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9am in Tokyo

Author: Leo Gopfert

Translator: Hana Nakano

Editor: Catherine Lau

I’m pacing around the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, beginning to panic. ‘Fucking stupid, fucking stupid’, I’m muttering under my breath. The people around me aren’t bothered; they’ve got their own problems. Nobody is ever calm in the Immigration Bureau. I’ve gone up and down the lift twice already and don’t want the guards to start taking notice of me – all I need is to shoot some footage on the sixth floor. ‘This is fucking stupid Leo. Cameras aren’t allowed!’ Already my being on the sixth floor attracts some attention. People here look more resigned, more hopeless than the rest of the building. There’s not the same frantic energy that radiates from the other floors, none of the outrage at bureaucracy, none of the impatience… and there’s not any white people. This is the place for people who have overstayed their visa. I’m waiting for my friend, John*, from Uganda who’s being interviewed, and I’m suddenly panicking. 

This was just one of many days during my year abroad in Japan that I felt out of my depth. It’s a feeling I chase and one I often find myself caught in, and I’ve always been able to navigate myself through these situations. This time, however, it was someone else who might have to pay the consequences. This time, I felt trapped/like I was losing control. The reason I was panicking was because I had realised that in my bag was my hard drive. On the hard drive was footage of John working illegally. John was inside the interview room with a hidden microphone, recording audio of his interview that I might be able to use in my documentary. My fear launched my brain into thinking of the worst that could happen: what if they find the microphone in John’s pocket? What if they search the backpack of his suspicious friend who has been pacing up and down the hall? Whose white skin literally spotlights him within the room? John would be deported back to Uganda, for sure.

In the end, it was fine. John emerged calmly as he always does, and complained that they take too long, not leaving him enough time to visit his friend in the detention centre. We head home. It’s a journey John makes every two months to extend his stay in Japan. He’s been living there for over 10 years. 

John is one of 99.9% of asylum-seekers in Japan who are not accepted, a statistic that shocked me when I found out. I became interested in the story of people like John who live in Japan without any type of long-term visas, repeating the constant chase for appeals and taking the blows of rejections of their asylum claim until they succeed. I decided to try and make a documentary film about the Ugandans I knew. John and I got an apartment together, and I began filming his daily life. 

Making the documentary film presented many problems. What could I realistically show? As someone who initially overstayed his visa before seeking asylum, John is permanently on ‘provisional release’ from the detention centre. This means he can’t work legally, he must extend his stay every two months and he can’t travel outside of Tokyo without permission. I found that, by simply filming the parts of his life that seemed most important, I was potentially exposing him to the authorities who have the power to detain or deport him.

But I knew that the treatment of refugees in Japan was not widely reported. I knew that the story was there. I knew that the collision of mine and John’s worlds in Japan represented something specific about this historical moment: the global movement of people and the erosion of boundaries between cultures. The friendship between me, a white European exchange student, and John, a Ugandan father of twenty children, was unlikely and unbalanced, but could be used to tell an important story... If only I knew how. If only I had made a film before, held a camera before. It was all a bit ambitious. 

At first I just filmed, always asking John what he might want to include in the documentary. I hoped to get him passionate about the idea, and only then would I feel less like a cultural vulture and more like a collaborator. This transformed over the six months I lived with the Ugandans. John’s idea was to shoot a scene of an immigration raid, such as the kind he had experienced during his first years in Japan. I was hesitant. This wasn’t really a ‘documentary’, and I’d never learned how to actually shoot a scene with actors and scripted lines and all that, but I didn’t say no. We invited friends to come and act. We painted my jacket with the words ‘Ministry of Justice: Immigration’ and we improvised a scene. It was surprisingly successful.

When I cut together the scene, especially when I included footage of us planning and talking through the action, it became possible to see how John and his friends perceive their relationship with Japanese immigration. At one point, John described how he would charge at the immigration officers, despite being vastly outnumbered, and they would run away. He seemed to relish the opportunity to talk about the chase, and how he managed to outrun and fend them off for hours before they caught him. This was not the story of a victim. By getting John to represent his own experience, I understood that the tone of this story would be much different to what I had supposed. My own biases and preconceptions were challenged, and I tried to embrace the story as he narrated it. 

This style of storytelling, asking the men to ‘script’ their own scenes, has become the core of my film. There are too many films that fall back into formulaic representations of refugees.  As important as those stories each are, the uncomfortable truth is that people become desensitised to witnessing suffering and injustices portrayed in the same way. People don’t know about the immigration system in Japan, how it criminalises asylum-seekers, forcing them to work illegally whilst their claim is being filed. People don’t know that some asylum-seekers in Japan are detained for years, pressured to return to their home countries and never given an indication of when their claim will be processed. In fact, many people think that the global refugee crisis doesn’t reach Japan at all. And yet, a film that simply conveys this information is unlikely to stand out. / And yet, the refugee experiences and information that my film simply conveys is likely to be relatable for many.

In the end, as John understands very well, my film won’t change a thing. In fact, for John, the risk of being filmed is much greater than any benefits it may bring. I feel privileged that John trusted me to tell his story, even knowing that I had no idea what I was doing, and by the end of my stay I saw him much more like a father than merely the subject of my documentary. Even if my film may not have an impact on John’s life, or the life of other asylum-seekers in Japan, he has certainly had an unforgettable impact on mine. 

*name changed for anonymity.






最初はただジョンに何を映画にとり入れてほしいかを常に聞きながら撮影をしていた。彼がその案に情熱を注ぎ込むことで、私が自分を押しつけがましい欲深い人間としてではなくむしろ協力者として捉えられることを期待したのである。しかし、この方法はウガンダ人たちと6ヶ月以上を共に過ごしていくうちに変わっていった。ジョンの提案は、彼自身が日本での初めの数年間で体験したような入国を突破するシーンを撮影することだった。私は躊躇した。それは本当の“ドキュメンタリー”ではないように感じたし、そもそも私は役者やら脚本やらのシーンを実際にどう撮影するかを習ったことだになかったからである。しかし、私は断らなかった。私たちは友人を募り、演じてもらった。そして私のジャケットに“Ministry of Justice: Immigration" (“法務省: 入国管理”)と書き、即興のシーンを撮影した。それは思いの外うまくいった。私がシーンをつなぎ合わせるとー特に私たちが演技について議論したり、話し合ったりしているシーンを挿入するとージョンと彼の友達が実際の日本の入国との関係性に気づく様子が見られたのである。ある時はジョンは入国官たちに立ち向かう場で圧倒的に数で勝っているのにもかかわらず逃走した様子を説明した。そして彼がようやく捕まるまで何時間にもわたって入国官より速く走り、逃走した様子について話す機会を喜んでいるようだった。これは一方的に弱者である被害者の話ではなかった。ジョンを自身の経験について語らせたことで、私はこの物語のトーンが想定していたものより難しいものであることを再認識した。私自身の偏見と先入観が試されていたのだ。そうして私は物語を彼が語るように取り入れるように努めた。



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