“Blessing House” – Settling and surviving in Japan
First Japanese Entry Permit, First Japanese Guest House Permit
By Igawa Fukuko
After entering Japan, our family faced continuous hardship for one or two years.
Our family escaped from North Korea and were given entry into Japan in 2000 with absolutely no money or skills. We were anxious about what kind of life was waiting for us from here on. In any case, we felt at least secure that we probably would not starve to death.
For the first one or two years after arriving, we experienced continuous hardship without steady employment. But in the third year, we had earned enough trust to become the manager of an apartment building. After that, little by little, we were able to do some interior work, and earnings began to come in. Eventually, we became aware of one or two open rooms, and the idea of using those rooms for a guest house surfaced.
Even though we were thinking about it, there were so many things that we did not know about running a guest house. We did not have the slightest idea of how or what to do. It made sense to cater to Korean tourists, but, because we came to Japan from North Korea, we had absolutely no connections with South Korea.
We started “Blessing House” Inn with a single room.
Not knowing what the future held, we started as a one-room inn. Without any help from anyone, we economized and used our savings to buy four sets of bedding, shampoo, rinse, body shampoo, etc. to furnish the room. But guests did not come, so we were very worried about what would happen from this point.
Based on advice we were given, we began to advertise in earnest by creating a “Blessing House” homepage on the Internet. About three years after that, the number of guests from Korea grew little by little, so we increased our lodgings facility from one room to ten rooms and furnished the inn with appliances as well as bedding.
We had no problem with the scale of the inn, but a different problem came about. Even after three years of managing the inn, without turning a profit, we were just barely able to pay our monthly rent. To pay our rent, we cut costs by making our own futon covers, blanket covers, and pillow cases, and using our own washing machine and even ironing ourselves, instead of hiring someone part-time. Gradually, we were able to develop connections with Korean travel agencies, so we would have student groups and business groups come once a month each, increasing our number of guests.
We gained a good reputation on Twitter and Facebook, but then came an order to suspend business.
Seven years after starting our “Blessing House” inn, the number of guests increased tremendously compared to other guest houses in Osaka, and our good reputation began to spread in South Korea. Korean guests publicized for us to their friends on Facebook and Twitter, so without having to pay advertising fees, reservations started coming in. Good things continued. Then, on February 15, 2014, we received an unexpected phone call from the health department saying we had to stop running the guest house. The health department issued this order to suspend business not just to us, but to all places managing large guest houses in Osaka and Tokyo. Our family worked steadily and enthusiastically under difficult circumstances for a period of seven years, creating something out of nothing, and had started to establish our family’s position, so this news was very disappointing and we were overcome by a feeling of emptiness.
Business re-opens! First Russian Route North Korean refugees, first to receive a guest house permit in Japan
But we did not give up so easily. We decided to properly reopen the business again. We visited building planners, the construction bureau, and the fire station for an explanation of how to get an official permit for a guest house. We met with good acquaintances, and discussed various problems related to starting anew. For reopening the business, there were even more difficult problems than before, but we followed the law closely, and nine months after the business closed, we were finished with all the necessary construction improvements and paperwork. Then, on November 26, 2014, we officially became the first North Korean refugees to receive a Japanese guest house permit. Now we have “Blessing House” signboard proudly displayed, with a solid 25 rooms under contract, and business is moving along well. It has been 15 years since we arrived as the first North Korean refugees to come to Japan through Russia, and 8 years since we started the guest house. Receiving the first official guest house permit in Japan means pride, confidence that we can survive in Japan, and reason to live.
Editorial note: the guest house in this case is a facility that received permission as a basic guest house that offers only lodging.