Films and publications explore the life of the Kurdish diaspora in Japan

In May, members of a large audience at a small theater in Tokyo greeted a documentary on traditional Kurdish music with rapturous applause. Many of them then took the stage to join a guest Kurdish musician in a dance.

The event was part of a recent spotlight on several films and publications on the daily life and culture of Kurds, some 2,000 of whom live in Japan. This represents a shift in focus from the issues surrounding political repression and the refugees usually associated with them.

Constituting significant minorities in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, the Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group in the world.

A scene is shown from “Voices from the Homeland,” a 2021 documentary directed by Natsuki Nakajima, which won the Grand Prize in the short film category at the Tokyo Documentary Film Festival last year. (Photo courtesy of Natsuki Nakajima)(Kyodo)

Natsuki Nakajima, 27, traveled to a Kurdish region in southeast Turkey to make “Voices from the Homeland”, which features singing storytellers known as “dengbejs”. It won the Grand Prix in the short film category at the Tokyo Documentary Film Festival last year.

Nakajima, who is both a composer and documentary filmmaker, said she was fascinated by the lyrics of the dengbejs’ songs, which range from love stories to the story of the persecution of Kurds, and by their distinct voices.

In Turkey, Kurds have been subject to a policy of assimilation for over 100 years and have faced political repression until recently, including a ban on using the Kurdish language. The dengbejs, however, continued to sing in their native language and are seen as a symbol of the Kurdish people’s overcoming of the hardships of the past.

Naomi Nakajima (R), who published a cookbook called “Kurdish Table”, sells Kurdish pizza during a literary event in Kawaguchi, Saitama prefecture on May 15, 2022. (Kyodo)

Elsewhere, screenings across Japan began in May of the drama film “My Small Land,” which follows the struggles of a Kurdish high school girl growing up in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo.

The girl’s father was detained by immigration authorities after her asylum claim was rejected, but she finds a way to move on as an attraction develops between her and a boy Japanese she meets in her part-time job.

The photo provided shows a scene from the movie “My Small Land”. (Kyodo)

The film was directed by Emma Kawawada, 30, born to a British father and a Japanese mother. She said she saw an overlap between the lack of a sense of belonging among the Kurdish diaspora that has no homeland and her own bitter experience of not being treated as Japanese because of her appearance.

But the film not only highlights the difficulties Kurds face in daily life in Japan, but also their rich culture, including their wedding ceremonies and food. Kodansha Ltd., a leading publishing company, released a novel of the film written by Kawawada.

Photo taken on March 1, 2022 in Tokyo shows “My Small Land” director Emma Kawawada. Kawawada says she wrote the novel from the perspective of its Kurdish teenage protagonist. (Kyodo)

In Kawaguchi, Saitama, believed to be home to Japan’s largest Kurdish community, Naomi Nakajima, 64, who offers cooking classes, published a Kurdish recipe booklet in the spring through Buna-no-Mori Co., a local publisher.

The booklet, titled “Kurdish Table”, features colorful photos taken in the kitchen of a Kurdish family she knows.

Photo taken on May 26, 2022 shows novels and a cookbook on Kurdish culture. (Kyodo)

Kurdish cuisine is notable for its use of mutton and a fermented tomato paste called “salca” and whets the appetite with a spicy aroma. Recently in Japan, ingredients for Kurdish dishes have become more available in halal stores, which adhere to Islamic religious precepts, and elsewhere, Nakajima said.

The booklet includes round tables between Kurdish teenagers who emigrated to Japan when they were young. “I hope readers understand that they (young Kurds) are here and we live together,” she said.

Comments are closed.