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Tiny community in Japan reflects political, economic changes in Myanmar

A Myanmar student teaches the Burmese language to Japanese students at a language school in Takadanobaba in Tokyo.

TOKYO -- Tokyo's Takadanobaba district is home to a host of educational institutions, including the renowned Waseda University. Neither as posh as Ginza nor as big and busy as Shibuya or Shinjuku, the lively district with its many students has a host of unique, low-priced restaurants and shops.

      But even many Japanese may not realize the district has recently become known as Little Yangon due to its growing number of residents from Myanmar.

      On a recent evening in Tokyo, a group of people gathered in a building close to Takadanobaba station. They were reading Burmese letters on a display board and enthusiastically speaking Burmese. The language school was launched here in 2013.

     "We are preparing to open some more locations," said Takuya Nishigaito who heads the school. He hopes to satisfy rising demand from businesses, which has rapidly grown over roughly the past half-year. Naoki Matsushita, a businessman working in the telecom industry, studies at the school because, he said, he "may need to use the language at work one day."

     The district gradually began to be recognized as Little Yangon in the early 2000s. There are currently about 20 Myanmar restaurants and grocery stores in the district, of which four or five opened only recently. Shinjuku Ward, which includes the Takadanobaba district, is home to about 1,500 residents from Myanmar, as of last month. The number has jumped 50% in the last three years. 

     After the end of decades of military rule and the beginning of democratization in 2011, the progression of economic growth in Myanmar has promoted a flow of people between the two countries. The number of Myanmar students in Japan has increased by about 500 since 2010.

      They live in an area that stretches from Takadanobaba to the nearby districts of Ikebukuro, Sugamo and Otsuka, which are just three or four stops from Takadanobaba on the Yamanote Line. Myanmar student Wit Yee Aung, for example, lives in Ikebukuro and goes to Takadanobaba to shop for groceries from home.

     The growing Myanmar flavor has also helped attract more Japanese to the district. In the language classes operated by the Japan Myanmar Culture Center in Takadanobaba, about 40 Japanese are learning the Burmese language. Responding to growing demand from businesses, the center started this summer to offer customized on-site lessons for company employees.

     Mingalaba, a popular and long-established Myanmar restaurant in Takadanobaba, has recently seen more Japanese businessmen who had been or are about to be posted to the Southeastern Asian nation.

      In addition to the students, the district is also home to displaced people from Myanmar. In accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention of the United Nations, since 1982 the Japanese government has granted refugee status to about 600 foreigners who arrived in Japan. About half of them are from Myanmar, and most of those now live in Takadanobaba.

     The circumstances of refugees since democratization depends on the individual. "Not many of us have gone back to Myanmar for good. Most return home temporarily," said Kyaw Kyaw Soe, a leader among Myanmar refugees. Some stay in Japan, concerned about the uncertain future of their home country, where a general election is slated for November. Many of them have spent many years establishing themselves in Japan.

     Than Swe, who was a geologist back home, has been in Japan for almost 30 years. "My children were born and raised here, so they don't really speak Burmese. We cannot go back to Myanmar right away," he said. He opened a Myanmar  restaurant in Japan in 2012.

False applications

Another problem beginning to emerge is an increasing number of false applications for refugee status. Foreign students in Japan are usually allowed to work part-time for up to 28 hours a week. With that limit, they cannot make more than 120,000 yen ($1,000) a month, even at an hourly rate of 1,000 yen. This is not enough to cover living expenses as well as tuition and other school costs.

     On the other hand, six months after applying, even before the determination of refugee status, refugee applicants are automatically allowed to work in Japan without limits on hours.

     Some people familiar with the situation in Myanmar point out that most Myanmar students these days are from middle-class families. Because such students may not have experienced hardship, they are more likely to take the easier path, these people say. Such students may likely be motivated to falsely apply for refugee status.

     There is a possibility that My Number, Japan's new program to control social security information of individuals, to be started next year, may encourage more false applications for refugee status. Under the new scheme, which applies to both Japanese citizens and foreign residents, people's labor status will be monitored more strictly. "Foreign students who had made a living by working illegally could try to apply for refugee status instead," said a source.

      According to the Japanese Justice Ministry, 699 students from abroad applied for refugee status in 2014, 3.5 times more than the previous year. The number is thought to include many Myanmar students.

     Long-time residents of Little Yangon are concerned about this circumstance. Yu Yu came to Japan 27 years ago. She warns Myanmar students who struggle financially not to go for the easy option of falsely applying for refugee status. She once had similar difficulties, too. She believes that Myanmar youth can become tougher by overcoming difficulties. If they persevere, "they have a bright future," Yu said.

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