Fear Eats The Soul In Little Tehran

It's early Sunday morning, and a slate-dark sky threatens rain over Yoyogi Koen, a 130-acre park on the western edge of central Tokyo. The raucous rock 'n' rollers who make this patch of green a Sunday tourist mecca are starting to arrive. And so are a few of the hundreds of illegal Iranian workers who turn a corner of the park into a Little Tehran of sorts every Sunday.

The day is getting off to an ominous start, and not just because of the foreboding weather. While I'm chatting with Iranians Amir Isolani, 26, and Rasa Mohamadi, 34, three policemen across the street suddenly accost four other Iranians. Within minutes the four are hustled into a police van, apparently bound for deportation. Mohamadi and Isolani go unnoticed by the officers. Isolani, who is serving as my interpreter here, shakes his head bitterly. "Last week, they arrested 40 Iranians in Shinjuku," he says in fluent English. "We are being hunted." Mohamadi, who recently lost his job at a construction company where he had worked since last November, echoes these sentiments: "I spend days looking for jobs and nights avoiding the police. This is not living - it's barely surviving."

The economic prosperity Japan enjoyed in the late 1980s lured thousands of illegal workers, but the go-go years are over now. Back then, the authorities were happy to look the other way as Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Africans, and Iranians flowed into a labor-short economy to do low-level jobs that Japanese workers spurned. But in today's slumping economy, demand for such help is cooling, and the authorities are starting to enforce the immigration laws with increasing zeal. According to Justice Ministry estimates, 7,700 Iranians were deported last year, and the pace is accelerating. Since April, when Japan suspended its long-standing visa-waiver agreement with Iran, Iran Air flights that once brought 500 Iranians a week to Japan - swelling the number of illegal Iranians here to 40,000 at one point - now carry home 400 a week.

So, the ranks of Iranian men in Little Tehran are thinning. And many of those who still turn out on Sundays look tired, dirty, unshaven, and depressed. Roughly two-thirds of those I speak with are unemployed. As we talk, they nervously eye the stepped-up police presence in the park. Patrol cars and a gray bus filled with uniformed officers sit behind a steel fence keeping close watch.

Yet the Iranians' plight somehow makes Little Tehran more central to their lives than ever. Here they can swap gossip on jobs and housing, ogle women, and commiserate. "When you live in a country where they treat you like animals, you need a place to go to remind yourself that you're human," says Isolani. "For us, this is the place."

JARRING SIGHT. It's also a place to earn some cash by selling Iranian food and sundry items. One vendor of kabob sandwiches told me he takes in about $120 every Sunday. Amateur barbers give a dozen or so haircuts each Sunday at $8 a pop - half what you'd pay at the cheapest barbar shop. Gesturing at the pairs of Wrangler jeans spread out before him, Bandor Ayoob, 34, says: "I make about 8,000 yen ($64) a week selling these." Entrepreneurs bantering in Persian switch to English as I approach. "Cigarettes? Cologne? Watches? Car telephone? Hair spray?" Their wares are spread across tables and benches under large, shady zelkova trees, a type of Asian elm. There's everything from the latest album by Dariush, an Iranian pop-music star, to posters of scantily clad Iranian women. Off to my right, men jostle each other to catch a glimpse of Kayhan, Iran's second-biggest daily.

In a nation as racially homogeneous and orderly as Japan, Little Tehran is a jarring sight. "They scare me, and I'm afraid for my children," says a Japanese mother strolling with her family nearby. "The park definitely doesn't have as safe or clean an atmosphere as it did before," chimes in her husband. "But we've never been hassled by them. We just try to ignore them and avoid the areas where they gather."

Some Japanese women vent much stronger emotions. "I can't stand Iranians," exclaims a 24-year-old who has just walked with a woman friend through Little Tehran. "One of them pushed another into us, and my friend got pinched. Why don't they go home and do that to their own women?"

Such feelings are reflected in shrill media reports that sometimes portray

Iranians as lazy, greedy, and opportunistic. Public concern over Little Tehran reached a climax in early April, when several news stories doubted whether the park's annual cherry-blossom festival could be held, given the large Iranian presence. In an effort to minimize trouble, police passed out leaflets in Persian asking Iranians to stay away during the festivities. As it turned out, many Iranians ignored the warnings and enthusiastically joined in the merrymaking without incident.

In fact, Japanese authorities and much of society in general have been willing by and large to tolerate the illegals. And while some have been arrested for petty crimes, the majority of Iranian and other alien workers in Japan are law-abiding and docile. Most keep their heads down, thankful for jobs that pay as much as 13 times what they'd make at home.

PRINCELY SAVINGS. The typical illegal Iranian in Japan earns $80 a day in such jobs as construction, welding, and making machine tools. Not a bad wage, one might think. But living in Japan is expensive, and Japanese working next to Iranians can make twice as much. The aliens don't get benefits, either, and grueling, 12-hour days aren't unusual.

"Four of us work in a cramped, badly ventilated room around a huge furnace," says Farhad Ali, who works 72 hours a week at a plastic-pipe factory outside Tokyo. "Room temperatures reach 110F, and if the heat doesn't kill you, the fumes from the plastic will." Ali goes on to say that his boss recently fired an Iranian co-worker for fainting on the job. "Sometimes I feel sick, too, but I have a wife and kids to support back in Iran. I can't afford to lose this job," he says.

By cramming themselves into tiny apartments, Iranians such as Ali can save a lot. One I met in Little Tehran socked away $24,000 in two years. That's 13 years' wages in Iran. Ali sends home a princely $1,600 a month.

Sometimes the veterans lean back on the park benches and reminisce about the good old days. Working and living conditions weren't any better, but at least there were jobs. Now, with the authorities cracking down, Little Tehran soon may be no more than a memory. But when Japan's economy revives, the labor shortage is bound to return. And when it does, I suspect the Iranians will work out an accommodation that could make Little Tehran as permanent a part of the Tokyo scene as the gaudy lights of the Ginza.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.