More than a decade after fleeing Myanmar for Japan, Zarny Shibuya, 23, has become a rising fashion star whose face has graced Tokyo’s most-seen billboards, testing the country’s notorious reluctance to accept immigrants.
With cropped hair, pierced ears and a level but at times defiant gaze, the former model has become a fashion designer, turning out everything from sportswear to women’s clothing for several well-known brands and acting as style consultant for a popular TV series.
A finalist in a singing contest held by one of Japan’s largest record labels, he has appeared on the giant billboards in Tokyo’s hip Shibuya district, which feeds the latest fashion craze to thousands of young Japanese.
His second name — Burmese generally only have one — is a tribute to that area where the dizzying nightlife blurred his identity as he danced to 1980s pop.
It was there that he caught the eye of scouting agents, who propelled him to fame.
Nothing in his soft speech and gentle manner reveal he is a foreigner, let alone one blacklisted by the military junta in Myanmar as the son of prominent activists involved in the pro-democracy uprising crushed two decades ago.
“I immersed myself in Japanese culture. I cut off ties from the Myanmar community here. I came prepared with the thought that I may never return home,” Zarny said in fluent Japanese.
His is a rare success story in Japan, where many people proudly consider the country to be ethnically homogeneous.
Despite one of the world’s most rapidly aging populations, Japan has ruled out large-scale immigration and accepts only a small number of refugees.
When Zarny arrived in Japan with his mother at the age of eight, she told him to “swallow everything” and that meant racial slurs, too.
He was rejected when he applied for part-time jobs — including at several fast-food chains — because of his name.
“I finally had to use my Japanese friend’s identity. My interviewers would comment, ‘Your skin is so dark,’ but I would laugh it off and say, ‘No, no, I’m really Japanese,’” he said.
“I don’t think I could have become what I am now if my superiors had known from the start that I was a refugee and a foreigner,” he said, as he showed his latest creation, high-heeled, lace-up sneakers that make athletes seem better suited for the catwalk than the track.
Although many foreigners express frustration at being eternally treated as outsiders even if they speak fluent Japanese, Zarny insisted it was possible to enter Japanese society — at the cost of keeping his true identity under wraps, which is “the hardest feeling I’ve ever had.”
“Japan is not as restricted as Westerners think. In any society there are stereotypes and so it just depends on how well we turn them on their head,” he said.
And that is just what he did.
“I listened to popular rock music, wore clothes that were in style, I bought things like everyone else. I lived a life typical for my age. I didn’t think of myself as a poor, helpless victim,” the designer said.
He served as high-school class president and went on to graduate with a degree in international relations from a Japanese university.
All the while, the memories of his former home faded into nothing more than a still image of his grandfather’s study lined with books on Burmese mythology.
But for others in Japan who wished to hold on to their culture, “swallowing everything” was a bitter lesson in Japan’s reluctance to welcome foreigners despite being one of the world’s major democracies.