Dalia Anavian, translator and interpreter for criminal and immigration related issues, sounds off on the legal system's treatment of West Asians --Iranians and Afghanis--in an interview with Michael H. Fox

Tell us a little about your work?

I was born in Teheran, raised in Kobe. and educated at the Canadian Academy. My family continues to do business in carpets and other Iranian goods. My mother performs and teaches the santur (an Iranian harp) and we have also been avid promoters of Iranian culture in Japan. After the Kobe earthquake, business decreased and I went from cultural exchange to legal and criminal exchange. I don't translate into English, only Farsi. I translate for Iranians, and Afghanis-- whose language is similar to ours. One cultural misunderstanding is that people are afraid to speak openly, afraid to testify in court. In Iran, the government is the representative of God, and in Afghanistan, you had the Taliban. It is no wonder that people often say things they don't mean.

What are the social conditions like back home?

You have to understand that almost everybody in Iran wants to escape the country. The government is horribly repressive, the economy is terrible. The police make a fortune by arresting those from well off families, and then extort payment for their release. Everything we take for granted in Japan is illegal: assembling in public with more than three people, reading non-religous novels, listening to pop music, listening to a female vocalist, wearing lipstick, and any kind of political or religious criticism. There are informers everywhere. I had an uncle who was lashed for possessing a magazine which showed women in miniskirts. When I began to laugh out loud in a tourist hotel I was warned that women should not make noise in public.

Why do West Asians come to Japan?

Iranians especially, have dreamy preconceptions of Japan: an old and sophisticated culture with a well educated populace. The cultures and communicative styles of the two countries are surprisingly similar--the avoidance of straight talk, hesitation in response to offers, excessive politeness, and a tendency to look out for each other. The NHK drama "Oshin," was shown in Iran and became very popular. Its lead character who is hard working, independent, and fighting for rights, is an ideal for many women and men in Iran. So West Asians come here with positive preconceptions, they seek political shelter and a chance to make a living. But since they cannot get tourist visas, other ways must be found. As or the Afghanis, their government has been in array for years and does not normally even issue passports.

So do many of these people enter Japan illegally?

Yes, that is the only way. Many come through South East Asia. In Thailand, there are well run clandestine organizations which manufactur passports--for a price. The problem is that bureaucrats and judges here think that entering the country with a fake passport is a subversive act, akin to sabotage or terror. Nothing is further from the truth. To a refugee, entering Japan on a fake passport is immaterial, getting the hell out of their homeland is all that matters.

What about Japan's policy of refugees?

As for political asylum, do they even know what these words mean?Japan is 50 years behind the west. If someone comes to Japan to escape from the police and asks for refugee status, they get thrown in detention. But why put people in detention if they have done nothing wrong, and if they really are refugees. And who is a refugee depends on daily changes in world politics. Authoritarian governments dictate policies overnight, declaring certain ethnic groups as targets for subjugation or eradication. But bureaucrats here know nothing of the world situation. One inspector filled in the ethnic background of a Hazara from Afghanistan as "Taliban."

Are West Asians involved in crime?

As the Japanese economy worsens, some West Asians are turning to drug importation to feed their families. In Iran, opium is used for many medicinal purposes, colds, coughs, stomach aches. Of course it is illegal, but it is easily purchasable and widely used. Alcohol is much the same. You have to understand that in Iran everything is illegal, and everybody is breaking the law in some way. Most of those who turn to the drug trade can't imagine the repercussions of their acts. Naturally, those who deal in drugs should be punished, but judges do not see the big picture. They listen to defendants, and yawn a lot. The press is much the same. Reporters come to court, and as soon as a judge declares sentence, they jump out of their seats and run off to write accusatory articles. The media point fingers and declare foreignbers as criminals. Journalists only write about the bad stuff, nothing about the reasons why things happen.

Are there any drawbacks to this job?

Yes the pay is bad. I receive 4000-8000yen ($40~$80) per hour depending on the crime. Drug cases pay more, thefts pay less, I don't know why. On the surface, it seems like a lot of money, but the work is fragmentary. Sometimes I have to prepare for hours, with no extra remuneration. You can't make a living and a lot of people quit. I do not do this for the money, but to help bridge the gap.

A previous version of this interview was published in the monthly magazine:
Kansai Time Out.