Super-clean, efficient and vibrant but you are always a foreigner in Japan

Michael Karam visits the Lebanese in Kobe, and increases the population by 1 per cent.

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The Japanese city of Kobe is renowned for its beef, steel, rubber and pearls. It’s also home to Japan’s biggest Lebanese community, all 25 of them. Hani Debs, a third generation Lebanese expat, whose eponymous family firm is Japan’s biggest exporter of textiles, is driving me to lunch at the Kobe Club, established in 1868 to cater to the needs of the city’s new expat community.

We are talking about the devastating earthquake that levelled the city in 1995. “I had flown to Beirut two days earlier,” Hani recalls. “Thank God my family was safe, but I was told you could see the city in flames from our home on the hills. It was a terrible time for us.”

It’s hard to imagine now. Everything is spotless and ordered, like a toy town, an impression reinforced by the omnipresent, low-emission toytown-esque cars that putter obediently through the streets in traffic directed by masked and helmeted policemen with whirling batons.

“You see this overpass? It collapsed completely,” Hani says. I suggest that anyone driving where we were would have been in serious trouble. “Under. On top. It made no difference. But you know what? Within two years you wouldn’t have thought anything had happened. Now of course they have these struts to catch them if there’s another quake.”

Kobe is vibrant and affluent. “We tend to be more laid-back down here,” says Hani. “We’re near the beach and the mountains. Everywhere is a 10-minute drive. In Tokyo the people are more rigorous. If there is a meeting at a certain time, people are there on the dot. Here you can be five minutes late.”

Japanese efficiency is well known, but it still comes as a surprise to the neophyte. It is an efficiency that is underpinned with a deep sense of manners and politeness. It takes a while to get used to hotel receptionists bowing from 15 metres the moment they see you step out of the elevator, and the sight of ticket collectors and train guards saluting each other when changing shifts.

It’s also super-clean. There are dispensers of disinfectant at every turn, while the Toto, the electronic, all-singing all-dancing toilet that is as far as I can tell almost a national totem, reflects a love of hygiene and an inherent sense of modesty that borders on the obsessive. Oh, and there’s no tipping. The price is the price. End of story.

The Kobe Club is everything I imagined, reeking of the late ‘70s expat living I remembered in Dubai before Dubai became Gotham in the desert. “It could do with an overhaul,” admits Hani, “but it’s still popular.” The club apparently used to admit Japanese spouses but charge them four times the regular rate. “Now they’ve changed the bylaws. “Everyone is equal.”

Surely after three generations Hani is now Japanese? He smiles. “Well, yes and no. I have the nationality but as far as the Japanese are concerned I’m still Lebanese.”

Raised and educated in Japan, did he feel more Japanese than Lebanese? “Like I said, you are always a foreigner in Japan. You have to remember this country was closed to the rest of the world for hundreds of years. Sure they respect the fact that I speak their language and know the customs but I’m still a Gaijin.”

The Debs family, originally textile merchants back in what was then still Syria, first came to Japan in the early 20th century, a period of huge emigration from the region. “The idea was to go as far East as possible. To go where no one else had gone to find the better opportunities. We traded in cotton, which we sent to England; to Manchester, in fact, where there was a big Syrian community. There it would be woven into these wonderful tribal designs and then re-exported to West Africa.”

The Syrian Jewish community here was quite large at the time. “They made a great deal of money but they all left during the Second World War and went to the US. Once the American bombing destroyed the harbour, there was nothing for them here. Now there are only about 80 Lebanese in the whole of Japan.”

He pauses and then laughs. “Your arrival has increased our number by just over 1 per cent.”

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton