Japan makes progress in 2009


As we start 2009, let’s recharge the batteries by reviewing last year’s good news. Here is my list of top human rights advancements for Japan in 2009, in ascending order:

6. The U Hoden victory

(Dec. 21, 2007, but close enough): The plaintiff is a Chinese-born professor at Japan Women’s University who sued for damages on behalf of his Japanese grade-school-age daughter. Abused by classmates for her Chinese roots, she suffered at school and was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder. Professor U took the parents of the bullies to court and won.

Why this matters: In an era when elementary schools are seeing the byproduct of Japan’s explosion in international marriages, this ruling sets a positive precedent both for insensitive local boards of education and parents who want to protect their kids.

5. Strawberry fields forever

(Feb. 11): Fifteen Chinese trainees sued strawberry farms in Tochigi Prefecture for unpaid wages, unfair dismissal and an attempted repatriation by force. Thanks to Zentoitsu Workers Union, they were awarded ¥2 million each in back pay and overtime, a formal apology, and reinstatement in their jobs.

Why this matters: This is another good precedent, treating non-Japanese (NJ) laborers (who as trainees aren’t covered by labor laws) the same as Japanese workers. It is also the subject of the German documentary “Sour Strawberries” ( www.vimeo.com/2276295 ), which premieres in Japan in March.

4. Parental abduction issue

It’s one of Japan’s worst-kept secrets, but not for much longer: Japan’s laws governing access for both parents to children after divorce are weak to nonexistent. Consequently, in the case of international breakups, one parent (usually the foreigner) loses his or her kids. As this newspaper has reported, even overseas court decisions awarding custody to the NJ parent are ignored by Japanese courts. All the Japanese parent has to do is abduct their child to Japan and they’re scot-free. Fortunately, international media this year (America’s ABC News, the U.K.’s Guardian, and Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald) have joined Canada’s media and government in exposing this situation.

Why this matters: Our government has finally acknowledged this as a problem for domestic marriages too, and made overtures to sign the Hague Convention on Child Abduction (for what that’s worth) by 2010. More in the upcoming documentary “From The Shadows” ( www.fromtheshadowsmovie.com ).

3. Non-Japanese get ¥12,000

(Dec. 20): The “teigaku kyufukin” first started out as a clear bribe to voters to “yoroshiku” the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Then complaints were raised about the other taxpayers who aren’t citizens, so permanent residents and NJ married to Japanese became eligible. Finally, just before Christmas, all registered NJ were included.

Why this matters: Even if this “stimulus” is ineffective, it’s a wall-smasher: Japan’s public policy is usually worded as applying to “kokumin,” or citizens only. It’s the first time a government cash-back program (a 1999 coupon scheme only included permanent residents) has included all noncitizen taxpayers, and recognized their importance to the Japanese economy.

2. Nationality Law revision

If a Japanese father impregnated a NJ out of wedlock, the father had to recognize paternity before birth or the child would not get Japanese nationality. The Supreme Court ruled this unconstitutional on June 4, noting how lack of citizenship causes “discriminatory treatment.”

Why this matters: Tens of thousands of international children have lost their legal right to Japanese citizenship (or even, depending on the mother’s nationality, become stateless!) just because a man was too shy to own up to his seed, or didn’t acknowledge paternity in time. This ruling led to a change in the laws last December.

1. Ainu declared indigenous

Why this matters: Because it not only affects the Ainu. The June 6 judgment finally shows how wrong the official pronouncements that “Japan is a monocultural, monoethnic society” have been. It also voids knock-on arguments that enforce ideological conformity for the “insiders” and exclusion for the foreigners. On Sept. 28, it even became a political issue, forcing the unprecedented resignation of tourism minister Nariaki Nakayama from the Cabinet for mouthing off about “ethnic homogeneity” (among other things). Even blue-blood Prime Minister Taro Aso had better think twice before contradicting the Diet’s consensus on this issue.

Proposals to watch in ’09

a) the possible abolition of “gaijin cards”; b) the registration of NJ residents with their Japanese families; and c) dual nationality.

Stay tuned to www.debito.org, and Happy New Year, everyone!

Debito Arudou is coauthor of the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants.” Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments to community@japantimes.co.jp