FEATURE: Iranians in Japan advocate for change as unrest shakes their homeland

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In the quiet backstreets of Tokyo’s Nihombashi neighborhood is a small, unassuming shop specializing in Iranian groceries – the only one of its kind in the Japanese capital.

Although the import shop is called Darvish, it has nothing to do with the popular half-Iranian, half-Japanese baseball pitcher, and it is run by Mohammad Hassan Aghasi, a friendly bearded gentleman affectionately known by many as “Amu Hassan” or Uncle Hassan.

Mohammad Hassan Aghasi at his Iranian import store Darvish in Tokyo on Nov. 2, 2022. (TBEN)

As well as selling a range of Iranian sweets, halal meats, breads and other staples in Darvish, Hassan is also known for treating customers to cups of Persian chai while reciting poetry or playing with his pets.

“I used to be a poet in Iran,” said Hassan, who came to Japan in the early 1990s looking for work after the Iran-Iraq war ended.

Many Iranian men made similar journeys around the world after the war, which lasted nearly eight years until 1988, devastated their home country’s economy.

Japan needed labor during the bubble era. A reciprocal visa waiver agreement between the two countries, established in 1974, created the perfect opportunity.

Hassan, who came to Japan at age 38 and learned Japanese independently over the years, admits it was “really tough” at first. But now there is no place he would rather call home.

Darvish’s 2009 opening has no plans to return to Iran permanently, but he might consider traveling there if the government changes “while I’m alive”.

Anti-government movements have rocked Iran since Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, died on September 16 after she was detained in Tehran by vice squad after she was accused of not properly covering her hair.

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A supporter of the movements, Hassan has participated in protests in Tokyo, including recently in Shibuya, where he recited poetry. Pictures of Amini are plastered on the front door and a wall in Darvish.

“Women are like slaves (in Iran),” he said. “If they resist the government, they will be thrown in jail. There is no freedom.”

Outside Mohammad Hassan Aghasi’s Iranian import shop in Tokyo, November 2, 2022. A photo of Mahsa Amini, who died after being detained in Tehran by vice squad, hangs on the shop window. (TBEN)

Kiana, a 20-year-old Iranian student who moved to Japan about six months ago, said she has spent her entire life under the current Islamic regime and is fed up with the oppression it brings.

“I lived in Iran, in Tehran, and I know what was going on in Iran every day. And the point is, Mahsa Amini was not the first, not even the last, to be killed just because of hijab,” said kiana.

Iranian communities around the world, including in Japan, have shown solidarity by repeatedly taking to the streets to protest the brutality and oppression of its citizens by the current regime.

But despite some Iranians in Japan enjoying fame, including locally based model actress Sahel Rosa and Shirin Nezammafi, an award-winning Iranian novelist who writes in Japanese, the Middle Eastern country remains largely a mystery to most. Superficial media attention feeds the image that it is a dangerous place.

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Kenichi Sugimori, who admits he had the same bias before first visiting Iran on a world tour in 2015, now wants to “tell people it’s actually not true.”

“When I went to Iran, I found it to be very peaceful, rich in art and culture, and the people are very nice and welcoming,” said the 33-year-old, who quit his job in 2020 to launch Persian Tag, a online store that sells Iranian art-themed goods.

While the current protests plaguing Iran across the country may not help soften the country’s international image, the resilience and courage of its people have been thrown into the spotlight.

“When one or two (are) killed, it is enough for all this. If one is killed, it means that (Iran) is not a safe place to live,” said Mohsen, a 59-year-old Iranian who is one of the 250 protesters gathered in front of the National Diet Building in Tokyo on Oct. 16.

Kenichi Sugimori, owner of Persian Tag, shows off a smartphone case, one of his best-selling items from the online store that offers Iranian art-themed goods, on October 17, 2022. (TBEN)

Born in Tehran, Mohsen also came to Japan to work after the Iran-Iraq war. While most Iranians, unable to find stable work or obtain long-term visas, eventually returned home after the visa waiver agreement ended in 1992, those who did remain now make up the bulk of the Iranian population in Japan.

As of December 2021, about 4,000 Iranians lived in Japan, with the number of men nearly four to one greater than the number of women, according to government data. The vast majority, at 65 percent, have permanent residence permits.

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Mohsen now runs a used car business in Tochigi prefecture, north of Tokyo. But despite building a life in Japan for the past 30 years, he still feels compelled to do what he can for his homeland.

“We want to change the regime, we need freedom for all the people of my country and the regime that now rules and governs is not such a regime,” he said, adding that he regrets supporting the 1979 revolution that brought it to power. .

Still others, like Kiana, who has taken part in all the protests in Tokyo, remain convinced that positive change is on the way.

“I see my friends, my generation, they are so hopeful. They try, they fight for what they want,” she said.

Hassan agrees, saying that a regime that kills people won’t last long. “It will certainly change,” he said. “We don’t want the government we have now.”

Meanwhile, Sugimori, who has visited Iran about eight times, is determined to get a more accurate picture of the country. In addition to running Persian Tag, he has also partnered with travel agencies to organize Japanese-friendly trips to Iran.

“What I most want to tell people is that politics and a country are not the same, and to go to Iran to see and experience it for yourself,” Sugimori said.