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Foreign mothers fight for children’s futures

Strict enforcement of ill-conceived clause in Japan's Nationality Law threatens families.

by Laura Fitch

Rosanna Tapiru’s problems really began shortly after her arrival in Japan.

She came here from the Philippines to make and save money, but her dreams of a better life for her family were, she says, “washed away” when her partner, who remained in the Philippines, left her for another woman.

Forced to move on, she sought to rebuild her life — and hopes for a family — in Japan.

“Such a simple dream,” she exclaims, though turning it into reality has proved to be next to impossible.

Tapiru now has two daughters, 7-year-old Masami Tapiru and Naomi Sato, 3, both of whom were fathered by a Japanese man.

However, due to a little-known article in the Japanese Nationality Law, while Naomi may claim the rights and privileges of Japanese citizenship and the protection that it affords, Masami cannot.

Article 2 of the Japanese Nationality Law states that a child is entitled to automatic Japanese citizenship if, at the time of birth, it is certain that either the mother or the father is a Japanese national.

The clause is straightforward enough if the mother is Japanese, or if the couple is married.

However, difficulties can and do arise if the couple is not married, and particularly if the mother is not Japanese.

These cases are on the rise as Japan reluctantly begins to open its doors to foreign workers.

In order for the child to obtain Japanese citizenship if the couple is not married, the father must give “ninchi,” or recognition, that the child in the mother’s womb is his own.

Ninchi may be given after birth and the child registered on the “koseki touhon,” or family register, but in such cases, it is almost impossible for the child to obtain citizenship.

Japanese courts have begun to stick to the letter of the law — in this case stipulating that recognition by a Japanese father must be given before or “at the time of birth.”

If ninchi is given after the birth, the court does not recognize that the child had a Japanese father at the time of birth, and therefore rejects the claim for citizenship.

The only way for the child to gain citizenship and a passport is for the parents to marry, which is highly unlikely if they haven’t already, or to wait out the lengthy and arbitrary naturalization process, originally intended for adults immigrating to the country.

Even in the case of adoption by a Japanese father, citizenship can still be unattainable.

Tapiru, having learned from the birth of her first daughter, was sure to get the ninchi in time for the birth of her second.

However, she worries about the future of her children. As the primary caregiver of a Japanese citizen, she is permitted to stay in Japan on a permanent residence visa.

However, if something were to happen to her, one child would be cared for by the Japanese welfare system, while the other would have no such claim, and in all likelihood would be deported to a country where she would be unfamiliar with the language, customs and way of life.

“There is no security for them,” she says. “It’s discrimination and isolation of foreigners.”

Tapiru’s children currently attend the same school, and “nosy” questions from teachers about the children’s parental status “pushed me” to do something, she says.

Tapiru is one of nine Filipino women who stood jointly before a judge in a Japanese courtroom on July 15 to request that the court grant full Japanese citizenship to them and their children.

The court heard four cases, and is scheduled to hear the other five in September.

As the women read their statements in Tagalog, later to be translated into Japanese, they struggled to remain composed.

For all, this case represents the final chance for the future security of their children.

All the children have Japanese fathers, but, due to the Japanese judicial system’s strict interpretation of Article 2, do not hold Japanese citizenship or passports.

In addition to the bullying at school that results from the children having katakana and foreign-sounding last names, they must deal with the insecurity of their futures.

As they are not of a legal age to care for themselves, their residence status relies solely on that of their mothers.

“He has a Japanese father, and a Japanese mind,” says Olivia Ligon, one of the nine mothers, of her 10 year-old son Rafael.

She says discrimination stemming from his lack of citizenship will hold him back from living a full life in Japan.

He is on the “koseki touhon” (family registry) but doesn’t have citizenship or a passport.

“I have lots of friends. My mom works hard. My father is Japanese. He calls me on the phone to tell me to study. What am I?” Julia, Charlette Chieeum’s young daughter, asked the court.

“I am Japanese,” she answers.

Although the women hope that their strength in numbers will call attention to their cause, they remain realistic.

While they are aware they may lose the battle, they are prepared to take the war all the way to the Supreme Court, a process that Tapiru and Mio Tanaka of the Japanese-Filipino Center, who is assisting the mothers with their case, estimate may take as long as five years.

“This is a landmark case,” says Tanaka. “It goes to the heart of Article 2 of the Japanese Nationality Law, one of the basic laws of the land.”

Cesar Santoyo of the Center for Japanese-Filipino Families estimates that there are between 60,000 to 80,000 Filipino women coming to Japan each year.

As the stagnating economy and falling birth rate have led to calls for more immigration, handling even the present immigration population is proving difficult for the Japanese government.

Attention desperately needs to be called to immigration and citizenship issues, in particular the implications of Article 2, says Tapiru.

“Most Japanese don’t know about this,” she says.

“I want to let the Japanese know that they have this strange law.”

Tapiru and the other mothers have come in for some criticism from those who believe their case is designed primarily to secure the benefits of citizenship for themselves.

But Tapiru rejects such claims.

“This is not for myself,” she says. “This is for the sake of the children.”

And the case is exacting a financial as well as mental toll.

To offset the costs, with the help of the Nishi Kawaguchi Filipino Network (KAFIN), the Japan-Filipino Center (JFC), and the Center for Japanese-Filipino Families (CJFF) the women have sough to raise funds through selling raffle tickets, holding talent contests, and other activities designed to raise awareness as well as cash.

The base of all this activity is the KAFIN office in Nishi-Kawaguchi.

Founded in 1998 by Agalyn Salah Nagase, KAFIN acts as a lifeline for Filipino women in Japan providing counseling, language lessons, information on legal matters and sometimes a refuge from abusive spouses.

But “most of our clients come for child recognition issues,” says Nagase, who estimates that KAFIN fields at least 7 to 10 phone calls a day from Filipino women throughout Japan.

“If we just stop and observe,” says Nagase “nothing will happen.”

“But for the solution to Tapiru’s problem, all she can do at the moment is wait and hope.”

“I want to succeed this time,” says Tapiru.

“This is not only my dream. It is a dream for the next generation of children. If we don’t win this case, I will be very sad. My dream will wash away again.”