A wave of Iranian immigrants headed to Japan after the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), when jobs were hard to come by. At that time, Japan was looking for foreign workers to do tough jobs. This attracted many Iranians from the lower classes, quite a few of whom already had criminal records back home.
However, it was really difficult to make it in Japan. What we found upon arrival is that nobody would hire us during our first three months, which was the length of our work visas. Only after the visas expired were we suddenly able to get hired. But because at that point we were there illegally, employers paid only about a fourth of the normal salary, and constantly threatened to hand us over to the police so that we wouldn’t protest.
Small salaries coupled with the high cost of living in Japan lured many Iranians toward a life of crime. Of course, it helped that some already had experience in this domain, but most had come to Japan looking to make an honest living.
In Japan, Yakuzas are at the top of the crime pyramid. The lowest rung is the chinpira, who are the street-level thugs. They started hiring Iranians to sell their drugs. No Iranians were ever allowed to become Yakuza members – they are very nationalist, and would never let any foreigners into their family.
After a few years of this, the police caught on and started hiring Persian speakers to help them snag these criminals. Iranians gradually changed their tactics, and in the late 80s, instead of selling drugs directly in the streets, they started using mobile phones [which arrived quite early in Japan compared to the rest of the world] and exchanging numbers with clients. The customer would then call their number, and thanks to a call forwarding system, the call would be forwarded to yet another number. Someone would take the order, and send a different team to deliver the drugs.
"Some dealers' phones were worth up to 300,000 dollars"
These phones become very valuable. They would often be sold between Iranians. A phone’s worth was calculated with this formula: the number of customers who used it times the number of calls per day times 9,000 US dollars. Some phones were worth up to 300,000 dollars. Fights often broke out because dealers stole phones from one another.
Parks were the main place for finding customers. One day a strange thing happened: the police released a report about how Harajuku park in Tokyo had became a hotspot for Iranian drug dealers, and this worked as a sort of advertisement. Suddenly lots of customers flooded the park, but also other drug dealers. A war broke out between Iranian dealers and dealers from other nationalities. In the end, they divided up the park.
Over the years, Iranians’ implication in the drug trade has decreased, as police have arrested many people. [According to FRANCE 24’s police source, there are currently about 500 Iranians in Japanese jails]. It’s also became a lot more difficult to enter Japan. Some of those who made it rich have since gone back to Iran, or left for other countries.