For years, Arlan and Sarah Calderon fretted over when to tell their daughter, Noriko, that she was different.
Dark-haired and olive-skinned, she looked indistinguishable from the children she walked to school with every day in Warabi, an everyman suburb of Saitama Prefecture. But unknown to her, Noriko’s parents were illegal Filipino immigrants.
In July 2006, the then 11-year-old discovered the family’s secret in the worst possible way when her mother was arrested for overstaying her visa.
In stunned silence, she listened as her parents told her the family would be sent back to the Philippines, a country she had never visited. “I know nothing about life there,” explains Noriko in Japanese, the only language she speaks.
Today, as the family fights to stay in Japan, Arlan regrets not coming clean. “We always intended to tell her but thought that if we did it when she was too young she wouldn’t understand. We just couldn’t find the right timing.”
Sarah had come to Japan on a false passport in 1992; her future husband joined her a year later. Like thousands of other immigrants who arrived during or just after the bubble years, they found that the country turned a blind eye to their illegal status.
“It wasn’t that difficult to live when I came here first,” says Arlan, a construction worker. “Employees didn’t ask about visas.”
But he says everything began to change about five years ago.
In 2003, a joint statement by the Tokyo government, the Justice Ministry, Tokyo immigration authorities and the city police warned of the “growing problem” of illegal immigrants.
“Many illegal residents are engaged in illegal employment. Furthermore, not a small number of them are engaged in crime to get easy money,” it said. “For national security, the problem of these illegal residents requires immediate attention.”
Known as the Kyodo Sengen, the statement signaled a nationwide crackdown on an estimated 250,000 visa over-stayers. Life immediately became tougher for the Calderons, says family lawyer Shogo Watanabe, who believes the crackdown was unfair.
“To some degree, the authorities closed their eyes to these people in the 1990s. Japan needed them to do the hard, dirty jobs others wouldn’t. Like many foreign families, they have lived peacefully and productively here for years. They fell victim to a change in policy. I find that hard to accept.”
The impact of the statement was immediate: Employers were told to scrutinize visas more carefully, police numbers were beefed up around areas of heavy foreign residence, and thousands of overstayers were brought to Narita airport. Sarah Calderon was caught on a police check near Warabi Station.
Her arrest started a two-year battle that is now stalled in legal limbo. Only allowed to stay in Japan on temporary permission from the Justice Ministry, the family faces an impossible choice: return together to the Philippines or leave Noriko behind.
“It is unlikely that the parents will be given residency status, but there is some sympathy for their daughter’s situation,” said a ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity. A decision on the family’s fate is expected at their next immigration hearing on Feb. 13.
The case shares some similarities with the plight of Myanmar refugee Khin Maung Latt and his Filipino wife, Maria Hope Jamili, who fought for years for the right to stay in Japan with their two children, who were born in the country. The family eventually won, says lawyer Watanabe, who also defended them.
“The key factor there was that the deportation order would have split that family apart because they were from different countries. In this case, the Calderons are both from the Philippines. The fact is, however, that sending Noriko back will inflict a lot of psychological damage. For a start, she would have to return to grade school.”
Winning public sympathy for the Calderons has been more difficult, he says. In December, Fuji TV carried a largely hostile report that shocked the family into a monthlong media boycott. “One of the questions they asked was whether I still take a bath with Noriko,” recalls Arlan. “What does that have to do with anything?”
Commentary on many blogs has also been negative. “We can’t allow foreigners who came here illegally to stay,” wrote one critic on the free bulletin board 2channel. “If we do, many more will come to have children here and claim citizenship.”
Watanabe calls comments like that “a joke.” “Do people who say those things have any idea how difficult it is to come to a country like Japan and live for years hiding from the authorities? Do they know what it is like to raise a child illegally here?”
He estimates that there are between 100 to 200 similar cases around the country — illegal families with children who have been born and raised here. Amnesty is unlikely, meaning dozens more legal battles are likely in the coming years. Like Noriko, most of the children speak only Japanese and have never been to the “home” they are being sent back to.
Japan is not the only country where policy on immigrants has taken a harsh turn. Ireland, which has experienced a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe and parts of Africa since the early 1990s, ended automatic citizenship for babies born to foreign parents in 2004. The country has since tried to deport several foreign families.
The U.K. deported over 60,000 illegal immigrants in 2007, or one every eight minutes, according to the country’s Home Office. Britain has also tried to deport several U.K.-born children, including Patrick Wandia Njuguna, whose mother fled Kenya. She was refused political asylum.
What makes Japan unusual, say observers, is its still-contradictory approach to foreign workers. On the one hand, there have been signs of a shift toward a policy the government of the world’s second largest economy has so far avoided: mass immigration.
Last year a group of 80 lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party led by former party Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa proposed allowing foreigners in Japan to increase to 10 percent of the population by 2050, the clearest statement on the issue so far.
“There is no effective cure to save Japan from a population crisis,” said the group. “In order for Japan to survive, it must open its doors as an international state to the world and shift toward establishing an ‘immigrant nation’ by accepting immigrants and revitalizing Japan.”
But Watanabe says such newfound openness stands in stark contrast to the way foreign workers already here are treated. “I want to ask Nakagawa-san and the LDP: ‘If Japan can’t accept families like the Calderons who have been living here for years, how can we invite more?’ “
In the absence of a clear line from the government, he says, the courts interpret the law rigidly, ignoring treaties on the rights of children and the impact of deportation on children like Noriko. Occasional breaks with precedent are rare, though he cites the case of an Iranian woman allowed to stay in Japan last year with her family so she could attend college.
Now 13, Noriko says she “cannot imagine” life in the Philippines. Despite her foreign-sounding name, her friends in Saitama had no idea about her background until they saw her case aired on TV, she recalls. “I was worried but they said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us sooner, we would have helped you.’
“Support like that makes me feel stronger.”
David McNeill writes for the London Independent, The Irish Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and is a coordinator of Japan Focus. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org