Iranians in Japan take to the streets

Iran has been engulfed in unrest since the death of a young woman in police custody four weeks ago, and clashes between protesters and security forces have claimed many lives. Demonstrations are also being held beyond Iran's borders, including in Japan.

Iranian protests go global

Iran's protests were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested by Iran's morality police for allegedly violating the government's hijab mandate. State-run television reports at least 41 people have since died in clashes between protesters and security forces. But the nonprofit organization Iran Human Rights says that as of October 12, the real number is more than 200.

Demonstrations have also spread around the globe under the slogan "Women, Life, Freedom." In Greece, demonstrators burned headscarves in protest.

In Japan, around 200 demonstrators tried to reach the Iranian embassy in central Tokyo on September 28. Police efforts to limit access to the front of the embassy to five people at a time drew an angry response. Most of the protesters were men in their 50s who had immigrated in large numbers to Japan in the 1990s to work as laborers. They feel the human rights situation in Iran has worsened since then.

Demonstrators outside the Iranian Embassy in Tokyo on September 28

Hamid, 53, shows us a photo of a young man on his cell phone. He says the man, the son of his best friend, was fatally shot at a demonstration in Iran the week before. He's been trying to learn more about what happened, but the family, probably fearing repercussions, has been evasive. "Why do young people have to die in such a way?" Hamid asks.

Hamid's wife is Japanese and they have a 21-year-old daughter who was born and raised in Japan. He says it's difficult to explain the situation to his daughter or bring her to Iran under the current government.

Iran's government rejects calls for change

Mahsa died three days after being arrested on September 13. The police have released video footage they claim shows she died of a heart attack, but protesters believe her death was the result of being beaten.

Mahsa Amini
Mahsa Amini

Iran's morality police operate under the Ministry of Interior. Their enforcement of Islamic dress codes intensified after the conservative Raisi administration came to power last year.

But women and the younger generations, who are online and aware of the situation in foreign countries, have been resilient. Observers say there has been a noticeable trend for young women to bend the hijab rule in major cities, with some wearing it on their shoulders or wearing brightly colored scarves pushed back to expose more hair. Hundreds of university students and even high school girls have been joining the protests.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Mahsa's death left him heartbroken. But he condemned the protests, saying they were planned by foreign powers -- America and Israel -- and what he called "traitorous Iranians abroad." He stressed that "the issue is not over the hijab" but rather "Islamic Iran's independence, resistance, strength and power."

Iranians show solidarity in Tokyo

Iranians living abroad and communicating via social media organized a protest to take place in more than 150 cities on October 1. In Japan, Iranians from all walks of life -- many young women, university students, families, as well as the fearless "old guard" Iranians we met -- answered the call by gathering for a peaceful demonstration in Tokyo. Many asked that their faces not be shown out of fear of repercussions for their families in Iran.

The organizer of the protests called on people in 150 cities around the globe, including Tokyo, to take part.

One protester, a Ph.D. student, says Iranian are not a naturally violent people. "The problem with Iran is that we don't have any democratic mechanism to protest, to criticize," he says. "Why are the people in the street? Iranian people are very peaceful people. We don't want to fight. We don't want violence."

A female protester insists the demonstrations are not against religion. "I want the freedom of choice. It is not about Islam. We love Islam. We are Muslim, but we are against the government killing our people."

Many women joined the rally in Tokyo.

Another woman tells us she cut her hair to protest Mahsa's death, and to express her sorrow for her country. The cutting of hair is culturally symbolic in Iran as a symbol of mourning or protest that dates back to ancient times. Images of Iranian women cutting off their hair have prompted women across the world -- including celebrities, politicians and campaigners -- to join them in solidarity.

Iran restricts Internet access

Mohammad and his wife Somayeh brought their children to the demonstration. Since Mahsa's death, the couple has been closely following the news in Iran via Twitter and Instagram.

Mohammad weeps as he views footage of the violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces in Iran.

Mohammad says they feel lucky to be in Japan, where they can demonstrate without risking their lives: "You won't get killed for taking part in a demonstration in Japan but that is a possibility in Iran. You say you are going to a demo, and then you never come back".

Concerned for their friends and relatives back home, they try to maintain daily contact. But they say Internet access in Iran is being restricted, especially from 4 p.m. to midnight in Japan, when most of the demonstrations take place in Iran.

When they recently phoned a relative to hear the latest news, their conversation was also cut off at 4 p.m. sharp.

Mohammad and Somayeh trying to speak to a relative in Iran.

Relative in Iran: It's a mess here. The situation is getting much worse.
Mohammad: Are things escalating?
Relative: Yes, it's very serious. The police are fully armed.
Mohammad: We've been cut off.

Somayeh speaks of the difficult situation women in Iran face. "Iranian women are living in a cage. And that's true for men, too. Each of us has the right to live a normal life. But a way of life that isn't ours has been imposed upon us."

Immigrating to Japan for equal opportunities and work

Mohammad and his wife decided to immigrate to Japan four years ago. One reason was for the future of their two children, who now go to a local elementary school.

Somayeh explains, "One good thing about Japanese schools is that girls and boys can study together. Gender shouldn't be an important matter. But in Iran everything is based on separation by gender and the segregation of women".

Another reason for coming to Japan was to find work. Mohammad feels the protests over Mahsa's death have tapped into a deep well of grievances over social and economic problems, including high unemployment and an inflation rate that exceeds 30%.

"Iranian people have no work, no freedom, no money," he says. "If you're in Iran, you can't do anything. But if you come to Japan, the opportunities are endless."

Mohammad runs a small restaurant and last January started an import-export company that matches Iranian businesses and goods with Japanese companies.

But the situation in Iran has brought economic consequences for many Iranians living in Japan. "International sanctions make it difficult for us to open a bank account and it is impossible to transfer money from Iran," he says. "I have been trying to approach Japanese companies and government officials, but they refuse to talk to me because they see the situation in Iran as unstable and risky."

The couple draws comfort from messages they have received from people in Iran thanking them for taking part in demonstrations.

Mohammad received messages of gratitude from Iran after taking part in the protest.

Mohammad says Mahsa has become a symbol for freedom in Iran. "Mahsa Amini could have been my niece," he says. "It could have happened to one of my family members. A society without freedom cannot improve."

Watch video 7:38