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Neither here nor there: the families torn between Nigeria and Japan

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During a visit to southeastern Nigeria in early 2014, Andy hires laborers to begin construction on a tract of land he owns north of Onitsha’s city center, the most promising of three properties he purchased with profits from his two nightclubs in Tokyo’s Kabuki-cho entertainment district. Word spreads that an entrepreneur living abroad is developing the site, and Andy’s workers are soon attacked by a group of machete-wielding locals who say the government never compensated them when the land was originally expropriated.

Andy blames himself for leaving the plot empty too long; vacant land attracts extortionists. But it’s good luck he’s home when it happens, and better luck the land has turned out to be worth fighting over — a renowned businessman has begun developing the adjacent plot, promising to turn it into one of the nation’s premier dining and entertainment complexes.

For the first time since he traveled to Japan to help his brother ship auto repair equipment back to Nigeria in 1997, Andy, whose parents lost their life savings decades earlier at the end of the Nigerian Civil War, believes he is an important step closer to securing a middle-class life for his family. He is 46 years old. In Tokyo, he is married to a woman who has never wanted children. Nor has he — not in Japan. He is also married in Nigeria, to Joy, 29, who is three months pregnant with their first child. They live behind another of his investment properties, an apartment complex. Their house is big for two, small for a family. He can manage, at best, three months a year in Nigeria.

He petitions the state police commissioner for help and thereafter finds himself standing in the spot where his workers had been attacked, feigning negotiation with a group of armed villagers while a detachment of police lay an ambush nearby. At his signal, the police emerge and assault Andy’s fleeing antagonists, then place them under arrest. As the violence unfolds, Andy is seized by an adrenaline-fueled surge of disquiet. Later, he explains: “Happy at home, safety abroad. See the problem? You need both to raise children.”


Andy’s comments encompass an expanding phenomenon, identified by civic leaders in Japan’s Nigerian community, discussed by academics whose research focuses on Japan’s African diaspora, and explored by a yearlong Japan Times survey of Nigerian immigrants and their nuclear families. Wary of continued volatility in Nigeria, alienated from Japanese society too acutely to consider living in Japan after retirement, many immigrant parents are discovering that their culturally and geographically bifurcated desires pose distinct risks to the stability of their families.

“We observe similar patterns in other countries where Nigerians live,” explains professor Lai Olurode of the University of Lagos. “For instance, Nigerians believe it is a moral responsibility to look after one’s parents as they age. In countries with public benefits for the old and sick, this isn’t part of the social fabric. The thought of aging without the presence of one’s children creates a panic for Nigerians abroad.”

According to Hisashi Matsumoto, a professor at Yokohama National University, this pattern is more pronounced in Japan — a nation of elevated cultural barriers — due to the larger gulf that may form between immigrants and their children. “It can be difficult to raise a child whose cultural identity is not overwhelmingly Japanese,” he explains. “A Nigerian in Japan is more likely to feel that his children have become strangers than a Nigerian in Britain.”

As the eldest children raised in Nigerian-Japanese families reach the age of majority and begin to identify themselves as culturally Japanese adults, civic leaders in Japan’s Nigerian community have expressed newfound urgency about intervening to prevent the estrangement of children from their parents. The current president of the Nigerian Union’s Kanto branch, Odabi Obianke Abraham, was elected on a promise to prioritize cultural programs for members’ children.

“We have reached a complicated juncture,” he says. “Japan is not a happy place to raise a minority child. But it is a safe place, and a place where income is reliable if you can get it. The only real contribution we make is how we teach our sons and daughters. Can we show them who they truly are?”

In May, Odabi’s organization inaugurated an annual Children’s Day celebration. More than 120 children of Nigerian immigrants attended with their parents. A series of cultural seminars is also planned for next year.

Interview responses provided during The Japan Times’ survey reflect Odabi’s assessment of his constituents’ collective sentiment. Out of 177 Nigerian parents interviewed, 80 percent agreed with the statement “If my family’s safety and comfort would not be put at greater risk, I would rather live with them in Nigeria.” Seventy-five percent nonetheless agreed with an opposing statement: “If I did not fear discrimination from my own family members, I would remain in Japan for the foreseeable future.”

According to experts, civic leaders and survey respondents, this ambivalence has already undermined family cohesion. Divorce rates are high and fraudulent divorces common in African immigrants’ marriages. Parental child abduction is also widespread. A growing number of Nigerian immigrants are living double lives, married in Nigeria and Japan, often without disclosing this decision to either partner. Doctors in Nigeria and mutual support groups for women whose husbands work abroad say that anecdotal evidence suggests an increased incidence of miscarriages among Nigerian women whose husbands live in Japan.

“As a community, we are desperate and confused on the matter of our children,” says Felix Osaigbovo, chairman of a mutual support organization for Japan returnees living in Benin City, 150 km west of Onitsha. “For now, the dream is to come back to Nigeria with our children, so we look to the very few who have succeeded on that issue.”

Emeka Igwilo is among the returnees whose names surface in discussions of successful repatriation. Emeka returned to Nigeria in 2008 with his wife, Yoko, and their two sons, now 10 and 16. Previously, he had built an import-export business in Japan using saved wages from a full-time welding job. When exchange rates and cheap Chinese electronics took the bottom out of his enterprise, Yoko agreed to move to Nigeria. They settled in Abuja. Emeka enrolled his children in an international school, where they have excelled. The eldest is now preparing to apply for college. Emeka wants him to go abroad, but not to Japan.

When I first visited Emeka in 2013, he was bemused by the notion that his return had become part of the Nigerian community’s increasing tendency to mythologize the process of repatriation. “See this?” he said, indicating the cabana-style bar and restaurant he’d opened. “Anywhere else, it would be too much a gamble. In Nigeria, we think of it as a stable business.”

He explained the connections and bribes he’d needed to put in place to open the business, and enumerated the risks it still required, among them the possibility that officials from the city’s Department of Development Control would show up with bulldozers and ransom the site. Still, it wasn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Every night brought him a little closer to breaking even.

From the restaurant, Emeka drove to Federal Staff Hospital, where he wanted to review the progress of his other project. “It’s a handshake agreement,” he explained. “The hospital director asked if I could build an annex, no money up front. I said yes. If I’d said no, someone else would have taken the job. Right now, I don’t have the money to finish it. I’m relying on God.” Each of his ventures was a hedged bet against the other, he explained, in a country where breaking even is not nearly the worst possible outcome.

It was late when Emeka returned from the hospital, ready for sleep, and frustrated that he’d spent the night’s revenue from the bar attending to his other project’s minor crises. But it was also a Friday, and his sons, restless from the school week, were hoping to go out. We went for a late dinner at City Park, where Emeka was shocked by the pile of concrete and twisted rebar where a restaurant like his had once stood; Development Control had bulldozed it the night before.

On the ride home, his children spoke along in unison to every word of every song that played on a local hip-hop station, their voices automatic, as if delivering a forced recitation. “What else can they do with their minds?” Emeka said. “Nothing too much for children to do in Nigeria because of security reasons.”

He pulled up to a police checkpoint. An officer, holding an assault rifle and tottering a little bit — drunk, Emeka thought — pressed his flashlight against the rear passenger window, and Emeka’s younger son jumped, as if something had stung him through his seat. A few weeks earlier, Yoko and both of the boys had been held for two hours by a traffic officer who forced his way into the car.

“Tell those people who want to bring their children home,” Emeka said, after he’d pulled the car away, “that hardship is real everywhere.”


According to a 2014 estimate provided by the Embassy of Japan in Abuja, 56 households in Nigeria include children who hold Japanese citizenship; all but one are located in the vicinity of Abuja or Lagos. Consular officials and Nigerian community leaders say it’s difficult to know how many of these are single-parent households; marriages between Japanese and Nigerian citizens evolve after relocation to Nigeria, sometimes ending in divorce or entering a persistent state of estrangement.

“Whether the marriage remains happy or not, the mother may spend less time in Nigeria as the years go by,” remarks Ernest Obi, a civic leader in Japan’s Igbo community. Of 35 returnee parents interviewed, 20 agreed with the statement “My Japanese spouse leaves Nigeria for extended periods.” Seventeen agreed that “I am not certain whether my Japanese spouse is considering separation or divorce.”

Emanuel, the only parent in Nigeria raising children with Japanese citizenship outside of Abuja or Lagos, experienced a dramatic example of this uncertainty after returning to Benin City in 2011. His mother had suffered a stroke, and he agreed with his wife, Chiho, that he should return to Nigeria with their three children until his mother’s condition had stabilized. Shortly before Emanuel left Japan, Chiho discovered she was pregnant, and confessed to a lengthy affair with a work acquaintance. They reconciled and agreed that Emanuel would still go home with the children. It wasn’t until Chiho gave birth, while Emanuel was in Nigeria, that he learned the baby was his.

As Emanuel’s mother’s rehabilitation dragged on and his children grew accustomed to living in Benin City, Chiho’s attitude toward his eventual return also changed. Initially, she’d been impatient; then she had favored a transition that wouldn’t disrupt the children’s schooling; finally, she seemed avoidant of the subject. Her communications became erratic, distressed: She had lost her job. She was running out of money. She would have to leave the apartment. There would be nothing left to come home to.

Emanuel rushed back to Tokyo in July 2014, leaving his children in the care of his extended family and borrowing money for his flight. On arrival, he found his apartment had been emptied of his belongings. Chiho — who had not lost her job after all — had also told the authorities that the apartment was abandoned, triggering the repossession process.

When Emanuel reached her by phone, she demanded a divorce. Lacking the means to support himself in Tokyo, and not wanting to prolong his time away from his children, he completed the paperwork and called Chiho to schedule a time for them to file it together, but she no longer answered her phone.

In the months that followed, Emanuel searched for pro bono legal representation and worked as a short-order cook. After securing an attorney, he learned Chiho had already gone to court to get a divorce based on inaccurate claims about the length and nature of his absence from Japan. She had also withdrawn a large portion of his savings from their joint account and taken what remained of a negotiated settlement paid to him by her lover — now her husband, and the adoptive father of Emanuel’s youngest daughter — when he discovered their affair.

Emanuel’s compatriots advised him to cut his losses. Wronged African husbands, they said, never prevail in Japan’s family courts. But Emanuel had video of Chiho’s most recent visit to Nigeria, which contradicted her sworn statement that she had been unable to locate Emanuel for three years.

His lawyers told him that his friends were right about the lack of precedent — they couldn’t think of an African plaintiff who had obtained a favorable judgment. Many would-be litigants from Africa, they said, are deterred from filing by a widespread perception of racial bias in the family courts.

Darien, a patron of Osaigbovo’s returnee association, was one such litigant. He was incarcerated for petty fraud in Singapore during his Japanese wife’s pregnancy in 1995. After deportation back to Nigeria, he reinvented himself as a successful telecommunications entrepreneur. He used his new wealth to return to Japan and file a lawsuit against his former wife, who had forged his signature on a divorce agreement and taken custody of their daughter.

Darien says he left Japan midway through the legal proceedings when it became clear the court could not provide relief. “She had an affair with my best friend while I was away, and together they stole a great deal of money from me,” he said. “I had proof she forged my signature to obtain a divorce, but I was told that if I pursued the case, I could expect yearly visitation at most, which my wife was unlikely to honor.”

Now that Darien’s daughter, Naomi Sato, is nearing the age of majority, he has renewed his attempts to locate her. His former wife does not deny his version, but told The Japan Times it is her intention to keep him separated from his daughter for as long as possible. She will not permit his presence in her life — or her daughter’s — in light of the shame and trauma she experienced after his incarceration. “I spent my entire pregnancy alone,” she said. “I took a taxi to the hospital where I gave birth — alone.” She also recalled making the difficult decision to let her father pass on without telling him about his granddaughter, and the pain this caused her mother, who knew about Naomi and agreed to keep the secret.

By October 2014, Emanuel has decided to take his ex-wife to court, seeking damages for the fraudulent divorce she obtained and visitation with his youngest daughter. His time sheets show he is working an average of 71 hours per week, pushing himself to stabilize his finances and remit money to his children. His first purchase for his empty apartment is a fax machine so his attorneys can send word to him while he is at work.

Nightly, he comes home on the last train and calls Nigeria before going to sleep. His children distress him, demanding to know why he lied about how long he — and their mother — would be gone. They thrill him by succeeding in school: His daughter, 12, takes top spot in her class even though she is sick with typhoid for most of the term. They wheedle him for enough money to buy a plasma TV and he is gratified — if they believe he can afford one, then he has saved them from knowing how close to ruin the family has come.

“It’s easy to feel bad for myself,” he says. “But I’m the lucky one: I have the lawyer. I have the evidence. It’s in God’s hands, and God will always take you back home.”


Andy’s son, Jason, is born in November 2014, in Onitsha. Andy is in Japan. He’d known he would be.

He meets Jason for the first time four months later, in the arrivals lobby of Asaba International Airport, where heavy rain and a fuel shortage produce an unusual tumult of taxi drivers, umbrella hawkers and black market fuel vendors. Andy cradles his son nervously. “Like an armful of eggs,” he jokes, surprised at how restless a held infant can be. Joy watches Andy with Jason, standing a little aside. Gradually, as if by instinct, they come against each other and lean down toward the baby, forming a sheltered space around him.

Every subsequent Sunday, Andy drives to his village, 40 minutes from Onitsha, with Jason and Joy, to visit his mother. The early moments of these visits form a routine: Andy’s mother holds Jason while Joy checks her blood pressure, glucose, pulse, and asks a few questions on behalf of the family physician. In these moments, Andy is reminded that his mother would likely have died before Jason was born if Andy and his brother had not been successful enough in Japan to send money home.

In April, one of his visits coincides with a nearby wedding. He is obliged to attend, to feign patience and sympathy when his mother’s neighbors offer him thousands of dollars if he can take their working-age sons to Japan, obliged also to absorb the flash of resentment their faces silently express when he refuses them. The same conversations will await him when he next returns, will remind him of the indelible distinction he has acquired: In Nigeria, he is no longer a person who has lived all along — or lives today — where he comes from.

Andy gets back to Japan on schedule, in early June. There are several anxieties to resume. Business continues its steady decline, fueled by negative media coverage of African-owned bars. The police, with whom he has carefully maintained a productive relationship, now present him with an impossible request: to bring the neighborhood’s other African nightclub owners to a meeting at the precinct. And worries continue to arrive by telephone from Nigeria: The road to his house in Onitsha has been washed away by seasonal rains; the same extortionists who attacked his workers have now filed a lawsuit, and their lawyer has been able to slip fraudulent documents into the court’s records.

“That’s some of what is on my mind,” he concludes, sitting in one of his clubs on a slow Sunday morning in September.

As if in reply, his phone glows on the table; Joy has sent a picture of Jason astride a toy car that a family friend gave him after Andy left, just before Jason’s first growth spurt. It’s too small for him now, but he won’t give it up, and spends hours at a time scooting across the tile floor in Andy’s Onitsha home.

“He’s like a tall duck in a shallow pond,” Andy says, and demonstrates an ungainly, gamboling motion with his arms — until a thought interrupts him mid-gesture, leaving him posed with his elbows out, deciding whether to say it. “Or that’s what I imagine.”

This is the first in a two-part series that concludes here. Most names have been changed at the request of the article’s subjects. Reporting contributed by Ryosuke Mineta, Akira Yoshikawa, Eri Sagayama, Erina Suto and Kenny Gorman. Special investigative support provided by Onomichi Investigation and Associates / Fukuryukan. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Joshua Owoyemi

    I’m worried about the the facts presented by this article. It seems to represent only a part of Nigeria, and a small part so to say. Does it mean that this small part (eastern Nigeria) are the only ones who marry japanese nationals, or are they the only ones covered by the said survey. I want to know.