Iran Air Flight to Tokyo


by Faramarz

I was sitting at the international terminal of Tokyo’s Narita Airport waiting for my flight back to the west coast when I saw an Iran Air 747 pull into gate 33. I had not seen an Iran Air jumbo jet in years. It was a curious sight. I looked over the glass window wondering what the passengers would look like. The door opened and they came out a few at a time. They were all men in their late 20’s and 30’s. There were hardly any women or families. The passengers didn’t look like tourists. Most of them wore dark suits and no ties. They looked tired from their long flight from Tehran, and seemed worried and unsure about what was ahead of them.  

I had been coming to Japan for the past couple of weeks working on a project for our Tokyo office. I met Sean on the first day after I arrived. He was the marketing guy assigned to help me with the project. Sean was a soft spoken, blond guy from the Midwest. He told me that his mom was a harp player for the Cleveland Philharmonics. He spoke perfect Japanese, and more importantly, he had the right body language which really matters in Japan. He had studied Japanese while he was in college in the US and then came to Tokyo to continue his studies. He fell in love with Yukiko and decided to stay in Japan. Sean became my translator, my guide and advisor about everything Japanese!

Sean and I connected immediately. He appreciated my curiosity about the Japanese culture. Once we became friends and he learned that I was from Iran, he told me about the Iranians in Tokyo. “Like most aging western countries, Japan has a cheap labor problem. They didn’t want to bring in people from China, Philippines or Korea because of the historical animosities. So Iran became an attractive source of manual labor, like the Mexicans are in the US. Every week hundreds of Iranian men are coming to Japan looking for work. Japanese want them to do the manual work and then become invisible. And that’s the problem. These people don’t speak Japanese, they don’t understand the culture, and they really stand out. They hang out in groups of 10 or 20 on weekends. They stare at women and talk and laugh very loudly. Japanese people are intimidated by them.”

On Saturday morning, Sean met me at the hotel lobby. He had planned a full day of sightseeing around Tokyo. We took the train to Harajuko Station in Shibuya to see the Meiji shrine. As we walked by the park, Sean nudged me, “There they are, your countrymen!” And there they were, around 50 or 60 Iranians gathered in groups of 10 or more, talking loudly and looking at the people as they went by. It reminded me of the crowds back in Tehran in front of the movie theatres or sports arenas. The only thing missing was some sun flower seeds (tokhmeh) or zaalzaalak! As the Japanese families walked by, you could tell that they were intimidated by their presence.

Whoever came up with the idea that Iranians make good cheap labor in Japan had no clue about either culture!

Sean told me about an article that he had read in the paper a few weeks earlier. In Tokyo, garbage collection and recycling is a serious business. Everyone is supposed to follow the strict guidelines in separating their recyclables from their garbage. The garbage men can see through the clear plastic bags if everything is placed properly. So when in one apartment building with two Iranian men sharing a small one bedroom place, the garbage collectors noticed that someone had put a couple of soda cans in the garbage, all hell broke loose! That was a serious “no, no” in Tokyo.

Everybody in the building assumed that it must be the “foreigners”, the Iranians that had disregarded the rules. The neighbors immediately shunned them. The news made it to the local paper. But then a few days later, a Japanese tenant came forward and admitted that the soda cans belong to him! He could not bear to witness that the Iranians were being blamed for mixing the recyclables with the garbage. And at the end the “foreigners” turned out to be innocent.

This was all in the paper! As Sean was telling me the story, I didn’t know if I should be laughing or crying! All this commotion was over a couple of misplaced soda cans!

On Saturday night I treated Sean and Yukiko to dinner. They took me to a Shabu Shabu restaurant. That’s the kind of restaurant where you sit at the counter and they place a boiling pot of hot water in front of you. You then dip the raw beef, vegetables and noodles in the water and cook them. The owner stood behind the counter and passed on the plates as they were coming out of a small square hole from the kitchen. I noticed that the guy in the kitchen was an Iranian. He was happy to see me and I smiled at him. He whispered, “Salaam, khoobin?” I whispered back. The restaurant owner told him in Japanese to not to talk to the customers. But once in a while, when the owner was busy, he would stick his head out of the hole and whisper something to me. His name was Hamid and he had been working in Tokyo for about six months. I asked Sean to talk to the owner and see if Hamid can come out of the kitchen for a few minutes and have a beer with us. Sean bought the owner some good sake to smooth things out.

Hamid was so thrilled to be out of the kitchen for a few minutes and talk. He was a few years younger than me. He told me about his life, how he went to the university during the revolution, ended up on the front line of the war and was in prison for a couple of months for political activities. He couldn’t find a job and wasted a few years of his life driving a private taxi. When the opportunity came to come and work in Japan, he jumped on it immediately. But all he could find was working here in the restaurant.

I told him about my work, the life in the US with all its challenges and opportunities. He listened very carefully to everything that I said. I gave him my number and told him to look me up if he ever made it to the west coast. We said goodbye.   

As I sat by the window in my small hotel room overlooking the peaceful gardens at the Imperial Palace, I wondered about the randomness of life and how unfair it was. If Hamid was born only a few years earlier, he could have left Iran for the west the way many of us did and could have made something of his life. Instead, he got trapped in the revolution, had to go to the war, the prison and now working in a small kitchen of a Shabu Shabu restaurant in Tokyo.


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Orang jan, thank you for your response

by Monda on

I appreciate your time and attempt in making things more clear to me.

We have read and heard about the Japanese social infrastructures.  My inquiry related to what is more challenging in blue collar Iranian's adaptation to the Japanese culture than it is for the same Iranians in other cultures.

Did you read about the car mechanics who barbecued a ghaaz fresh out of a lake in Seattle back in the 80's?  Or the technical professional Iranians in China having trouble qualifying for housing? All in all cultural adaptations work two ways, as in any relationship, of course in much larger scale therefore requiring longer transitional period in assimilation and adaptation.

So I guess I just found my answer while typing this to you: Japanese have their own barriers adapting to Iranians or foreigners in Japan. Problem is not the Iranians per se, but the the glitches in the intersubjective system of adaptation adn tolerance. And of course fluency in the host country's language and level of immiigrant's education/ professional competence remain key elements facilitating the processes bi-directionally.

Very interesting blog... got me thinking.  Thanks Faramarz. 


What is wrong with some decent work!

by Kooshan on

As Jeesh says, at this point in an Irani life, Japan is perhaps a better outlet for many who can not come to USA. I know few who made some decent money after a decade and came back to establish their business and life for better life. These people would've had no better opp in Iran. I also know a victim who was killed by his Irani roomate in Japan for his life saving. What a pitty a greedy soul would do for money.


Orang Gholikhani

Monda jan, I'm not a specialist of Japan but ...

by Orang Gholikhani on

Monda Jan,

I'm not a specialist of Japan but I've been always intrested by discovering why as an Asian country they suceed to become a High tech and economical power. It is a very beautifull country : //

There are several points which should be considered:

- Japan is an Island

- They closed their frontier and ousted portugaise in 19 Century and stayed closed during several years. So there is few immigrant and physicaly when you are in the street you are spotted easily as foreigner.

- Thier culutur has been reluctant toward foreigners (Portugais) and may be it is why they became an independant and powerfull country.

So it is why it is hard to be inserted to their culture. And something Faramarz said well. Iranians went there after revolution and they went because of economical issus, only for low paied works and not because they "like" Japanease culture. their goal had been earnning money and buy a house in Tehran.

You have also the same situation in Sweden and Danemark where some people went only for social money help.

It is what I think is different for Japan, Sweden rather than other countries where Iranians found a new "home country"

Take care.



Again, how is Japan different than the rest of the world?

by Monda on

I thought my comments didn't belong here.  I was about to delete them then I caught myself thinking why is it you think that we consider Iranians migration to Japan and assimilation in the Japanese culture any more difficult than any where else in the world?  Please educate me if you have time.

Immortal Guard

Imagine a Country as a Company!

by Immortal Guard on

Imagine a country as a company.

When a company's stock value crashes on the stock market OR when it goes bankrupt then many employees lose their jobs and some lose their retirment etc.

When a country's stock value crashes its people start leaving it to find jobs elsewhere.

The moral of the story: "Don't inject to much money into a country, thus indirectly creating population growth and then crashing its stock value by foresaking it on the international stock market and the international media. This creates lots of unemployed from that country."

Orang Gholikhani

Who decide ?

by Orang Gholikhani on

Thanks Faramarz very nice article.

I share your question at the end : nobody decide when and where he is born and it change everything in his life.

Take care.


Ari Siletz

Good points Jeesh

by Ari Siletz on

And a very nicely written article on an interesting topic, Faramarz.


Japan was a tough nut to crack

by Faramarz on

I had mixed feelings about Japan. While I appreciated the rich culture and the elegant details of the social behavior, I also felt the “racism” that some of the folks talked about here. I did not hide my identity while I was working there, but I did not advertise it either. I think that part of the problem was that we did not have our best and brightest representing us in the Japan of the early 90’s. As it has been said here, these were mostly uneducated people from the south of Tehran who were there, and that’s what I saw in the parks and on the trains, and it caused a lot of problems for everybody else.

Those who survived this period and prospered in Japan paid a price, I am sure. It is also interesting to see how women solve these problems so effortlessly. The Japanese women who married Iranian men and helped them integrate into the Japanese culture made us all look normal and acceptable!

Somehow, women see so clearly beyond the obvious!

Jahanshah Javid

Iranians in Japan

by Jahanshah Javid on

Good observations Faramarz. I've always been curious about Iranians in Japan. The stories I've heard have always been about good, hard-working people.

I'm fascinated that they chose Japan instead of Turkey or India or the few countries in Europe where refugees from Iran were welcome for years. The language alone seems so different and complicated.

I can name five or six people off the top of my head who have climbed the ladder from hard labor up to heights of success. In particular there are many Iranians teaching at Japanese universities. Videos of half-Iranian half-Japanese kids are pretty common on YouTube.

Very nice piece. Thank you.


I should have added

by Monda on

I can feel the Guilt and Hope in all the parents who let go of their children.

And like you Faramarz, when I see an Iranian at a gas station, restaurant kitchen or other blue collar jobs, I reach out to them with my hope that they would never lose their pride in choosing their new paths. 



Faramarz and JD

by Monda on

I would like to remind you here that Iranian women who decided to venture out on their own, without any support due to disconnect from their families (for various reasons) had it equally tough.  I was not the only one who left Iran alone in January of 1978 not having a clue about the consequences of my decision - being the IRI takeover, losing the opportunity to have a home to return to, parents losing all they had and hoped for their children, having to almost overnight survive in the US or elsewhere.

Add to the multiple daily jobs, my generation of Iranian women had minimal survival skills (we were brought up as princesses not manual labors) which needed serious rectifying almost overnight.  And then our dreadful cultural confusion about what it meant for a woman to work at a gas station, restaurant, or assembling boat thermostats, etc. to be able to pay out of state tuition or simply survive on another continent without even a concept of home, let alone a tangible place (home) to go back to.

I am not writing this to give men unnecessary guilt or as an invitation to prove who had it the hardest.  I'm just sharing some of our positions.  At the end of the tunnel though, in most Iranian cases there is success in making a livable life outside of their comfort zone (Iran).

Here's to the day when Iranians have freedom of choice in Where they choose to live.  

Jeesh Daram

so is life

by Jeesh Daram on

Good article and discussion.

The entire history of mankind has been filled with the will to travel the world for better opportunities and better life. The famous Iranian poet Saadi admits that in one of his trips abroad, he ended up working as a mud worker. Many of us in US also had to build our life from scratch, from zero. For those working in downtown Manhattan restaurants or in gang-ridden down town Saint Louis, Mo. or in tough neighborhoods of Chicago, it is no better than Tokyo sushi-bars, with as much humiliation and abuse.

The third paragraph of this article (from the bottom) touches on the reasons that many of those Iranians have been going to Japan. We need to realize that many of these hard working laborers also saved money and returned to Iran and opened their own small businesses. There is absolutely nothing shameful to be a day laborer in Tokyo, if the alternative is being unemployed and drug user in Iran. Forget about IRI for a day and think about the youth of Iran, what would you have done? If it was me I would also go to Tokyo, given the alternatives in Iran. For quite a few of us who came in late 60's it wasn't a life of glamour either. We busted our ass for years with two jobs and college responsibilities. We might have been a popular people from a popular country, but when it came to pay, it was $1 dollar for one hour of work! Forty hours of work for $40 dollars, less taxes. I still have my very first pay stub in my photo album. Yeah, I felt like Tokyo Bullet for a while....

As for success and failure, we can not generalize that all those who end up in USA are bound to succeed and nor can we assume that all the underclass hard labor force in Japan are doomed with poverty and misery and eternal shame and damnation. 

Just like 30 years ago, today you ran into lots of Iranian youth that say "I am willing to even wash dishes, if I be able to get a visa and leave Iran". Among those who make it out of Iran, many will succeed for better life and opportunities and quite a few will remain with low skilled jobs. But there is no shame one way or another.

When and if you see an Iranian who is down and desperate, just help them and encourage them, and remind them that success is a voyage and not a harbor or a destination.  

My father did and I also suggested many times (in casual kitchen talks) that Iranian government should actually make a treaty with Japan, to send 10,000 Iranian workers to Japan and bring 10,000 Japanese workers to Iran, it will be net gain for the Iranian workers to learn the organization skills and job discipline from the Japanese, no harm in there.

Thanks for bringing up the subject.




by Monda on

I  really enjoyed reading this educational piece so nicely written.  I also like your style of connecting to people anywhere you go.  You're a good man.



by yolanda on

Hi! Javadagha,

     Thank you for the info...6 hours of flight, not bad.... I plan to visit Esfahan 1st....if my budget allows me, I will also visit other pretty places...

Thank you for everything!


Have a Safe trip to vatan.

by Javadagha on

There are many flights; I have flown mostly with Iran Air.  The direct flight time is about 6 hours (+,- 30 minutes).  Japan Air, Korean Air, etc., have direct flights too.  Best wishes in your journey to vatan.  If you come to Shiraz, and if I am there, you will get a free tour and a cholo-kabob.  My favorite cities in Iran: Shiraz, and Yasouj.



by yolanda on

Hi Javadagha,

       I am just curious which airline flies from Beijing to Tehran..How many hours of flight?..I am thinking of visiting Beijing and Iran.



We must participate to make it a better place for all who choose

by Javadagha on

Thanks for sharing your story.  I have many similar one(s).  I am surprised people such as you have no reaction when they see IranAir logo which represents us.  I cannot help but get emotional whenever I see Homa logo in another country’s airport.   Iranians who went to Japan were mixed bag of people and most of them had very little education and came from lower echelon of Tehran, mostly Javadieh and Navab.  Because of low skills they committed crimes, but one should not single them out.  Many of them worked very hard doing menial jobs.   The U.S. has been more forgiving to foreigners than Japan.  In places such as Los Angeles, the majority of prisoners are Mexicans, but Americans do not look down at them the way Japanese look down at us.   Last week, when I travelled through Frankfurt, I noticed four Turks congregating and talking very loud.  I did not see anybody looking at them strangely.  Japan is a racist and homogenous society that is why they call us Gaigen.   Last year I was coming from Beijing to Tehran and Iran Air flight from Japan came to pick us up.  The plane was full of Iranians married to Japanese and their children were making lots of noise and one of the kids throw up on me.   I am disappointed in our people who left Iran and ignored it.  Japanese came back to Japan and made a huge difference in building or re-building it.  That is why I consider the majority of our people who left Iran, especially those who live in the U.S. moftkhoors.  

We cannot expect Iran to change by ignoring it or looking at it from far and wishing to change.  We must participate to make it a better place for all who choose to live in Iran. 


That explains now..

by shirbacheh on

why my Japanese friend in US asked me about what  I thought about Iranians in Japan.  I told her that I didn't know much about them. Then she told me  she wanted to ask me about them for a while but she thought I would be embarrassed. Thanks for the beautiful article. I am so proud of my fellow countrymen wherever they are. And I am sure they will find their ways to the higher levels in any society they migrate. Even if their first generation needs to do a harder work but Iranians are after education and will eventually make a better life for their children. On the other hand I have heard that there are groups led by Iranian drug mafia, most probably in Sepah,  that take advantage of Iranian workers going to Japan and China to traffic drugs for them. Shame on them!


Thought Provoking

by divaneh on

As MRX1 and Fair commented, Iran was an importer of cheap labour and it is pity to see it as an exporter of such force now.

I however see a positive development in all this gloom and that is the immigration of Iranians into other countries and the resulting cultural exchanges which will surely have a positive role in shaping the future Iran. I also think that it creates powerful and caring forces outside Iran who beside their ties have an immense interest in a successful Iran. Look at British and you wish we started to immigrate earlier than this. Thanks for posting this thought provoking memory.


Thank You

by Faramarz on

Thanks everyone for your kind comments about this story.

These were interesting times for many of us as Babak and others have pointed out here. The Iranians that came to Japan in the early 90’s were a mixed bag. There were those like Hamid who were trying to do something with their lives, and then there were also the un-educated, Hezbolahi types who had no business being in Japan. There was also some drug smuggling going on which made it very difficult for everyone.

At the end, the whole experience was a failure. With the exception of the few who married the Japanese, or managed to stay one way or another, everyone else had to leave.

Hamsade, I liked the comparison to the Italian movie, Bread and Chocolate. My favorite part of the movie was when he was at a bar with all the Swiss fans pretending to be a Swiss (with blond hair) and watching on TV Italy scoring a goal against Switzerland!

Immortal Guard

The Moral of the Story is...

by Immortal Guard on

The moral of the story is:

"If you don't want Islam empowered make sure it doesn't arrive in Persia."


by on

Interesting article and point.  In my case, my older siblings were sent  to study to the U.S. before the revolution with their daddy paying for everything. Sending them money from iran. They had good grades cuz they didn't have to work while in college. Naturally, they did well. But in my case, my schooling coincided with the ayatollahs arrival.  The parents didn't have extra cash with the ayatollahs given that the dollar was now expensive and neglected me.  The siblings in the U.S. didn't help at all saying I'm just a brother and they don't feel obliged to help, even while they were making big money. The real reason is extreme greed on their part offcourse. Anyway, I find myself living a quality of life which is way less than what I observed in the 1970's, so it is a bit odd.  

So, in my case I am upset about the Islamic Fanatism that created this situation, but I also see these well off ex pats in California that never help out as a bunch of greedy tacky has beens. 

Talking about Islam, I have a friend from Spain who took a job in Qatar. He works 6 days a week!!! And the only thing there is to do in Qatar is going to the Mall.  The other funny thing is that in many places they dont allow taking pictures because the arabs dont want the women to appear in the pictures even though they are totally covered from head to toe. 




hamsade ghadimi

nice story faramarz.  it

by hamsade ghadimi on

nice story faramarz.  it reminds me of an italian movie "chocolate and bread" made in the early 70s.  it's the plight of an "undesirable" italian migrant worker (played by comic gianini) in switzerland.  it's about the situations that drive someone to become an immigrant, the assimilation process in the new land, and dealing with one's identity.

sadly, the iri regime doesn't treasure their human capital.  you can see hordes of people in the streets of tehran (whether south or north) sitting on the sidewalks and peddling their subsidized coupons for sugar, oil and flour.  and you don't have to go as far as japan to see how the iranians are treated or what they have to do to earn a living.  i've heard horror stories from gulf states especially dubai.  the clerics and military thugs of the iri are too busy dividing up the oil loot in iran and couldn't care less about the iranian population.  and yes, they're handing out pittances to their mozdoors, as you see in this site, to inject a sense of doubt on the evil nature of the regime.



by yolanda on

It is a very interesting article! You and Sean are so kind! Both of you have gone the extra miles to befriend Hamid and make him feel better! It is just great! 

   It is hard for me to hear the phrase "cheap labor", but I know it is the reality due to the economic disparity! It is sad that those Iranians have to cross the ocean and work the menial jobs in Japan.

  It is sad that the 2 Iranians almost got wrongfully accused! ...........I think we can learn to adapt to another culture. It just takes time!

The 2nd part of story (restaurant) is really heart-warming!


Immortal Guard

Islam is to Persia...

by Immortal Guard on

Islam achieved by arriving in Persia what Christianity achieved by arriving in Rome although their arrival methods were different the respective consequences were the same.

Islam became empowered by Iranian cultural heritage and soft power. The Iranians subverted Islam in order to use it as an instrument to perpetuate the age-old diachotomy of West vs. East (i.e. Islam vs. Christianity) which was initially created through Greco-Persian and later Perso-Roman wars.

Scholars of history would acknowedge the invisible Persian hand when it comes to the expansion of Islam whether it is during the Crusades in Jerusalem or the Islamic Conquest of Spain or the Fall of Constantiople.


Thanks for sharing; memories renewed

by Babak_SD on

Faramarz jan,

What a nice story.  Thanks for sharing.  I started going to Japan in late 1980s and continued going there until late 1990s a few times a year.

Even back then, the situation was exactly the same.  I remember being at the Hard Rock Cafe in Roppongi and as soon as people would find out I was from Iran (living in U.S. but being of Iranian heritage) they would stop talking to me and sometimes even walk away.

Unfortunately, most Japanese have only seen young Iranian men from lower economic class of Iran.  In general, Iranians have a terrible reputation in Japan.

But I have also seen cases where the Japanese would fall in love with very nice young men who are there to improve their lives.  Many of these men have ended up marrying Japanese women and their kids are the most adorable kids you'll ever meet.

As I read your story, it renewed a whole lot of memories for me.  Thank you again. 


Another "Dastavard" of the Revolution

by Fair on

Iranians like Hamid, having to work in restaurants in Japan.

And another predictable and pathetic downlplaying of this tragedy that ruined an entire generation by the waffen SS major- propagandist and traiitor to the Iranian people.

Iran was an importer of labor in the 1970's, and Iranians would leave the country to study in the best universities in the world in large numbers. Now go look at all the Iranians working low jobs in so many countries, and going studying wherever they can (Malaysia, Phillipines, etc etc.)


Another "victory" brought to you by the Islamic Fuehrer Khomeini and his lapdog successor.




Sargord Pirouz


by Sargord Pirouz on

You're speaking from a position of hate and ignorance. Iran's multitude of contributions to Islamic culture is undeniable, right from the start, all the way to present day.

In fact, it's always been and remains indispensable. 


The gift of Islam and the Islamic revolution

by mahmoudg on

Islam in its entire existence has done nothing but destroy the fabric of the Persian culture.  Some times i think it was conjured up just to destroy Persia.  In the last thirty years it has done a good job and then some.  It seems Islam also wants to destroy the world and humanity.  This is just a microcosm of Islam's failure in Iran the result of which are millions of Iranians scattered all over the world searching for a better future which they can never attain in their homeland - infested with Islam.

Immortal Guard

Based on my observation...

by Immortal Guard on

Based on my observation the Iranians in North America behave quite civilized and talk to each other in low voice when standing in line at discos, lounges or movie theaters as opposed to Arabs for example who speak in a very loud and abnoxious way.

I even had once a European come to us while we were standing in line and asking us: "Are you Iranian?". I was first astonished and said: "Why are you asking?" He said: "Because you don't make much noise like the Arabs or ....".