Kofu, Yamanashi Pref. – In December, the Tokyo High Court upheld the Tokyo Immigration Bureau’s decision to deport 17-year-old Utinan Won from Japan, the country he was born and raised in his entire life.
Despite the court’s ruling, Won, who was born the son of a visa overstayer from Thailand and who lives in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, has never blamed the country he calls home, thanks in part to a core group of people around him who support his desire to remain in Japan.
“My supporters, teachers, and classmates … have made great efforts to help me stay in Japan even though I come from a different background,” Won said during a recent interview with The Japan Times.
“Even people who don’t know me personally stood up and signed a petition after they learned about the situation I am facing,” he added. “I can’t be more grateful for what people have done for me.”
Won, who is now on provisional release, recently made a key decision: He chose not to challenge the lower courts ruling before the top court. Instead, he is now hanging his hopes of staying in Japan on his ongoing request for a review of the deportation order issued by the Immigration Bureau in August 2014, which could open up the possibility of him being issued a special residency permit.
“Even though my desire to stay in Japan was rejected, I will keep fighting without giving up hope, because behind me there are many people who support me,” he said. “I don’t want to waste what they have done for me.”
In January 2015, Won and his Thai mother, Lonsan Phaphakdee, sued the central government, asking it to cancel the deportation order.
In June 2016, the Tokyo District Court turned down the request. And then in December the Tokyo High Court also ruled that Won should return to Thailand to stay with his mother, who had returned home in September.
The high court ruled it could not determine with certainty Won had established a strong relationship with the local community given he did not attend school until he entered a junior high school in Kofu in April 2013.
Won now lives in Kofu with a Japanese supporter who serves as his guardian. He attends a local high school while working as a nursing care volunteer at a welfare facility in order to gain vocational training.
Should his wish for a special permit be fulfilled, he wants to start working so he can live independently.
“Thailand is not a place where I can return,” Won, who has never been to Thailand, said. “It’s not that I don’t like Thailand, because that’s my mother’s home country. But for me, Japan is my only home.”
Won was born in Kofu in January 2000. His mother overstayed her visa after having been deceived by unscrupulous work brokers who brought her to Japan in 1995. He has no memory of his father, who was also Thai and overstayed his visa, because they were separated when he was a baby.
Won spent most of his childhood moving from one Thai community to another in central Japan as his mother feared getting caught for overstaying her visa. He did not go to school until he entered junior high school, although he started receiving formal Japanese language instruction from a local support group for foreign residents at the age of 11.
“I’ve never thought deeply about my own nationality,” Won said speaking Japanese, his native tongue. “But I naturally thought I was Japanese, because I was born in Japan and there were many Japanese people around.”
But the situation changed dramatically in August 2013 when Phaphakdee turned herself into the Tokyo Immigration Bureau to improve her son’s chances of becoming a legal resident.
A year later in August 2014, the immigration bureau ordered that not only should his mother return to Thailand, but also Won.
“I was shocked. My brain went completely blank,” Won, who can only speak conversational Thai, said.
“I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I wondered if it was because I did not attend elementary school. I asked myself over and over again, but I couldn’t figure out why I had to leave.”
When the district court turned down the request in June 2016, though, the ruling suggested that if “changes in circumstances” regarding Won were taken into consideration, such as his mother leaving the country, there was the possibility of him being issued a special residency permit.
That led to Won’s mother returning to Thailand three months later, hoping a higher court would agree to her son being given residency.
But in December, the Tokyo High Court rejected his appeal.
Won said what most shocked him was seeing the judges enter the court room, issue their ruling and then leave “in less than three minutes,” given the impact their decision would have on his future.
“It was a strange feeling,” he said. “I had been waiting for the decision for such a long time, expecting they would, at the very least, explain to me why I had to leave the country. But then it ended so suddenly.”
After the ruling was handed down, Won said he couldn’t stop crying, feeling his entire life in Japan was denied him in a few minutes.
In January, at a gathering in Kofu, Won told his supporters and his classmates from junior high school why he didn’t appeal to the Supreme Court.
“My lawyer told me that if I lose at the top court the only thing the court will give me is a letter telling me that I lost the case. I wouldn’t even see the faces of the judges who made the decision,” he said.
“I wanted to appeal because I wanted to know why my plea was declined … But after learning that, I changed my mind.”
He said he was exhausted from the ordeal.
“My lawyer told me, even if I should win, it would take about two or three years until the decision was made. By then, I would have turned 20,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t stand spending the most important time of my life doing nothing but waiting for a decision.”
Still, withdrawing his appeal was difficult.
“I worried if my decision would disappoint the people who supported me. But I’m not as strong-willed as people think,” the 17-year-old said. “I don’t know how people would react. But I think I’ve done the best I can so far.
“I couldn’t have come this far without people’s help,” he added. “But I decided to move on and start another fight, so I cannot stop here.”
Ironically, if his mother had abandoned him, Won could have stayed in Japan legally, said Shunji Yamazaki, who runs a Yamanashi-based volunteer group that supports foreign residents.
“Usually, foreign children whose parents are unknown are permitted to stay in Japan,” Yamazaki, who has known Won since he was 11 years old, said. “In Won’s case, he was given the deportation order only because — for better or worse — he was living with his Thai mother.”
The nationality law stipulates children born in Japan can receive Japanese nationality if their parents are unknown or if they are deemed stateless.
Yamazaki argues that the current immigration law is flawed when it comes to protecting children’s rights, because it doesn’t allow foreign children born in Japan to stay even if they wish to.
Japan upholds the jus sanguinis principle, meaning that Japanese citizenship is attributed by blood, as opposed to the jus soli principle upheld by such countries as the United States, where citizenship is decided by location of birth.
“From a child welfare standpoint, I think all foreign children born in Japan should be allowed to stay in Japan in the first place. Then, if parents want to return home together with their kids, it’s their choice,” he said.
“It’s about giving them a choice, not forcing separation. In Won’s case, I believe the courts and immigration bureau feared they would be criticized if their decision forced a separation between mother and child if they ordered only the mother to be deported.”
Yamazaki said Won made the right choice by withdrawing his appeal to the top court because he should not sacrifice his life any longer by being bogged down in a drawn-out court battle.
“But the decision was a great loss for Japan,” he said. “I believe it was a good opportunity for Japan to reform current immigration law and adapt it more to protecting children’s rights.”
Yamazaki believes Won will likely win residency permission from the Immigration Bureau. That is because his mother has already been deported to Thailand and he has established a strong relationship with the local community since the deportation order was issued more than two years ago.
“I don’t want to believe there is even one country that refuses a child who was born and raised in that nation and who speaks their language as a mother tongue to continue their life in the country,” he said.
Support of classmates
When Won first showed up at his junior high school, Shin Yasuda, 17, thought he was an exchange student from Thailand.
But he soon realized that Won was “just another Japanese student” who loves to play video games, enjoys watching online videos and always tries to make people laugh, Yasuda, who became Won’s best friend, said.
“He soon became an essential member of our classroom thanks to his cheerful, friendly character,” he added.
When Won eventually told his classmates about the deportation order he was facing, the classmates and their parents launched a fundraising campaign and a petition drive to urge the state government to allow him to remain part of their community.
“We didn’t want him to feel alone,” Yasuda said.
“There was not much junior high school students could do, but we always wanted to provide whatever support we could to help our friend. If my best friend says he wants to stay in Japan, I will support him with whatever help I can offer.”
Despite the hardships, Won said he has never regretted being born in Japan.
“In fact, I’m a much stronger person than before, thanks to the people who are around me,” he said. “I was a very shy kid. I couldn’t even look people in the eye when talking to them. But, after I revealed my situation, my friends kindly accepted me and helped me. Now, I’m much more confident than before.”
Although the immigration system has worked unfavorably against him, Won said he understands that the laws are necessary for the government to protect the people.
“Some people say Japan is a safe country thanks to its rigorous laws, and I believe that’s true,” he said. “There are people who support me, and there are also people who reject me. The only thing I can do is to stay strong and work toward my goal.”
Asked what he wants to do if he gets the special permit, Won said, “I would like to work hard and earn money to stand on my own feet. Then, I want to visit my mother (in Thailand) — as a tourist,” he added.