Searching for Iranian home comforts in the heart of Tokyo
Living as an Iranian, especially if you’re white-passing, in Japan is an extremely interesting and unique experience.
Due to a lack of exposure to Iran and Iranians, most Japanese do not have a preconception of what an Iranian is unlike most other countries.
This is especially surprising for someone like me who moved to Japan from Europe where a huge number of Iranians live and the majority of countries have long histories with my country of origin.
"Iranians have the capability to integrate themselves into societies like Japan by introducing their wonderful cuisine which encompasses a wide range of culture, history, and tastes"
Japan and Iran (formerly known as Persia) had no known direct relations until the 19th century – despite many Persian works of art being imported to Japan through China (an empire that does have a lot of history with Iran) – the two countries mainly were oblivious of one another.
In the 19th century, things started to change to the invention of modern technologies that shattered most geographical barriers and limitations.
However, since the 1979 revolution, Iran’s relationship with Japan has been very rocky, to say the least, and this background is reflected quite vividly in my own experience and the experiences of other Iranians I met in Japan.
“Many Iranians go back to their own country despite all the economic and political hardships that are taking place there,” said Pardis, an art student in Japan who moved here in 2018. She went on to say that it can be a depressingly lonely experience to live in Japan as an Iranian. Despite our culture being represented in Japanese pop culture, Japanese society doesn’t seem to be very keen on accepting others.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, Iranians tend to create welcoming environments in the direst situations.
I met Pardis when I got seriously ill and didn’t have anyone to ask for help in Tokyo. After a couple of long days of visiting doctors and surgery, Pardis took me to a Persian restaurant called BolBol near Nakano where they served top-tier Persian cuisines that I missed so dearly.
At that moment I realised how Iranians have the capability to integrate themselves into societies like Japan by introducing their wonderful cuisine which encompasses a wide range of culture, history, and tastes.
During my adventures in Tokyo, I met an old Japanese man who used to work in the Imperial Iran embassy in the 70s and lost most of his fortune in 1979 when a ship of caviar he bought didn’t come to Japan and went back to Iran amidst the revolution.
“I was so butthurt at that time, but right now, all I miss is the fact that I cannot go back to Iran," he explained. "I miss Iran way more than I miss my lost fortune which becomes less and less valuable to me as time passes.”
Owning a massive company at the age of 80, he missed some of the Persian culture and aesthetics he was accustomed to in his 30s. I invited him to BolBol so he could be reminded of the long-forgotten taste of Persian culture.
He immediately ordered the famous Jujeh Kebab and asked the owner, Mr Bolbol – from whom the restaurant gets its name – to write down some of the ingredients and foods that were unknown or felt familiar to him, such as the delicious and filling barley soup.
“There was a period in my life when I was severely homesick and depressed. BolBol became my source of solace to get away from all the negative feelings I felt during the days,” Pardis revealed. She said she used to visit the restaurant at least twice a week despite it being so far away from her dorm near Shinjuku.
“It seems like a ritual at this point,” I told Pardis after realising she was also introduced to this side of Tokyo through her Iranian friends after falling into depression.
Iranians not only find calmness in Persian kebabs and gourmets of BolBol and other restaurants such as the semi-luxurious Yokohoma-based Caspian, but they make sure to introduce their new Iranian friends who are going through hardship to this mostly unknown side.
“Finding familiarity can help you overcome situations in which you find yourself lost and powerless,” Pardis told me. Just seeing the Persian aesthetics and music cheered her up during her difficult days.
Tokyo and Japan as a whole are not nearly as monolithic as people tend to pretend they are. The ever-growing foreign restaurants and shops are a testimony to that, but as Mr Bolbol told me, “You have to make everything Japanized.”
Persian restaurants have been huge successes in Japan because of their approach to Japanize their place and products so they would fit well within Tokyo’s neon-filled world of mismatches.
The small Iranian community in Tokyo has been able to survive for around four decades since the 1979 revolution and the distortion of the Japanese-Iranian relationship, which continues to deteriorate, by adapting to the Japanese culture and introducing their own which feels quite right and soothing for many who might miss home.
BolBol Persian: Address: Japan, 〒166-0002 Tokyo, Suginami City, Koenjikita, 3 Chome−2−15 八字ビル
Kamiab Ghorbanpour is a researcher, writer and journalist currently based in Japan
Follow him on Twitter: @KamiGhorbanpour