Japan's Myanmar-born designer Zarny Shibuya

by AFP/Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, May 20, 2008 | Destinations: Myanmar / Japan

Despite some attempt to change its image as an overly insular society, Japan accepts few immigrants and struggles to integrate long-term foreign residents. But Myanmar-born Zarny Shibuya has managed not only to win acceptance but to triumph as a model and a designer. He tells Tokyo correspondent Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura that integration in Japan is possible -- it just takes a lot of hard work to overcome the prevailing prejudices.

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TOKYO, May 15, 2008 - More than a decade after fleeing Myanmar for Japan, Zarny Shibuya, 23, has become a rising fashion star whose face has graced Tokyo's most-seen billboards, testing the country's notorious reluctance to accept immigrants.

With cropped hair, pierced ears and a level but at times defiant gaze, the former model has become a fashion designer, turning out everything from sportswear to women's clothing for several well-known brands and acting as style consultant for a popular TV serial.

A finalist in a singing contest held by one of Japan's largest record labels, he has appeared on the giant billboards in Tokyo's hip Shibuya district, which feeds the latest fashion crazes to thousands of young Japanese.

His second name -- Burmese generally only have one -- is a tribute to that area where the dizzying nightlife blurred his identity as he danced to 1980s pop.

It was there that he caught the eye of scouting agents, who propelled him to fame.

Nothing in his soft speech and gentle manner reveal he is a foreigner, let alone one blacklisted by the military junta in Yangon as the son of prominent activists involved in the pro-democracy uprising crushed two decades ago.

"I immersed myself in Japanese culture. I cut off ties from the Myanmar community here. I came prepared with the thought that I may never return home," Zarny said in fluent Japanese.

His is a rare success story in Japan, where many people proudly consider the country to be ethnically homogeneous.

Despite one of the world's most rapidly ageing populations, Japan has ruled out large-scale immigration and accepts only a small number of refugees.

When Zarny arrived in Japan with his mother at the age of eight, she told him to "swallow everything" -- and that meant racial slurs, too.

He was rejected when he applied for part-time jobs -- including at several fast-food chains -- because of his name.

"I finally had to use my Japanese friend's identity. My interviewers would comment, 'Your skin is so dark,' but I would laugh it off and say, 'No, no, I'm really Japanese'," he said.

"I don't think I could have become what I am now if my superiors had known from the start that I was a refugee and a foreigner," he said, as he showed his latest creation, high-heeled, lace-up sneakers that make athletes seem better suited for the catwalk than the track.

Although many foreigners express frustration at being eternally treated as outsiders even if they speak fluent Japanese, Zarny insisted that it is possible to enter Japanese society -- at the cost of keeping his true identity under wraps, which is "the hardest feeling I've ever had".

"Japan is not as restricted as Westerners think. In any society there are stereotypes and so it just depends on how well we turn them on their head."

And that is just what he did.

"I listened to popular rock music, wore clothes that were in style, I bought things like everyone else. I lived a life typical for my age. I didn't think of myself as a poor, helpless victim," the designer said.

He served as his high school class president and went on to graduate with a degree in international relations from a Japanese university.

All the while, the memories of his former home faded into nothing more than a still image of his grandfather's study lined with books on Burmese mythology.

The hurdles are too high

But for others in Japan who wished to hold on to their culture, "swallowing everything" was a bitter lesson in Japan's reluctance to welcome foreigners despite being one of the world's major democracies.

Easter Seng, 42, a leading activist from Myanmar's Christian Kachin ethnic group, said it has been an uphill struggle trying to instill her tradition and language in her four daughters who were born in Japan.
Her husband, who holds a doctorate but now runs a Korean-style barbecue restaurant, has had little time to contribute.

"My daughters begged crying to have their names changed to Japanese after being bullied in school. They refused at first to learn Kachin, but I forced them to. Now they're proud to be Kachin," she said with a triumphant smile.

"I'm thankful to Japan for allowing me to live here but I can't be satisfied. The government needs to take better care of foreigners because we can work for the good of Japan," she said.

A signatory nation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, Japan is the third largest donor to the world's refugees but often faces criticism that it accepts very few of the world's 33 million displaced people.

Out of a total of 5,698 people who have sought asylum since 1982, Japan has granted refugee status to just 451. And of those, only about 70 have been granted permission to stay permanently, according to official figures.

Japan has favoured migrants from other Asian countries, with 85 percent of accepted refugees coming from Myanmar.

Once refugees are granted permission to stay, they have access to jobs, health insurance and are allowed to send their children to school.

But refugees say they have little social mobility. While refugees in other countries can rise through the ranks, most of those even with doctoral degrees in Japan end up in menial jobs.

The restrictive immigration policy reflects prevailing attitudes, lawmakers and lawyers say.

The ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party "is a stickler for a family system that centres on the imperial household and on preserving pure Japanese blood," said Azuma Konno, an opposition lawmaker who heads a study group on refugees.

Japan's decision to cut itself off from the rest of the world for more than 200 years under the Tokugawa shogunate, until the 1850s, "moulded our mentality that it is unnecessary to learn about or understand our neighbours," he added.

But with a declining birth rate and increasing labour shortages, "unless we change, Japan will become an unattractive place for foreigners whom we might need in the future," he said.

Immigration rules are so tight that one third of asylum-seekers last year were pursuing court cases to obtain refugee status.

Japan is also looking at starting Japanese language proficiency tests for long-term foreign residents.

"The hurdles are too high. There is a problem with the system in that the same officials who expel immigrants are also the ones who review and accept refugees. Officials are very distrustful," said Shogo Watanabe, a leading lawyer for refugees.

Another hurdle that discourages refugees is the unlimited detention that they face after Japanese authorities issue a deportation order, he said.

The average detention period is one year although some have been held as long as three years without being told when they would leave.

The 'new' Japanese

Japan is working, albeit slowly, towards opening up to foreigners as the workforce dwindles in the face of a falling birthrate.

"If there are immigrants who love Japan and embrace Japanese culture, then I think they can become the new Japanese," Hidenao Nakagawa, a heavyweight lawmaker in the ruling party, said in a recent television discussion.

For Zarny, learning the fine print -- namely, Japanese etiquette, which foreigners often find overly fastidious -- has been essential to his success.

"Refugees don't have manners. I might sound harsh, but they really need to straighten themselves out if they want to be accepted. They need to show Japan that they are valuable human resources," he said.

In turn, with globalisation exposing young people to different cultures, more Japanese are stepping out of their insular mentality, he said.

"I think Japan changes greatly every decade in terms of culture and how people think. People my age are more open to the world, more cosmopolitan than people in their 30s," he said.

"And when that happens and I'm an established designer, then I could begin to take inspiration from Burma."

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