tape. Impulsively I decided to see if I was correct.

I crawled into the culvert and emerged, smudged, right beneath the embankment. I had a great view of the investigators digging through the bushes and brush. I got out my humongous camera with a telephoto lens and started snapping away. Suddenly, I felt a large presence looming over me.

“You must be Mr. Adelstein,” a voice said.

I looked up nervously. It was Kanji Yokozawa, the head of the Forensic Department, a veteran homicide detective who commanded wide respect.

One thing about Yokozawa, he was always a gentleman, even when he had cause not to be. In homicide, most detectives have pretty short fuses, and they don’t like reporters. Yokozawa was the exception. So I decided to see how far I could go. “As long as you’re here and I’m here,” I began, “do you think I could ask you a few questions?”

“Yes, you can ask. I may not be able to answer all of them, but I’ll answer what I can.”

“Thank you, Yokozawa-san,” I said. “First question: The coroner says Snack-mama was killed with a single blow to the head. Lucky shot?”

“Good question. My guess is that the killer knew exactly what he was doing. Most criminals screw it up and strike again and again, even if the skull was smashed on the first blow. In the tension of the moment, sometimes they whack the shoulders, sometimes they break the victim’s back. Not in this case. In a way, this was a professional job.”

“A hit man?”

“No, not like that. Whoever killed her knew how to dispatch someone efficiently. He or she knew how to kill.”

“So you’re thinking the daughter’s boyfriend?”

“I can’t answer that. But I will tell you something, and I want you to think about this. The daughter’s boyfriend, he’s Iranian. A lot of the Iranians who are in Japan are ex-soldiers; many fought in the Iraq-Iran War. They know how to kill—with knives, guns, hands, blunt objects. In fact, although you may not quote me on this, many police officers are more afraid of Iranians than they are of the yakuza.”

In the late 1980s, when the Japanese economy was at its peak and construction was rampant, an agreement between Japan and Iran gave Iranians the opportunity to work in Japan without a visa. Essentially this was part of an unofficial policy of the Japanese government to provide the country with much-needed cheap manual labor, and many Iranians came and stayed (and overstayed).

At the time, young Japanese were above what was known as 3K jobs: kitanai (dirty), kitsui (difficult), and kurushii (painful). In 1993, when the Japanese bubble deflated, the agreement was canceled, but Chichibu was still a place with enough heavy industry and factories to provide the Iranians with places to work.

Until reading these books, I was entirely unaware of this. The books by Greenfield and Adelstein provide me an illusion, as all essential books about a country do, that I know something of a country I have never travelled to.

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