Japanese Universities Serve Special Dishes from Refugees’ Homelands to Promote Awareness

Courtesy of Cosmoporite
A Cosmoporite member, right, speaks to a student who opted for Ukrainian borscht as part of an M4R event at Shirayuri University in Chofu, Tokyo, in early December.

In early December, the cafeteria at Tokyo’s Shirayuri University offered a special set menu featuring Ukrainian dishes. But there was also an important message that came with the borscht and the cucumber-and-tomato salad.

As the students ate their meals, members of a university student group called Cosmoporite that organized the event handed out leaflets and spoke to them about issues surrounding refugees in Japan and abroad.

Courtesy of Cosmoporite
An M4R set meal featuring Ukrainian borscht sold at Shirayuri University

From each meal, priced at ¥480 and including Japanese rice and miso soup, ¥20 was donated to the Tokyo-based NGO Japan Association for Refugees (JAR) to support refugees.

“It’s like a bargain because we can eat a delicious meal, learn about refugee issues and make a small contribution all at once,” said Cosmoporite member Haruka Satomi.

The event was part of a project titled M4R, or Meal for Refugees, aimed at promoting awareness of refugees and asylum seekers in Japan by serving traditional cuisine from their homelands at school cafeterias.

The project, now in its 11th year, is based on a cookbook “Flavours Without Borders” compiled by JAR and first published in 2013 to raise awareness of the refugee issue in Japan. The collaboration between the NGO and student groups across the nation has been brought to over 50 university and high school campuses.

The Japan News
Cosmoporite members distribute handouts about refugee support at Shirayuri University’s cafeteria in Chofu, Tokyo, in early December.

Satomi, an 18-year-old freshman from Kumamoto Prefecture, said she had knowledge about the global refugee crises, but only found out there were also refugees in Japan after entering the university and taking a course on refugee issues.

In 2022, a record 202 people were granted refugee status in Japan, with a further 1,760 people being allowed to stay in the country based on humanitarian considerations, according to Japan’s Immigration Services Agency. However, these figures are extremely low compared to other advanced economies. Worldwide, over 110 million people were forcibly displaced this year, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.

Satomi said that learning about the screening period in Japan — which can take years — during which many asylum seekers cannot legally work, and the low rates of granting refugee status made her determined to make whatever effort she could to improve the situation.

“As a Japanese, I, too, am responsible to make the country more welcoming to refugees,” she said. “And the first step is to let more people know through this project that there is an issue here.”

Cosmoporite started holding M4R events in 2016. The members decide each year’s theme and make the necessary arrangements with the school cafeteria. Originally, the recipes were chosen from “Flavours Without Borders,” but for the past two years, Ukrainian meals have been on the menu in solidarity with the country as it faces Russian aggression.

The Japan News
The latest edition of the cookbook “Flavours Without Borders”

The cookbook carries about 45 recipes contributed by refugees in Japan from such countries as Iran, Ethiopia and Nepal, and ethnic groups such as the Karen and Chin of Myanmar and the Kurds whose region spans Turkey, Iran and Iraq. There are also messages from the contributors and short essays on their history.

“Dishes from their homelands are what connects refugees to memories of the friends and families that they left behind,” said Tuan Siankhai, a Japan-born, second-generation refugee who helped initiate the project a decade ago as a student at Kwansei Gakuin University.

The Japan News
Tuan Siankhai speaks in Shinagawa, Tokyo, in December.

Siankhai, now 30, belongs to Myanmar’s Chin ethnic group. His parents arrived in Japan in 1991, fleeing persecution for participating in a democracy movement.

Although born and raised in Japan, Siankhai was bullied at junior high school for having a name that was different from his Japanese classmates. The problem, he said, was that many people in Japan regard the refugee problem as something happening far away. From high school, he started speaking at gatherings and events about his experience growing up as a second-generation refugee.

“I thought tasting the food of the homelands of refugees would be a nice and simple way to have people think about refugees,” he said. “Through eating the same food, I want people here to know that refugees are living side-by-side with the Japanese.”

Siankhai now runs his own business and also supports the Chin community in Tokyo, and hopes someday to extend the M4R project beyond universities. “Everyone eats, so it is a good way to get people to think about refugees,” he said.