That caring heart is not, however, government policy. Johnny was accepted to the university of his choice, but was later rejected because he needs written clearance from an immigration officer to leave his prefecture, and school officials were concerned about how that would affect his attendance. He had hoped to land a career as a translator; now he’s in school to become a mechanic. Still, unless he becomes what the Japan Association for Refugees said would be the first Kurd from Turkey to ever be granted refugee status here, he won’t be able to work as a mechanic, even after he graduates.
His girlfriend, who is a permanent legal resident, is patient. “I have seen him struggle for so long that it feels almost foolish and presumptuous to have any dreams of my own,” she told me. “When we first started dating, I just thought he was cute and funny. But when I started to learn more about his family’s predicament, and how protective of his family he is, how much he has on his shoulders, I was even more smitten.”
Johnny’s family wouldn’t say what they do to make ends meet. But many Kurds work in construction—that’s what his uncle, who also declined to be identified, does. He’s the only legally employed member of the family, because he withdrew his application for refugee status and married a Japanese woman, which made him eligible for permanent residency.
Johnny’s uncle is furious about how Japan treats such migrants. “It doesn’t matter that you’ve lived here for two decades, no matter that you have a squeaky clean record, no matter that you had no parking tickets, no matter that you cause absolutely no trouble—they will not treat you as human,” he told me. He pointed to a recent saga reported on in the Japanese media involving a sick Kurdish asylum seeker, detained in a jail. The man’s wife called an ambulance, but when emergency workers responded, they were turned away by immigration authorities.
Foreigners I spoke with, though, recounted little overt hostility against them by average people. In fact, anecdotes abound about older Japanese people teaching the language to their new neighbors. That’s what makes a diverse Japanese future seem more plausible than the government might acknowledge.
Htut Zaw Min, the first ever Rohingya from Myanmar recognized with refugee status in Japan, said he has never experienced bigotry in his two decades in the country. He owns a small scrapyard outside Tokyo, where the door is constantly swinging open with buyers and sellers making deals and small talk. A family of sparrows flies in and out all day, too. At night, with the birds inside, Zaw Min closes the door and goes home. Stains covering the floor in one corner of his office indicate that they make themselves comfortable when he’s away.
Read: ‘Nobody is coming to help us’
Zaw Min nodded as I pointed out the all-too-obvious parallel of a refugee offering refuge to birds. He said the people in his adopted country believe birds are lucky, and now so does he. Driven out of Myanmar in the 1990s because of his activities as a pro-democracy activist, and unable to return because, as a Rohingya Muslim, he is part of a persecuted minority, he has brought family members over to Japan and now employs not just Rohingya but Nepalese and Japanese workers, too.