Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: email@example.com
Belouazani Lakhdar (Algeria)
Shopkeeper of a buckwheat noodle shop
(He’s been in Japan since ’88)
Belouazani Lakhdar is an Algerian buckwheat (soba) noodle chef. He’s been making soba noodles for 16 years in the area called Musashi-kosugi, a town which has been changing dramatically. It’s striking that his shop, Kabura-an, is located in a local shopping area that’s kind of closed, not opened to foreigners.
How has a foreigner been taking pride in working as a soba chef in a closed community? How has he integrated in the local society?
Japanese people in Japan were really bleak.
I was born in Algeria and then I emigrated to France. But I’ve been here longer than ever, for 20 years.
I was in Algeria until when I was in junior high school and was educated in high school in France. When I was 10, my father had started his own business. Algeria used to be the French colony so I retained my dual citizenship in Algeria and France. When I was born, Algeria had not emerged from colonial rule. So France was close to us because it’s only one hour flying from Algeria. My father went there two or three times a week. I lived in Marseilles when I was in high school and I moved to Paris after entering university.
I had worked with Japanese people for seven years in France (click here and see more details) but Japanese in France and Japanese in Japan were totally different. When I came here for the first time, I felt people here were really bleak. Even though I wanted to make friends with them and talk to them, I was ignored. It was because of a language barrier or because they saw a foreigner for the first time. I don’t know but they were really unfeeling. I wondered why they were different even though they were from the same country.
As soon as they saw my face, they ducked into their room.
After I came here, I lived in an apartment with my wife. It was a old style one built decades ago and we had to do the laundry outside. When the next-door family was washing, my wife and I got back from shop. As soon as they saw my face, they ducked into their room. Even though they were our neighbors. Before I said hello or good morning, they hurried in but they left the door ajar and peeped at me from a gap.
Of course all Japanese people were not like them but it was tough for me. I wanted to move toward warmer relations with them but they created barriers. I felt terrible because only two of them, my wife and her brother, were people who gave moral support to me. She had been in France for five years so she also felt Japanese people’s coldheartedness and closed nature. But she told me that not all of Japanese people were like that. There should be people who would understand me or get along with me. So I deal with those kinds of people. I thought that was true. I had good coworkers and my family so I didn’t need to mind my neighbors.
Red is red, white is white.
The Japanese people whom I met in France were open. On the other hand, Japanese here tend to have an island-nation mentality. Especially when I came here 20 years ago, the number of foreigners in Japan was a lot fewer than now. So they were freaked out by foreigners.
When I went to a restaurant, I found that the staff were whispering to each other, like “You have his order.” I asked them to come to me. They asked me to wait a little bit in rudimentary English even if I could understand Japanese.
They were totally different from Japanese in France. Those in France spoke distinctly, like “Red is red, white is white”. But Japanese here tend to end debate even though they haven’t solved a problem. So I had to deceive myself when I worked with people here.
On the other hand, Japanese didn’t understand me. They wondered why foreigners snapped at them and didn’t stop debating. But why do they speak of red as pink or orange? To me, red is red, white is white.
I have to bottle up my emotions. I don’t think I’m a foreigner here now but I would be in a difficult position unless I go along with Japanese people. So I always say to myself that I’m in Japan and people whom I’m talking to are Japanese. Unless I go along with them, I won’t be able to get along with them. So I have to understand them.
If you understand others, it will be easier for you to live.
I often hear that foreigners in Japan say that Japanese people are bleak or they don’t accept foreigners. But I think those kinds of people are everywhere, not only in Japan. So foreigners have to think about how they can gain entrance into communities.
Actually there are some strict or inhuman people but not all Japanese are like that. So you have to learn how to be careful whom you trust. Otherwise you would be left alone here. If you go along with others or you try to understand others, it will be easier for you to live. Unless you do that, you will feel separate from people.
If you get out of your country, you would be able to look at your country objectively and get to know about yourself. As for me, I didn’t know about myself at all when I was in France. I came here and have lived for 20 years, then I got to know about myself. Japanese people who have never been in other countries don’t know other ways of lives or other cultures so they never understand me. But I have to go along with them, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to have good relationships.
Actually it’s not easy for both Japanese and foreigners to form relationships. I also needed to bottle up my emotions in order to get one step ahead here in Japan. Otherwise a foreigner like me couldn’t have run a buckwheat noodle shop here.
It took 10 years to exchange greetings with my next-door neighbor.
Local people are surprised at me staying in business here for a long time. Actually many shops in this area, the old town, has gone so far. But I can make my living thanks to customers who come from other areas. If my customers came from only this area, I would have closed this shop a long ago. So I really appreciate my customers who have come from a distance. Also I have to take care of the taste of the dishes.
It took 10 years to exchange greetings with my next-door neighbor. There are meters in the back of this shop. He asked me not to walk on an aisle between my shop and his house because it was a part of his site. I didn’t walk through, people from a gas company or a waterworks department did. So I told a gas company man about this and he said encouragingly to me. He told me that all Japanese wouldn’t be like him and there should be good people. Then he changed measuring method to automated counting.
I thought I was from outside and I was doing my own business here so I thought I shouldn’t get mad. Even if he didn’t return a greeting, I said hello to him. I’ve kept doing that for 10 years and he said “Good morning” to me at last.
I could take a step. Two years after that, he came here with his grandson and had my soba noodles. Now we smile at each other when we meet. He comes here once a month now.
I could have lived in such an old and closed area for 16 years. I’m really happy with that.
*Photos by Ryuta Hayashi
What is Japan to you?
My second home.
I’ve worked for 20 years in Japan, a country afield. I’ve been as good as I can be at here then I opened my own shop. This is very small but I’m happy I could realize my dream.
I can do my best and I’ll be able to take my next step in Japan.