Despite the nation’s relative wealth, Japan’s refugee policy is incredibly strict. In 2021, it approved the claims of just 74 asylum seekers which may seem like a small amount but is actually the highest number of people granted asylum since Japan first began recognising refugees in 1982. In fact, only 915 people (as of May 2022) have been granted refugee status in the 40 years since the policy was put in place. For a nation that prides itself on omotenashi, it’s a curiously hostile stance and one which has increasingly come under the spotlight in contemporary cinema with films such as Thomas Ash’s hard-hitting documentary Ushiku exploring the lives of asylum seekers trapped in indefinite detention, Akio Fujimoto’s Passage of Life, and briefly in Nobuhiro Suwa’s Voices in the Wind in which the heroine encounters a welcoming community of Kurdish refugees.
Director Emma Kawawada is not from a refugee background herself but the daughter of a British father and Japanese mother and in her first feature My Small Land (マイスモールランド) explores the themes of cultural dislocation through the eyes of a young Kurdish woman who came to Japan at five years old after her father was persecuted and tortured for his political beliefs in Turkey. In the film’s opening sequence, Sarya (Lina Arashi) is visibility distressed at a community wedding when a well-meaning older woman tells her it’ll be her turn next, her father (played by Arashi’s real father) chipping in that they still have her late mother’s dress for her to wear. She looks down at the red paint on her hand which, as she later explains to convenience store workmate Sota (Daiken Okudaira), is worn by relatives at a wedding but also closely resembles the red sun of the Japanese flag. She tries to scrub to it off, but it won’t come clean and she’s eventually warned about it at work making an excuse rather than attempting to explain.
In fact, Sarya has most been telling people that she’s German following an incident in primary school in which she wanted to say she was supporting Japan in the World Cup like everyone else but felt awkward about it and said Germany instead leading her classmates to assume that’s where she was from. When she tries to explain to Sota that she’s actually Kurdish, he hasn’t even heard of Kurds before and is confused later given a small lecture by Sarya’s father Mazlum explaining that the Kurds are an ethnic group divided by irrational borders and have no country of their own. His explanation echoes Sarya’s sense of rootlessness as a young woman with no clear homeland torn between two competing cultures. Though she has become an unofficial translator for the Kurdish community and her father keeps them immersed in Kurdish traditions she does not feel completely comfortable stating that she is a Kurd while on another level bothered by the community’s constant joking that she will one day wed construction worker Welat.
Sarya is bright and on track for a scholarship to university in Tokyo hoping to become a primary school teacher in tribute to the teacher who helped her when she first arrived in Japan with no language skills, but all that goes out of the window when Mazlum’s asylum claim is refused and the family lose their visas. Given a provisional release, they are not permitted to work and cannot leave Saitama, the prefecture where they are registered, without permission from the authorities. Saitama is directly adjacent to Tokyo, its borders as arbitrary as any other as demonstrated by the sign halfway along a bridge demarcating its boundaries. This is quite inconvenient for Sarya as her secret part-time job is technically in Tokyo, while it also means she has to explain to Sota why she can’t accompany him to Osaka where he hopes to look at art schools and is now technically working illegally. When Mazlum is caught working his construction job, he is put into indefinite detention and advised by the family’s sympathetic lawyer to reapply for asylum. If he is sent back to Turkey, he will be immediately arrested and his life will be in danger.
The family’s situation lays bare how vulnerable asylum seekers are in the contemporary society. They are told they can’t work and can’t leave yet are provided no financial support leaving them with little option other than to break the rules or appeal to friends and family, if they have them, for immediate help. Left in charge of her two younger siblings who barely remember any Kurdish and know only Japan, Sarya finds herself resorting to compensated dating, pushed into potentially dangerous ways to earn money now that her route to legal employment has been taken away. Meanwhile, as her father is detained in a kind of “prison” and she has lost her visa, she is viewed as an “illegal” immigrant leading even those who had otherwise been sympathetic towards her such as Sota’s warmhearted mother (Chizuru Ikewaki) distancing themselves from the stigma of illegality. Sota wants to help, but he’s just a teenage boy and is unable to offer much beyond his savings which Sarya is understandably reluctant to accept. Even so, despite the bureaucratic cruelty at its centre, My Small Land has an otherwise hopeful outlook as Sarya begins to find the strength to define her own borders and boundaries while taking care of her family in a sometimes hostile society.
My Small Land screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)