A Female Role Model and a Symbol of Sacrifice in the Islamic Republic – The Story of Kuniko Yamamura

IraniX  No. 15

Written and Edited by Dr. Raz Zimmt


In recent years, and particularly since her death in July 2022, the Islamic Republic has proactively worked to commemorate the image of Kuniko Yamamura, a Japanese woman who immigrated to Iran and converted to Islam in the early 1960s after marrying an Iranian Muslim. In 1983, she lost her youngest son in the Iran-Iraq war, becoming the sole Japanese bereaved mother in that conflict. In the Islamic Republic's commemorative efforts, she is portrayed as a symbol of Islamic piety, national devotion, and personal sacrifice, emphasizing her unwavering commitment to the values of the Islamic Republic. Eternalizing her story serves as another manifestation of the regime's endeavors to establish a feminine role model for Islamic women and to strengthen the Iranian-Islamic identity. These efforts are particularly noteworthy given the challenges faced by the Islamic Republic, including a legitimacy crisis, erosion of internal cohesion, and a growing call for the expansion of women's freedoms in Iran.


On September 30, 2023, Iranian media reported that production would be completed in 2024 for an animated series depicting the life of Kuniko Yamamura, the sole Japanese mother who lost a son in the Iran-Iraq War. The series, consisting of twenty-six 14-minute episodes, is scheduled to be broadcast on Iranian national TV. It is adapted from Yamamura's memoir, "Immigrant from the Land of the Sun," published in 2020.

Yamamura was born on January 10, 1939, into a Buddhist family in Ashiya near Kobe in central Japan. As a child, she experienced the American bombings of World War II, the aftermath of the nuclear bombs at the war's conclusion, and the American Occupation from 1945 to 1952. When she was 20 years old, she met Asadollah Babaei in an English class at university. Babaei, an Iranian Muslim merchant from Yazd, was in Japan for business. In her memoir, she recounts their initial encounter, describing how, in their first lesson, Asadollah suddenly stood up and began praying in the corner of the classroom, which intrigued her. When she asked him about it the next day, he explained the meaning of the prayer in Islam. This sparked Yamamura's interest in the Islamic religion. She wrote that, at that point, she knew nothing about Islam or Iran except for the fact that it was an oil power, that Muslims did not consume pork or alcohol, and that Muslim men could marry four wives.

Soon after they met, Asadollah proposed marriage, but her family opposed her marrying a foreigner, fearing she might leave Japan. After a year, her father relented but emphasized that she would not be able to return to Japan in the future. Following her conversion to Islam, the two married at a mosque in Kobe. In her memoir, she wrote that she had never regretted marrying her beloved and moving to Iran, as their shared life was very good. Their first son, Salman, was born a year after their marriage. When he was ten months old, the family moved to Iran. Yamamura adopted the Iranian name Saba Babaei, although she continued to use her original Japanese name. In the subsequent years, they had two more children: their daughter Balkis and their youngest son Mohammad. Yamamura lived a religious life and adhered to Islamic dress codes. In an interview, she mentioned that initially, wearing the hijab was challenging for her. However, as she learned more about the Islamic religion, she realized that all believers must adhere to the rules of faith, even if it is not easy.

At the end of the 1970s, Yamamura and Asadollah actively participated in the Islamic Revolution against the Shah's Regime. She noted that as early as the 1960s, she could identify similarities between the patronizing behavior of American soldiers during the occupation of Japan and the conduct of American consultants serving under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In addition to attending protests, Yamamura actively prepared and distributed leaflets supporting the revolution's leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. She also assisted the injured and participated in preparing Molotov Cocktails. She said that despite not being Iranian, the Revolution helped her restore a sense of pride that had been crushed during the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In 1982, at the peak of the Iran-Iraq War, her 18-year-old son Mohammad enlisted in the Iranian army. According to Yamamura, she supported his decision, even though her eldest son Salman had been injured earlier in the fighting. She also contributed to the war effort by sewing uniforms and preparing food for the fighters. After participating in Operation Muslim ibn Aqil in October 1982, Mohammad returned home to take university enrollment exams and was accepted into the Department of Engineering. However, he decided to return to the front. In April 1983, he was killed by shrapnel to his head during Valfajr-1 (Dawn-1) operation in Southwestern Iran. In her memoir, Yamamura wrote that after his death, she insisted that her name be engraved alongside her husband's on their son's grave, and indeed, it happened.

After her son's death, Yamamura continued her public and educational activities. She worked as an interpreter at the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and participated in Japan-Iran exchange programs. Yamamura translated literature from Persian to Japanese and Japanese animation series from Japanese to Persian for Iranian Television Networks. Additionally, she played a role in founding the Japanese-speaking radio service at the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. Yamamura also taught art at schools and Japanese at the University of Tehran and contributed to establishing the Japanese campus of Al-Mustafa International University in Tokyo. This network of universities, founded in 2007 as an effort to train clergy, is active in dozens of countries worldwide, recruiting thousands to study in Iran.

In addition, Yamamura played a crucial role in establishing and operating the Tehran Peace Museum, founded in 2007 by the non-governmental Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, of which she was a member. Inspired by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, the Tehran Peace Museum aims to raise awareness of the atrocities of war, especially the casualties of chemical warfare used by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. In the summer of 2021, Yamamura joined the delegation of Iranian athletes to the Tokyo Paralympic Games and was honored by the gratitude of the Iranian Paralympic Volleyball team after they won the gold medal.

Yamamura passed away on July 1, 2022, due to lung disease, likely complicated by COVID-19. She was buried at Behesht Zahra Cemetery in southern Tehran, alongside other victims of the Iran-Iraq War and their families. Her death prompted expressions of grief from senior Iranian officials. President Ebrahim Raisi issued a condolence statement praising her cultural and propagation activities on behalf of educational, religious, and charitable institutions, as well as her dedication to raising her martyr son. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the Speaker of the Majles, wrote in his statement that Yamamura embodied love and devotion to Allah, and her name would never be forgotten. Hadi Tahan Nazif, the Spokesman of the Guardian Council, stated on his X (Twitter) account that Yamamura was one of the thousands of free individuals whose lives were transformed by the Islamic Revolution's and Imam Khomeini's values. Regime supporters on social media eulogized Yamamura, emphasizing her commitment to the values of the Revolution. In response to these tributes, a Twitter user commented, "She was born a Buddhist and died a devout Muslim. Born in a country where the hijab meant nothing, she died wearing one. She could have easily found her son home in Japan but sent him to war to protect our values."

The eternalization of Yamamura's memory began before her death. In 2020, her memoir was published, entitled "Immigrant from the Land of the Sun." Its editor, Hamid Hassam, met Yamamura during a visit by a delegation of filmmakers, authors, and veterans of the Iran-Iraq War to Hiroshima in 2014. She provided a series of interviews that formed the basis for the book, which was translated into Arabic, Turkish, Russian, Urdu, and Pashto. A memorial ceremony organized by the Iranian Broadcasting Authority in late August 2022 included praise for the book from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In his letter, the Supreme Leader wrote that the book eloquently and illuminatingly portrayed the "compelling and dramatic life story of this brave lady." In his remarks, he mentioned the visit he made as the then-President of Iran to the home of Yamamura and Asadollah shortly after the death of their son, Mohammad. He also endorsed producing a film based on her life story. The Iranian Leader's official website also issued a special announcement in memory of Yamamura. This publication, in Persian, Arabic, and English, provided a summary of her life's work, along with interviews with the editor of her memoir and an Iran-Iraq War expert who knew her. Yamamura's commemoration included the production of a television documentary titled "Always a Champion" and naming the street near the Japanese Embassy in Tehran after her.

The Leader's website also compiled a list of Khamenei's declarations that articulate his beliefs regarding the role of women and their status in Islam. This list aims to highlight Islam's respectful and equality-based treatment of women, citing examples of prominent women in Islamic tradition, such as Khadija, the wife of the Prophet Mohammad; Fatimah, the daughter of the prophet and the wife of the first Shia Imam Ali bin Abu Talib; and Zainab, the Prophet's granddaughter and the daughter of Ali and Fatimah. The statements in this list reflect a narrative that emphasizes the alleged favorable treatment of women by Islam in contrast to Western attitudes towards women, which, in the eyes of the Iranian leader, are characterized by disrespectful sexualization, including physical and mental abuse, oppression and exploitation for material goals, and the promotion of Western consumer culture. These statements are intended to empower the figure of Yamamura as a role model for young women and as an expression of how Islam treats women. In her memoir, Yamamura herself emphasized that she was a free Muslim woman. She also claimed that, unlike Japanese women who were subservient to their husbands, she had never agreed to submit to her husband's will. When asked, after they married, why she was not so subservient, she replied that according to Islam, a person should be subservient only to Allah.

The way the Islamic Republic continues to immortalize Yamamura's memory reflects the ongoing efforts to create role models for Muslim women and strengthen the Iranian-Islamic collective identity around the memory of the Iran-Iraq War. These efforts are particularly evident in the face of challenges confronting the Islamic Republic, including a legitimacy crisis, internal erosion, and the growing demand, especially among the younger generation, to enhance the status of women in Iran by expanding their civil rights and eliminating discrimination, including the mandatory wearing of the hijab. Emphasizing Yamamura's commitment to the values of the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian Republic, and the Muslim religion aligns well with the official narrative. Her figure is utilized to promote idealistic gender-based values among women and propagate the role model of a wife and mother of a martyr. Her Japanese origin and decision to leave her homeland and religion make her an even more potent symbol of religious piety, devotion, and sacrifice. Commemorating her death provides the regime with an opportunity to reignite the revolutionary spirit and reinforce collective identity around national symbols, such as the Iran-Iraq War, to address internal and external challenges.


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