Interview by Isao Tokuhashi
Edited by Jennifer A. Hoff
Yoshihiro Paul Kitagawa
Former Refugee and Company Owner
My Eyes Tokyo has interviewed many people who have come to Japan from various countries. Some of them are refugees, and others are supporters of refugees. We would like to introduce to you Yoshihiro Kitagawa, who arrived in Japan as a refugee, and later became the president of a company.
Aw Wanping, an entrepreneur from Singapore, whom we interviewed in the spring of this year (2023), was who told us about Kitagawa. She said, “I have a business partner who used to be a refugee and who has now become the president of a company. Have you ever heard of such a person?” We were at once intrigued by her words and sent a text message to the cell phone number she gave us with his permission, and eventually talked to him directly over the phone. We were eager to meet the always cheerful Kitagawa, but as we will explain later, he suddenly had to work, and we were also on a trip to Canada, so it was difficult for us to get together. It was cozy falltime before our schedules could finally collide.
When Kitagawa found us at the meeting place, Keisei Narita Station, he gave us a big wave. He was happily chatting with us the whole time while driving, eating lunch, and showing us around his company. But when he told us about his memories of when he left his home country, his expression turned to a melancholy one.
*Interview held at Kitagawa Service (Tomisato, Chiba Prefecture)
Surviving in an era of “scramble”
I run a bus company and work as a “driving guide”. My customers are people from all over the world, especially from Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
When I started this job about 15 years ago, there were still very few people who could both drive and guide, but now the competition is fierce. Especially for those who take care of tourists from China. They (the guides) are young, they have beautiful luxury cars, they communicate directly with customers via WeChat, and they pay with that app. They are physically strong enough to make five to six round trips between central Tokyo and Narita Airport in a day. Nowadays, customers value “low fare,” “handsome and young driver,” and “new car”.
On the other hand, with my years of experience, including my time as a tour guide before that, and the network I have built, I still get work through word of mouth, even though I do not have a company website or social networking service. I am grateful for that, but there are times when a travel agency calls me at night and asks me to work the next day. It is still tiring and my body cannot handle it. If I can’t handle the job by myself, I would like to ask other drivers to help, but there is a shortage of drivers right now. I have several buses, but I have no one to lend them to and end up having to drive them myself.
I never imagined that I would become the president of a company. I have worked in the travel industry long enough. I would not enter the current situation of competing for a limited slice of the market pie. Even if there is not much work, as long as I can earn enough money to live on, I am happy.
Not to go to war
I came to Japan as a refugee. I was born in Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam, formerly known as Saigon. Not only me, but also my whole family was scattered all over the world as refugees. I have five siblings: four sisters and one younger brother. One of them is in France, one is in Australia, and three in the U.S. My mother, and my father, who imported Japanese products such as radios and cassette tapes and supplied them to the U.S. military in Vietnam, also went to America as refugees.
My connection to Japan goes back to my days in Vietnam. There was a Japanese man from Kobe who lived very close to our house. He and my father imported air conditioning units from Japan and delivered them to hospitals around Saigon. My father had thought that if the war were to drag on, I would eventually turn 18 and be drafted. So my father asked the man to adopt me so that I would be considered a “foreigner”, and would not be drafted. Thus, I was given the family name “Kitagawa” and given the Japanese name “Yoshihiro” by him.
Every morning at 6am, Viet Cong terrorists fired mortars from the jungle across the Mekong River into Saigon, and every time they did, we ran to the bunker in our house – our family decided to flee our homeland in search of safety and more human life.
A family dispersed
Dozens of people in boats only five to ten meters long sailed through storms to new lands in search of freedom. Tens of thousands of people lost their lives on the rough seas where pirates lurked. Moreover, in Vietnam at that time, it was a crime to flee the country as a refugee.
It was my eldest sister and her husband who were the first to leave their home country, willing to risk death in the face of these dangers.
Just before the end of the war in 1975, my sister’s husband collected money from people all around them and bought a small boat in a fishing village. The investors boarded the boat with my sister and her husband and fled their home country. They then went to a refugee camp in Malaysia. There they applied for refugee status with the International Red Cross and decided to immigrate to Australia, where there was a quota to accept them, and soon crossed over to Sydney by plane.
My third eldest sister, married to a Vietnamese with French nationality, was able to escape by plane to Paris, France, one month before the Fall of Saigon.
After the Fall of Saigon, my second eldest sister, her husband, and my younger brother escaped by boat to a refugee camp in Thailand. Afterwards they flew to Paris and lived there for two years, but they were never reunited with our younger sister and her husband. Disappointed, she moved to Sydney, Australia, where she lived for two years, and then to San Francisco in the United States.
My father and youngest sister, on the other hand, accidentally boarded a government ship. They were held in a Vietnamese prison for several years. They were later released by an amnesty under the International Refugee Law and sent to San Francisco.
Kitagawa’s father. He fell victim to cancer a few years after arriving in San Francisco and passed away.
My mother stayed there until my father got out of prison to prevent the government from confiscating the family home. After my father was released from prison, they flew together from Ho Chi Minh City to San Francisco on a plane arranged by the International Red Cross.
After my younger sister got out of prison about a year or two earlier than my father, she crossed the border into China by train with about 10 other refugees. They rushed to the Swedish Embassy in Beijing, but European countries were not yet accepting refugees from Vietnam at that time, so they were sent from there to San Francisco.
Then it was my turn
Soon after the end of the Vietnam War, war with Cambodia broke out. Schools in the former South Vietnam were closed, so people could not go to school, the social system was changed from capitalism to communism, and people were forced to live in poverty due to economic sanctions from the United States. There were no jobs, and the unemployment rate was almost 100%. With no hope in sight, I finally decided to escape from my own country.
In Vietnam, the eldest son of a family is customarily treated especially well by his family. Because I was the eldest son, I was fortunate enough to be put on a plane like my third eldest sister, instead of a small boat. I wanted to leave the country as soon as possible, and I was not at all anxious about going to Japan, a place unknown to me. I was sad when I had to leave my mother and niece who stayed until the end. I vowed, “I will come back to Vietnam in three years.”
In July 1978, as an 18-year-old boy, I boarded a plane with Mr. Kitagawa carrying the exiles including Japanese nationals. We took off from Ho Chi Minh City, then stopped at Manila, Taipei, and Naha, before landing at Narita Airport, which had just opened at the time.
Of course, I was always concerned about my family who had escaped before me. But there was no way to contact the refugee camps. It was not until five or six years after I arrived in Japan that I received a letter from them.
“Were you a Viet Cong?”
Mr. Kitagawa took me to an apartment he was renting in Kichijoji, Tokyo. I was enamored by the beautiful skin of the Japanese women I saw along the way, and it was then and there that I decided that I would marry a Japanese woman in the future (laughs). Then I started living with Mr. Kitagawa in the apartment.
I could not understand Japanese at all, so I went to the Nichibei Kaiwa Gakuin (Lit: Japan-America Conversation Institute) in Yotsuya, Tokyo, for three years to learn both Japanese and English. After that, I also attended Nihon Kogakuin College in Kamata, Ota-ku, at the recommendation of a friend of my father’s. There I took up studies in appliance repair. However, I was not interested at all in the subject, which was all about calculations, and dropped out after just one year. The tuition fees were paid by a scholarship from a trading company in Hong Kong, where my father and Mr. Kitagawa used to work with.
Meanwhile, I had very little money on me, so I started washing dishes at coffee shops and Chinese restaurants in Hibiya and Ginza. A colleague at work asked me, “Were you a Viet Cong?” I replied, “No, I was not.” He asked me again, “Why do you have so little money?” I said, “Because the South Vietnamese lost the Vietnam War and all of my family’s property was confiscated by the former North Vietnamese government.” And I told him, “I will work hard and one day I will catch up with you.”
One day, a Japanese acquaintance who lived nearby asked me, “Are you interested in a job as a tour guide? Nowadays, more and more people from Hong Kong and Taiwan are coming to Japan, especially for tourism. Why don’t you join them and learn to be a tour guide?” He took me to the Tokyo branch of a travel agency headquartered in Hong Kong. There I met the branch manager, a graduate of Waseda University, who said to me, “Oh, you are from the same country as me!” He was Vietnamese like me. This is how I entered the tourism industry.
Japanese Inbound tourism 40 years ago
The branch manager told me, “You will have one tour next week, so follow that guy and learn from him about the job.” I followed a senior tour conductor from Malaysia and participated in an inbound tour. The customers were mainly from Hong Kong, and they were guided in Cantonese and English. After that, I participated in three or four tours with my senior, watching his movements and taking notes, and also learning about the tour guide’s job by learning from him at the places where we stayed during the tours.
Eventually, I became a professional tour guide and was contracted by the company to take care of business. I learned Cantonese and Mandarin while conversing with my customers. Thanks to that, I can now speak these languages like a native. Moreover, I still work with my senior from time to time. We have known each other for more than 40 years.
For a long time, I worked as a freelance tour guide and joined the inbound tours organized by travel agencies, mainly in Hong Kong and Singapore. However, eventually, my competition increased and my work decreased. This was around 2008, about 15 years ago. I had been watching bus drivers while working as a tour guide, so I decided to become a “driving guide,” which was still rare at the time.
Resurrection from bankruptcy
For a while I was a sole proprietor, working as a driving guide on my own. However, I was faced with the problem of limited space in Tokyo for the large vehicle that I owned, a Toyota HiAce, and the high cost of parking. In 2010, when I was wondering what to do, I met again a tour guide from Hong Kong, who had been my “comrade-in-arms” during my tour guide days. He was living in Yachimata, Chiba Prefecture, about 60 kilometers from the center of Tokyo. When I drove him home, I saw his house and spacious grounds and had the idea of opening a business in the suburbs. I went to the real estate agency where he had purchased his house and noticed a house in Tomisato, Chiba Prefecture, that was for sale for several million yen. I was told that it was conveniently located just a 15-minute drive from Narita Airport. I purchased the property without hesitation. I asked a local contractor who undertook inexpensive remodeling to rebuild the battered house and clear the muddy site. I set up a HiAce there and used the house as my base of operations.
In 2017, I launched a joint-stock company with three other bus drivers. We rented an apartment in Kiyose, a suburb of Tokyo, on the border of Saitama Prefecture, where parking fees are so low that you can put more than a dozen buses for about 180,000 yen per month even though it is in Tokyo, and registered the company there. 2 new 25-passenger buses and a new HiAce were purchased with my money, and we added 2 used buses they had and we started the business. I also paid the rent and parking fees for the office. The following year, however, COVID-19 hit Japan and the number of tourists dropped to zero. Having exhausted the capital I had invested in the company, as well as having debts, we could no longer continue the business and decided to fold the company.
Around that time, through an introduction from a local real estate agency, I purchased a house about 3km from my home at a very reasonable price. With the two buses and one HiAce that I had already purchased with my funds and the house that was left in my possession at the time, I restructured my business and started a company named “Kitagawa Service” under my name.
Kitagawa Service Headquarters
Two buses and one HiAce are parked on company property. Buses can be rented by other drivers.
Resting rooms for bus drivers are also available.
About 15 minutes by car from Narita Airport, surrounded by rich nature.
No one can live alone
“I will come back to Vietnam in three years,” I vowed to my mother and niece. It has been 45 years since I told this to them, and in the span of these years I’ve been fortunate enough to visit my home country more than 10 times. However, the house where our family lived is no longer there because it was confiscated by the Vietnamese government after we were dispersed around the world as refugees. If I had stayed in Vietnam, I might not have had to work so hard because, in Vietnam, it is common to hire maids and have a comfortable life.
Nevertheless, it was still the right choice to have lived in Japan until now. Once you get used to Japan, no matter how much love you have for your home country, the climate and food there will no longer suit your body.
If I had not been reunited with the ex-tour guide from Hong Kong living in Yachimata, I would not have a house in Tomisato, nor even a place to live at all, and there my life would have ended. In the same way, I have been able to survive in Japan with the help and support of many people. I am truly grateful to all the people I have met.
What is Japan to you?
It is a country I can trust. It is my “second home” country.
However, the long recession has made people poor and their salaries remain low compared to other developed countries. Perhaps because they have run through their savings, some people have started to cheat others, like the common “Hi, it’s me” scam. From now on, the hard-wired older generation should step down from the center stage and offer opportunities to the younger generation to create an environment where they can lead more bountiful lives. On the other hand, young Japanese people should also learn things such as foreign languages more nowadays.
Nevertheless, I still consider Japan to be a good country. The streets (and toilets) are clean, and it is safe enough for women to walk alone at night. People are calm, do not speak ill of others, and observe rules and manners. It is just like the attitudes of Three Wise Monkeys in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, such as “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. I believe this is the essence of Japanese education.
I hope that Japan and Japanese people will continue to be like this.