Lawyer putting foreigners first

Goal to provide access to legal advice for all

by Masami Ito

Masako Suzuki has dedicated her career to giving legal support to foreigners living in Japan. Starting Monday, she will become the first head of the new Section of Legal Assistance for Foreigners at the Tokyo Public Law Office.

The section will specialize in giving legal advice to foreign residents on both criminal and civil cases, ranging from refugee assistance and visa applications to divorces and labor issues.

During a recent interview with The Japan Times, Suzuki noted there were already many law firms catering to foreign companies and business-related issues but the new section in unique in that it will be able to reach out to individual foreigners.

“With the diversification of nationalities of foreigners in Japan, legal service has become limited,” Suzuki said. “Foreigners living in Japan are also members of society supporting the country, and they must not be left behind.”

Suzuki also serves as secretary general of the Lawyers Network for Foreigners, a group of 833 lawyers nationwide working on various issues related to foreigners that was founded in May 2009. And the setup of the new legal section at the Tokyo Public Law Office is a part of their activity to increase the number of lawyers specializing in foreigners’ issues as well as improving the quality of their legal service.

But this new legal section is only a midway stop for lawyers like Suzuki. She said they eventually want to establish an independent law firm and ultimately create a core system to provide service to foreigners throughout Japan and not just in urban areas.

“Neither the new division for foreigners nor an independent law firm is our goal,” Suzuki said. “We need to continue to make efforts to realize a system in order to provide legal access to foreigners all over Japan, including rural areas.”

Suzuki currently serves as an attorney at Alt Law Firm in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward but will become a full-time member of the public office as of Nov. 1. Established in 2002, the Tokyo Public Law Office is located in the Ikebukuro district and was the first official law firm backed by the Tokyo Bar Association.

Currently with 15 lawyers, the office aims to give legal access to all people, including those with financial difficulties.

“Our belief is that foreigners should also essentially have equal access to legal service,” Suzuki said. “And we were able to (work together) with the Tokyo Public Law Office because our principles matched.”

Commemorating the new division, free legal consultations will be available for foreigners on Sunday at the Tokyo Public Law Office. With the assistance of the Center for Multilingual Multicultural Education and Research at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, the service on that day will be available in 13 languages including Japanese, English, French, Spanish, Burmese, Thai and Mandarin.

Meanwhile, at the new department, languages the lawyers themselves can directly communicate in include English, Japanese and Korean, but the office will provide interpreters for other languages if and when necessary.

“One of the major reasons why lawyers are reluctant to take on cases involving foreigners is the language barrier,” Suzuki said. “We’d eventually like to be able to put together a list of interpreters to provide the information” to lawyers.

Since getting her law degree in 1999, Suzuki has been active in various human rights issues involving foreigners, from asylum-seekers and illegal overstayers to Japanese and foreign parents whose children were taken away by their spouses after failed international marriages.

The attorney said the general attitude toward accepting foreigners in Japan has become more negative now since the Justice Ministry launched a five-year campaign in 2004 to reduce the number of illegal foreign residents by half.

“Japan has become more exclusive against foreigners recently,” Suzuki said. “There is no way that I can say Japan has become an easier place to live in than before.”

But with the low birthrate and aging society, the government has acknowledged the need to bring in foreigners.

Suzuki, however, pointed out that Japan has no fundamental policy on foreigners. “I think we are in a critical state because the government knows that the country needs foreigners but has yet to establish a clear policy,” Suzuki said. “Japan needs to squarely face the issues of foreigners in Japan — without it, there is no globalization or anything beyond.”

Free legal consultations for foreigners will be available Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Tokyo Public Law Office, Ikebukuro SIA Building 2F 1-34-5 Higashi-Ikebukuro, Toshimaku, Tokyo. Call (03) 5979-2880 or visit www.t-pblo.jp/slaf/