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Tokyo’s little Ethiopia

Tokyo’s little Ethiopia

Ephrem Haile is a familiar name and face in Tokyo and Japan as a whole. Featured on a number of television shows and documentary programs in Japan, Ephrem has really been the face of Ethiopian community in Japan for over a decade.

His latest stint is the biggest yet with a popular Japanese television comedian Kazuyoshi Morita aka Mr. Tamori featuring Ephrem and his cozy Ethiopian restaurant in Tokyo on the former’s late-night variety show the “Tamori Club”. Apparently, the show is very popular and one of the longest running in Japan.

Before that, Ephrem’s personal life was also a focus of another widely-circulated TV documentary concerning immigration issues: Proof of Life. This 28 minute documentary which aired on the Japanese public broadcaster NHK basically did an exposé on the Japanese immigration system through the trials of African migrants like Ephrem and other Ethiopians living in Tokyo.

Making the move to the far eastern nation in 2004, Ephrem has lived and worked in Japan for over 15 years. Today, he is married to Tibebe and is a farther of a boy and girl, whom he is raising in his new home. Nevertheless, his journey has never been easy to say the least.

According to the documentary, Ephrem’s immigration process, which is aimed at securing his refugee status in Japan and a permanent residency, has largely remained in limbo for over a decade. Apparently, Ephrem has confirmed to The Reporter last week that he is still in the process of obtaining a refugee status in Japan after all these years.

Currently, his immigration process has been stuck in so called Designated Activities affording him only six-month renewable visa. Ephrem as well is working and living in Japan on this six-month renewable visa documentation. “In the past12 years, I was sure to stay in Japan only for a period of six months at a time; this means I can be sent back any time and that is very stressful situation to live,” he told The Reporter.    

In fact, the Japanese immigration system is one of the strictest in the world; and Ephrem is a living witness to that. In this regard, the documentary sites the fact that, in 2017, 1 out of 22 pending refugee cases involving Ethiopians has managed to get acceptance. Whereas in the same year, 20 out of 19000 refugee cases got acceptance by the Japanese  immigration authorities.

Ephrem’s story, however, is far more challenging than it appears. For years, Ephrem has been facing problems with the Japanese legal system since it did not recognize his marriage to be valid and legal due to his immigration status. Ephrem and Tibebe’s application for marriage license continued to be rejected by the authorities on the account that the husband needs to produce paperwork from Ethiopia showing that he was single when he arrived in Japan. “This obviously is an impossible request for someone who is pursuing a political asylum case in foreign land as it requires that person’s physical appearance in the same place which he decided to flee,” Ephreme discusses with documentary.

Even worse is the fact that Ephrem was not to allowed to have a legally recognized relationship with his own first born. As far as the law is concerned, Ephrem says, I have no legally recognized relationship with my daughter robbing me of privileges of been a father to my first born.  Just when Ephrem was getting tired of pursuing the case of achieving his dream of being legally married to his wife and being a father to his girl, in 2018, all of a sudden he received the acceptance for a marriage license. Although even him was not sure what has led to this decision but enjoyed it nevertheless.

On the other hand, Ephrem, even after becoming legally married to his wife, was not really sure why he could not achieve legal fatherhood to his child. But, that did not last long; in 2019 Ephrem gained another milestone decision of recognizing him as legal guardian or parent to his girl.

Nevertheless, Ephrem’s story is by no means unique to Ethiopians in Japan. In his little cozy restaurant which he cleverly named “Little Ethiopia” these are type of issues which are discussed widely. Located in the area called Katsushika found in the quite neighborhoods of eastern Tokyo, “Little Ethiopia” is really melting pot of the small number of Ethiopians living in Tokyo. By various estimates, Tokyo is home to close to 200 or so Ethiopian and the overall Ethiopian community in Japan might not be more than 500.

The little restaurant which might not have been larger than 40 meter square in area is really an embodiment of anything and everything Ethiopian. The walls are adorned with traditional Ethiopia fabric pooled from different part of the nation, and dotted with Ethiopian scripts, pictures and paintings. The mid-size TV mounted on the refrigerator unit standing next to the drink-bar plays a recorded concert video of Teddy Afro on the loop, accentuating the overall Ethiopian feeling of the restaurant.

“Little Ethiopia,” which is also nicknamed as “Enqifat” meaning a conveniently located local watering hole serving as last stop for bar patrons before retiring for the night, a term borrowed from bars and pubs of Addis Ababa, has served the community in Tokyo for over three years.

According to Ephrem, there are one or two other Ethiopian restaurants in Tokyo with varying degree of authenticity; and at least one of them has more than two decades in the business. “I don’t know whether it is luck or because our restaurant presents an authentic Ethiopia cuisine and cultural experience, since our establishment, we have been featured in close to 20 TV shows and media reports in Japan,” he says.

He, however, is confident that any local who managed to step a foot in “Little Ethiopia” is sure to gain not only from the dining experience but also from the test of Ethiopian culture. “Since my wife is the one running the restaurant, I am usually open to offering a sort of crush course on Ethiopian culture and history,” Ephrem says with a smile. In fact, the day The Reporter visited “Little Ethiopia” a couple of Ethiopian and Japanese bar-patrons were engaged in a heated discussion regarding the Rastafarian music culture and its Ethiopian origin.

According to Ephrem, being unofficial cultural ambassador is not necessarily difficult; he, in fact, believes that Ethiopian food might have been one of the biggest attractions to “Little Ethiopia”. However, the various Ethiopia Geez manuscripts displayed on the walls and unique Ethiopian paintings are sure enough conversation starters. And with the exception of weekends, Ephrem says, it is the majority of our customers are Japanese.

Nevertheless, he did not deny that to the most part “Little Ethiopia” is all about the sizeable (relative to Japans Ethiopian community) Ethiopia community that lives nearby. “I have to admit that we took the name “Little Ethiopia” form the name that was loosely associated to the Ethiopian community that lives nearby and appears to be growing in significance in Tokyo. Estimated around 30 or 40, Ethiopians who lives few blocks from “Little Ethiopia” are also regular customers. “I also live in the community and now our number is slowly growing,” Ephrem says.

As far as the community is concerned, we have good track record with the community and the Tokyo city administration since we have had no discernable criminal activities and incidents, so far.

Testimony about the Ethiopian community in Tokyo reveals that it is, in fact, tight little group with a number of social interactions and support structures. According to Genet, an Eritrean who lived in Japan for more than a decade, “Little Ethiopia” is her favorite hangout place on account of the strong bond of the community.

Ephrem is also very proud of the bond of the Ethiopian community in Tokyo. As far as I know, one of the reasons why we have a number of Ethiopians in the locality is because the community has the culture of supporting one another, he told The Reporter. “New arrivals are always supported to find affordable accommodation in the area. And I also know of the community pitching in to even pay for few months of rent just to get people on the right track,” Ephrem says.

Although most of the Ethiopians in Japan agree that the immigration law there is really tough, still most of them believe that on the people to people level the Japanese might also be one of the most welcoming and supportive. The Japanese are very polite and at times they might go out of their way to help you, he says assertively. In fact, Ephrem’s story on the documentary details how his bid for refugee status in Japan is supported by his supervisors and friends at his day-job in an oil-recycling company which employees a number of other Ethiopians besides Ephrem. The documentary also shows how Ephrem’s neighbors are concerned with his immigration issues and how to solve it. This, in fact, appears to be the perfect balance that keeps Ethiopians and other immigrant communities in Japan going.