'A battle for Japan's future'

Calderon case fallout will linger long after parents' departure, writes David McNeill

by David Mcneill

Despite being Japan’s most densely populated area, Warabi rarely causes a blip on the national media radar.

Set in a rusting corner of Saitama Prefecture, the city has two minor recent claims to fame: a communist mayor and the 13-year-old daughter of illegal Filipino immigrants.

An odd place perhaps for two groups with radically different visions of Japan to take to the streets, but this is where neo-nationalists and liberal opponents could be found slugging it out last weekend.

On one side, a party of nationalists crammed into a small park and listened to ringleader Makoto Sakurai, a rising new-right star who turns out for protests in a three-piece suit and watch chain.

“People in other countries are looking at this case very carefully,” Sakurai told the crowd to cheers of “Send illegal foreigners home!” “They see that we are a soft touch. If we allow this girl to stay, many more will come. It’s totally unacceptable.”

Some of the nationalists handed out copies of an article from a Manila newspaper “proving” that the case had received a lot of publicity in the Philippines. “Filipinos now know that if they have a child illegally in Japan, the child will win special rights,” said Takehiro Tanaka.

Hemmed in behind police with riot shields, a group of counterdemonstrators were kept half a kilometer away near Warabi Station. “They’re racists,” spat Ryo Hagitani. “Please don’t mistake their views for those of ordinary people. Japanese people don’t support them. We want foreigners to come here.”

Noriko Calderon, the unwitting target of all this attention, would have heard Sakurai from the cramped Warabi apartment she shares with her Filipino parents. But she was miles away with her mother, thanking supporters who had backed their fight to stay in Japan.

Last month, the family’s six-month legal battle ended when Justice Minister Eisuke Mori gave Noriko a one-year special residence permit, allowing her to live with her aunt and continue school in this city. Her parents, Arlan and Sarah, who came to Japan in the early 1990s on false passports, were sent back to the Philippines on Monday.

“I understand public sentiment in this case but the law is the law,” said Mori. “Illegal entry is illegal.”

Reached despite interventions by Amnesty International and the U.N. Human Rights Council, the decision caused dismay among the family’s supporters and the Calderons’ lawyer, Shogo Watanabe: “The ministry said it didn’t intend to split the family apart but that is what they have done.”

The bitter deportation pill has been sweetened with a little humanitarian sugar: Noriko’s parents will be allowed to return for short stays to visit their daughter in the future, explained Arlan as he prepared for his flight from Narita airport. “We hope to get back next year sometime. We’re so grateful for that because this is a very important time for Noriko. She is still just a child.”

But the Warabi nationalists reacted to the decision with fury, demanding that Noriko be deported too. “It’s the fault of the leftwing media and the communist local government,” said Takao Kambara, one of about 50 rightist demonstrators. “They made people feel sympathy for the Calderons, but the simple fact is they came here illegally. They should all be sent home.”

Walking behind a van blasting out high-decibel venom at the local government, the Hinomaru-waving protesters filed noisily past Noriko’s junior high school. “Shame on Filipinos,” shouted one middle-aged man who held a sign saying: “Kick out the Calderons.” Takehiro Tanaka said they would be back every month until Noriko was put on a plane to Manila. “We can’t allow her to stay or foreigners will exploit our softness. It sends the wrong message to other countries.”

Counterdemonstrators brandishing placards saying: “We are all human,” and “Let the Calderons stay” were kept far behind until the cops swooped in and arrested a man, forcing them to detour to the police station. “They never touch the rightists, only us,” said one angry protester, who declined to give his name. He condemned Japan’s immigration policies, which he said treated foreigners as “disposable and deportable commodities.” “Immigrants like the Calderons work hard and contribute to our society by paying taxes, so they should be forgiven, no matter how they came in,” he said. “In other parts of the world, people live together in diversity and in mutual respect. Why can’t we be the same?”

The protests are a battle for “the future of Japan,” said Hagitani. “Our neighbors China and Korea have grown powerful and we’re saying that we don’t want foreigners. What will they think of this country?”

The twin demonstrations resonated far beyond these narrow streets and again threw Japan’s conflicting attitudes toward immigration into sharp relief. Nationalists say they represent the nation’s silent majority, which fears that the foreign hordes are set to trample through Japan’s carefully built legal barricades. Most view the Calderon case as a wedge issue, the latest in a series of signs that Japan is preparing to invite millions of foreigners to replenish its declining population.

Politicians and business leaders have recently floated the idea of increasing immigrants from about 2 to 10 percent of the total population, but so far have failed to match that with hard policy. Japan’s dismally performing economy has knocked these plans back: Many immigrants are returning home. News that the welfare ministry is effectively bribing foreign factory workers to return to South America has incensed pro-immigration activists, as reported in these pages last week.

The Warabi neo-nationalists appear divided about whether the current level of immigration — still tiny by international standards — is acceptable, though all were quick to deny xenophobia. “I have nothing against foreigners and can accept them to some degree, as long as the come here legally and obey this country’s laws,” explained Daigo Hayashi. “But countries that have allowed mass immigration have failed.” America, the world’s No. 1 economy, can’t be classed as a success because its society is so “chaotic,” he added. “It’s the same in the U.K., France and Australia. Outsiders cause disruption in societies. I can’t be enthusiastic about the idea of bringing in 10 million foreigners.”

Demonstrator Iori Uchida said he would allow “limited” numbers of immigrants in depending on which country they come from. “Europeans and Americans are acceptable, but not Koreans or Chinese. Wherever Koreans go they cause 100 times more crimes than other races,” he said, a claim with no basis in fact.

Although viewed around the Warabi streets as extremists, the nationalists claim they are swimming with the popular tide. Some point to the popularity of nationalist-themed comics like the best-selling “Hate Korea” series, and praise the ministry of education for last week authorizing a revisionist high school textbook that the Seoul government says whitewashes Japanese war crimes.

Sakurai is a leading proponent of the revisionist view in books and articles, arguing that Japan led the liberation of Asia from white colonialists. While his views might relegate him to the margins of commentary in other countries, he is a semi-regular pundit on TV shows here.

But Arlan Calderon says he has been heartened by the messages of support Noriko received from across Japan. “I don’t think the nationalists represent the true views of Japanese people.”

He said letters and petitions helped sustain the family though the fight. “I hold no grudges against the government, or Japan. We’re just sad because we wanted to stay and a lot of people fought for us.”

“Hopefully we’ll be back here soon to see them again.”

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