A death in detention in Tokyo and a bitter belated farewell

by Graeme Messer

Special To The Japan Times

Late last year, former Saitama resident Graeme Messer came across a Views from the Street column in which foreign interviewees in Tokyo talked about their experiences with the local immigration authorities. This prompted Messer to confront some haunting memories from 2007, when he had a closer brush than many with the authorities at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau near Shinagawa.

‘Kantan desu yo. There’s nothing to it, really,” said Pastor Kenji Wada cheerily, looking over his shoulder at me. “All I do is push this back and forth.” He thumbed a small metal lever near the steering column that served as throttle and brake.

The early-morning start had been my idea. I now sat slumped in the back seat, feeling sluggish — dazed, almost — wanting to be civil yet unsure of what to say. But no matter, for at just that moment the church door nearest the parking lot opened, and we both turned to watch Asae Wada emerge clutching a bible and her handbag. She hurried over to the car and slipped into the passenger seat beside her husband, saying to me more than him, “Sorry to keep you waiting.” I greeted her in return. Pastor Wada gunned the engine and the car crunched over the cold gravel, heading out to the road for Tokyo and the long drive to Shinagawa.

Shinagawa. More than just another business district, or last stop of the shinkansen before it left Tokyo, Shinagawa was to many foreigners synonymous with the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, an institution notorious for the cold demeanor of its staff. For a very small number of unfortunates, this same building represented their final stop in Japan: The fifth floor housed a detention facility for foreigners awaiting deportation. And this detention facility was our destination that morning just before Christmas in 2006.

I glanced at Wada as he drove. A bespectacled gentleman of perhaps 60, he had already announced his retirement from the ministry. This came as no real surprise to me; he had lost the use of his legs several years back after falling from a ladder, which made his job that much harder. But in the final months of his ministry, here he was, toggling the little metal lever and turning the wheel, guiding the car through the traffic, on the last humanitarian mission of his long career.

In her autumn years, Asae had become the quiet enabler of her husband’s work at the Soka Evangelical Free Church in the city of Soka, Saitama Prefecture. She turned to me, holding out a crumpled envelope. “Graeme, take a look at this letter and see if you can decipher Gilbert’s family name,” she said. “He sent this to us from Shinagawa.”

The letter was a scrawled plea for help. Evidently a Ghanaian man, Gilbert, who had attended the church a decade or more ago, had fallen foul of the immigration authorities and been taken to Shinagawa. Why he hadn’t already been deported, and what help he thought Pastor Wada could offer, were mysteries to me. I looked at the name on the back of the letter. Sure enough, it was impossible to make out his family name. Gilbert, his first name, was clear enough. The middle name appeared to be Kwei. But as for the surname, I had as much chance of reading it as Mrs. Wada did. I handed the letter back to her. “I can’t read it either,” I said.

“Years ago, Gilbert organized a Ghana Night at our church,” said the pastor. “It was very successful. The church was packed with people who had come to sample the Ghanaian food, or just out of curiosity. We remember him well.”

Death far from home:  The  Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in Konan, Minato Ward, near Shinagawa, where Gilbert died.
Death far from home: The Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in Konan, Minato Ward, near Shinagawa, where Gilbert died. | KYODO

Two hours later, our party of three sat waiting for Gilbert’s arrival in a fifth-floor interview room. At about 2 meters wide and half as deep, the seating area on the visitors’ side was just large enough for us. Directly in front of us was a divider, with a batter-proof transparent screen of what I guessed to be acrylic glass. On the other side of the screen, where Gilbert would sit, the room was identical to the visitors’ side, except that only one chair was provided, and there was no door to afford privacy from the corridor behind. The room was painted white throughout.

While we waited, I noticed several inscriptions penned on the wall beside me at elbow height. Only one was in English: “I (heart) DADDY”. Another was in the familiar swirling Thai script. These bore silent witness to the wrenched farewells that must have played out in these rooms day after day. We waited silently, the atmosphere heavy with portent.

Suddenly, Gilbert appeared. He was accompanied by an aging security officer wearing a peaked cap. “Ten minutes,” he said, before disappearing down the corridor.

Gilbert, probably in his mid-50s, was of medium height and build. He was wearing a cheap green tracksuit. Beneath his glum demeanor, I detected an air of thankfulness for the fact of our visit.

It had been a decade since Gilbert and the pastor had last seen each other, and how the years had changed them! I supposed that the time of the Ghana Night, with Gilbert triumphantly hosting a large party, and a fit Wada milling among the people with his young family alongside, may have been a kind of zenith for both men. Since then, the pastor had had his accident, with the consequent loss of physical freedom and an unexpected shunt toward retirement. Gilbert, then a worker in the prime of life, and one who had earned a place in the spectacular Japanese economy, now lay languishing in a detention center prior to deportation.

I introduced myself and added, “Pastor Wada asked me to come along in case you need help with interpreting. Otherwise, I’ll let you talk.”

Gilbert explained how he got into trouble. After he left the church in Saitama, he had moved north in search of work. In addition to paid employment, Gilbert had also tried to set up an export business. He had spent considerable time and money assembling a container-load of items to be exported to Ghana. Just as that endeavor was nearing completion, his health failed. Gilbert did not elaborate on that, except to point out that his poor health contributed to him losing his paid job and, in turn, his visa.

Early one morning he was detained by the police for lack of a visa, and was transferred to Shinagawa for deportation. Fearing the loss of the container, Gilbert had spent his remaining funds on legal attempts to resist deportation so that he could claim his property. His funds quickly depleted. This meant that he could no longer afford his deportation air ticket. He understood that he would be sent to do menial labor while his finances slowly built up.

But how is your health?” asked Pastor Wada. “Have you recovered?”

“I’m not feeling well,” Gilbert replied.

“Do you have clothes?” asked the pastor’s wife.

“I have just what I was arrested in,” Gilbert intoned. He looked underclothed to me. It was unfortunate that he did not have a sweater over his tracksuit top.

“How long since you last saw your family?” asked Asae Wada.

“Seventeen years,” came Gilbert’s reply, and I could see the tears shining in his eyes.

“I’ll find out the price for a ticket to Ghana, and then appeal to the church for funds,” said Pastor Wada. “This will take a few weeks, but I will come again with money, and with clothes. In the meantime, you have the Bible to read, and some money for another phone card.”

At that point the tall Japanese officer reappeared behind Gilbert. I remember that as Gilbert stood up, a single tear fell from his left eye onto his cheek. He raised his hand and planted it against the screen, gecko-like, as if to reach out to us. One by one, starting with the pastor, we pressed our hands against the screen to meet his in a sad farewell, all of us choking up as we did so.

The next Sunday, the pastor reported our visit to the congregation and took a collection for Gilbert. After the service, I asked him what would happen if Gilbert used the funds to continue his legal battle. Wada’s response was incisive: What Gilbert does is between him and God. As for us, we do what is right for us to do.

So that was how it would work. There would be a bit of sacrifice from the congregation. Gilbert would be presented with a gratuity, a ticket out of the place as soon as he chose to use it. But it was his decision to make. He could stay and fight or fold and go home to his own country, his own people, his own family.

It was early in the new year when we returned to Shinagawa for the second visit. By this time, Wada had collected sufficient funds for a one-way ticket to Accra, in addition to a bundle of clothes to tide Gilbert over. When Gilbert arrived in the interview room this time, there was a completely different atmosphere.

“I have made the decision to give up on the container,” he said with a smile. “No use crying over spilt milk.” I realized that the container, in which he had invested so much, was in reality a shackle around his feet. Gilbert had found the decision to write it off liberating. He now had clothes, money, everything he needed for safe passage. As soon as the Ghanaian Embassy issued a passport, Gilbert could leave Japan. He would be back with his family after 17 years.

As we raised our hands to the screen in a final goodbye, a happy goodbye, I found it deeply satisfying to have been of real assistance to a man in such difficult circumstances. On reflection, though, I had hardly helped at all: The pastor’s English was easily good enough to communicate with Gilbert. But I had become involved, and would have a firsthand view of all that was to follow.

Six weeks later, I happened to drop by the church midweek. A staff member told me that the church had taken a call from Shinagawa, which was now reporting that Gilbert was in the intensive care unit with pneumonia. The immigration office was apparently trying to contact his relatives, and wanted to know if the church knew any of these details.

This was a blindsiding — a sudden, ominous reversal in the tide of events. I was dumbfounded.

All remaining cause for optimism was scuppered the following day in an email from the church’s English teacher-in-residence:

Graeme, I hope you are having a good week. Mrs. Wada told me this morning that Gilbert died. She said Pastor Wada got a call from the immigration office. His family in Ghana has been notified. That is all the information we have at this time.

My heart sank. Gilbert was a man that I had known — face to face — for a scant 20 minutes, but I was devastated. My head and my heart screamed: He should have already been back with his family in Ghana for a month! His predicament had been solved!

As the days that followed stretched into weeks, I heard nothing else about the situation. After all the help afforded by the church and the Wadas, we were flung, all of us, into an informational black hole, save for the knowledge that it was all over, that Gilbert was dead.

There was no talk about a funeral. Eventually, I asked Pastor Wada if he had heard anything back from Shinagawa. He hadn’t. Instead, he intimated to me his awareness of the weak position of black laborers in Japanese society. For Pastor Wada, the song “Ol’ Man River,” written in a different place and era, was nonetheless evocative of sorry episodes like this.

At the end of the following month, Wada retired from the ministry after 18 years at the church in Soka. He and his wife relocated to Chiba.

In May, the church received a telephone call from a man who identified himself as Ghanaian, but was otherwise unable to communicate effectively with the staff. I was asked to call the man back to find out what we could do for him.

I found out that the man, Wilfrid, was the leader of the local Ghanaian community. Wilfrid had the surprising news that Gilbert’s funeral was to be held that coming Sunday. Further, he wanted Wada to take the service.

“Pastor Wada retired two months ago,” I informed him. “I’m not sure if he’s available, but I could check with him if you like.” Wilfrid urged me to do so. He also asked me to attend the funeral.

I felt sure the word “funeral” must have been some sort of translation error. It had been three months since we were informed of Gilbert’s passing, and it seemed inconceivable that a funeral could be held at such a late stage. Other church members felt that the likely explanation was simply the length of time it might take for Gilbert’s family to organize travel to Japan; now that they were here, they were going ahead with a formal memorial service.

We swung into action. Pastor Wada was contacted. He agreed to officiate at the funeral, coming out of retirement as an act of service to an old friend.

Last rites: Pastor Kenji Wada, with his wife, Asae, to his left, officiates at Gilbert’s funeral in June 2007 in Urawa, Saitama Prefecture. | COURTESY OF GRAEME MESSER

I arrived at the ceremony hall in Urawa shortly before the funeral was scheduled to commence. A group of African mourners had already assembled in the broad, asphalted grounds, in front of a pastel-colored prefab building. The prefab consisted of small viewing rooms, side by side. Off ahead of us was the main building, in dark brown brick. I quickly spotted the pastor and his wife. They introduced me to Gilbert’s son and nephew, the only relatives who were able to attend.

I also spoke with Wilfrid. He was aware of our visits to Shinagawa and thanked us for all we had done. “One question, though,” I put to him. “How come the funeral is today, when Gilbert died in February?”

“The funeral was delayed due to legal proceedings,” he told me. “We are convinced that Gilbert’s death is the result of negligence on the part of the immigration authorities. After his death, we took out a legal injunction requiring them to perform an autopsy, which the government contested. During the litigation, Gilbert’s body was frozen.” Wilfrid paused before continuing. “The government has stalled us at every turn. Eventually we had no choice but to go ahead with the funeral. And those three,” he said scathingly, indicating a trio of Japanese men standing away from the group of Africans, “will be very relieved when the funeral is over.”

“Who are they?” I asked.

“Immigration officials,” he replied. “From Shinagawa. They’re paying for the funeral.”

I felt that I had seen something like this before. In my own country, Australia, the prevalence of aboriginal deaths in custody had caused such a crescendo of outrage among indigenous communities that the government had eventually convened a royal commission to examine the matter. More recently, there had been unrest on the Great Barrier Reef community of Palm Island, following a death in a police cell. Enraged locals had rioted, setting fire to the police station and other buildings. Now, as then, the anger was palpable.

With only a few minutes remaining before the service was to start, I entered the viewing room. At the back was a plain pine box on a pair of trestles. The box was closed, but as I approached I saw a small cutout in the lid, over the face, windowed by a thin sheet of what appeared to be clear acrylic. I peered into the still, lifeless face. Gilbert’s mouth was tightly shut, almost as if it had been sewn shut; he was not recognizable as the man I had seen at Shinagawa.

At the appointed time, Pastor Wada took his place near the casket and began the funeral. A Bible passage was read, hymns sung; a couple of friends gave brief eulogies. The funeral was as simple, as unaffected, as the pine box before us.

Following the brief ceremony, Gilbert’s son and nephew positioned themselves at either end of the casket and rolled it out into the apron area, toward the crematorium building. The other mourners straggled behind, forming a procession. A gilded, chest-high Buddha was stationed by the entrance, seated on the smooth marble floor.

The procession entered the crematorium, where three staff were awaiting our arrival. Gilbert’s son and nephew wheeled the casket to the staff, before stepping back into the semicircle of mourners that had gathered around. It was all formalities now. Taking off their peaked caps, the three bowed to us simultaneously as a mark of respect. One of them then opened the small doors of a retort, and the others rolled the casket in. The pastor and his wife began singing “Amazing Grace,” and many joined in.

The sound of weeping rose as a grim counterpoint. Gilbert, Gilbert of the Ghana Night, was leaving us: a life lost, a body surrendered to the flames.

Paying their respects: Pastor Kenji Wada (left), his wife, Asae (second left) and Graeme Messer (right) attend Gilbert’s funeral in Urawa. | COURTESY OF GRAEME MESSER

The upper-level waiting room we retreated to was not unlike the dining section of a small family restaurant. I sat at a table near the door with the Wadas. A waitress wended her way among the tables with a drinks trolley, offering the usual selection of bottled and canned beverages. People spoke in hushed, somber tones.

Over the course of an hour or more, the mood lifted. Garishly dressed latecomers, arriving even at that point, were given hearty welcomes by those who knew them. Someone was circulating around the room, handing out flyers for the next Ghanaian social event. I saw high fives; I saw men leaning back precariously on chairs, roaring with laughter. The room had come to resemble a jovial party.

A uniformed staff member entered the room with a bow. It was time.

When everyone had assembled in the crematorium, one of the staff opened the retort doors and rolled out the metal tray. Heat shimmered off the remains, visible now as a cream-colored powder interspersed with larger bone fragments. The only piece of bone that I could recognize was the top of the skull, with its scribbly suture lines. The dreadful finality of it all left me totally numb.

We were then led into a much smaller room. In the center was a table, readied for our arrival. There were four pairs of chopsticks in their paper sheaths, much like those in a high-end restaurant, although longer and thicker. A heavy earthenware urn sat to one side.

The man in the peaked cap put the tray containing Gilbert’s remains onto the center table. With gloved hands, he deftly took a pair of chopsticks and removed the largest bones from the tray, including the top of the skull. He then asked the relatives to come forward.

Gilbert’s son stepped out of the semicircle. The young man picked up a bone fragment with the chopsticks and deposited it in the urn. Gilbert’s nephew was next. After that, the staff member called upon everyone to step up and do the same. One by one, slowly and solemnly, they stepped forward, deposited a bone, then returned to the semicircle and passed the chopsticks on.

Beside me, some African ladies convulsed, refusing to partake in this Japanese ritual. Suddenly, someone was standing directly before me, holding the chopsticks out, and looking at me inquiringly. Out of respect for Gilbert, I decided to take part.

I stepped forward, alone in front of the tray, mesmerized before that sepulchral sight. Bone fragments were half-sunk in the powder. I picked out a piece at random; it was feather-light, porous, with a fine inner webbing. The human condition, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, played out right in front of my eyes. I turned and released the piece over the mouth of the urn. It fell to rest among the fragments already there.

Final journey: The casket is wheeled out of the viewing room after the funeral service for Gilbert.
Final journey: The casket is wheeled out of the viewing room after the funeral service for Gilbert. | COURTESY OF GRAEME MESSER

We moved out to the parking lot, into the glare of sudden sunlight. I made sure to shake hands one final time with Gilbert’s relatives and with Wilfrid. I noticed Pastor Wada talking to the three immigration officials. Soon after this, he and his wife approached and asked if I wanted a lift.

“The officials told me their side of the story,” he began, as we moved toward the car. “They know the Ghanaians are upset, even suspicious, about Gilbert’s death. But it was just a case of sudden illness. He was treated by a doctor at Shinagawa, but to no avail. I suspect he didn’t care for his health properly during those long years of living alone.”

Years later, my work would involve contact with multitudes of death certificates. I became all too familiar with the classic train of events leading an otherwise healthy older person to die suddenly of pneumonia. It began with a fall, resulting in a broken femur or hip. The patient was then confined to a hospital bed for weeks, immobilized, with no prospect of weight-bearing activity. In this state, pneumonia came easily.

My job analyzing causes of death at the Australian Bureau of Statistics has taught me that every swan song comes with a backstory. What was the back story to Gilbert’s pneumonia? A pre-existing condition as Pastor Wada suspected? Or something that Shinagawa wanted hidden? Without an autopsy, there would be no answers to these gnawing questions. We already knew all we would ever know.

I slumped down in my seat in the back of Pastor Wada’s car, dazed — shell-shocked, really — with nothing to say. Through the window I saw the three Japanese men getting into a taxi. I saw Gilbert’s son with his eyes raised heavenward, walking away from everybody else, clasping a box wrapped in colored paper close to his chest.

In front, Pastor Wada thumbed the small metal lever and the car moved out of the parking lot, heading back to my home in Soka.

Some names, including that of the deceased, have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals concerned. Comments:

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