In 1982, Father Valentine D’Souza arrived at St. Ignatius Church in Yotsuya with a sense of mission: As the first Indian national sent to minister in Japan, he believed it was his responsibility to provide an inclusive place of worship for foreign residents of the world’s largest city. His early attempts to establish a congregation coincided with Japan Inc.’s increasing need for migrant labor and a corresponding first wave of immigration from Africa. In D’Souza’s words: “There were certainly a lot of Africans.”
D’Souza noted early on that African congregants were socially isolated, so he made church rooms available for Africans-only meetings — meetings that leaders in Japan’s Nigerian and Cameroonian communities now credit for coalescing their civic organizations. He enabled Africans to attend the English-language Christmas Mass (held at midnight) by inviting parishioners to sleep in the church. When he learned Africans were delaying marriage to their Japanese partners because they couldn’t afford a reception, he made the church’s hall available. He asked only one thing of newlywed expats: that they begin attending Mass in Japanese. For the sake of their future children, they’d need to learn the language and, more than that, to integrate.
When D’Souza left the church in 2004, its foreign congregation had grown larger than its Japanese counterpart. Several of the programs he instituted persist, including a professionally staffed Japanese literacy program. Many of the African immigrants whose marriages he performed and whose children he baptized — including current Nigerian Union President Kennedy Fintan Nnaji — have emerged on the other side of the struggle for integration D’Souza hoped to help them weather.
The results have been mixed. The largest Nigerian civic organization in Japan recently experienced a surprising schism over issues of integration. Dysfunctional Japanese immigration policies have lately led to a sharp increase in incarceration rates among African immigrants, particularly newcomers. And a growing number of Africans have given up on integration in favor of living a double life: married with children in both Japan and Africa.
“In some countries, you have an income gap. Here, in our community, we have an integration gap, and it’s getting bigger,” says Okeke Christian Kevin, departing president of the Nigerian Union. “More and more, we see a division between people who believe that Japan is their home, and people who no longer understand that feeling.”
Duru Gerald, who hails from Nigeria’s Imo state, has attended St. Ignatius for 22 years, and recognizes that without D’Souza’s support, he might not have stayed in Japan.
“Many of us didn’t have visas,” Duru explained. “Father Valentine told us the law didn’t matter — God wants us to have fulfilling lives.”
The life Duru built highlights several of the phenomena that have affected migrant integration. Before marrying in Japan, Duru informed his wife that he would eventually (if not permanently) want to live in Nigeria again. But in 2008, when he’d built a home for his family in Imo and went to visit it with his wife, she balked and demanded a divorce.
Duru raised their two children alone until 2012, when he remarried during a visit to Nigeria. His current wife moved to Japan with their infant son in 2013. His ex-wife has not come to visit their children since the divorce, but Duru counts himself lucky: Many divorced members of the Nigerian community report problems with parental child abduction or illegal divorce obtained via the forging of their signatures.
Duru’s current marriage is among the least complicated examples of a wider phenomenon: As long-term African expatriates enter their third and fourth decades living in Japan, more are marrying in Africa and bringing their wives to join them. Unlike Duru, many also remain married to their Japanese spouses. Families of these Japanese spouses sometimes provide immigration guaranty and financial support to second wives arriving from Africa, who are portrayed by their husbands as sisters or cousins. I spoke separately with seven women who had arrived in Japan this way. Five of them live in apartments paid for by their husband’s Japanese in-laws.
“It’s easy to call it exploitation,” said Chuks, a Nigerian national whose name I agreed to withhold, “but if you knew the Nigerians doing this, you would see they struggled so much, maybe 20 years, to make a life here. It wasn’t possible because of racism.”
Chuks, a father of two, plans to marry his Nigerian fiancee this year. He says he will seek permission from his Japanese wife by explaining that he doesn’t want to break up the family but needs to re-establish his connection to Nigeria.
“If she wanted to visit Nigeria with me, wonderful,” he said. “But she would never go.”
Chuks said his decision to “give up on Japan” came after he was prosecuted for working in a garage that disassembled and exported stolen vehicles. The other employees arrested were quickly released, but authorities kept Chuks for a year because he refused to implicate additional suspects (on the advice of his attorney). Throughout, he was exposed to prolonged, punitive interrogations, Chuks said. Court officials regularly discouraged him from requesting interpreters due to budget concerns, and his public defender abandoned the case, forcing Chuks to hire him as private counsel. Court documents corroborate his account. Chuks put it succinctly: “Their system wanted to destroy me.”
Professor Hisashi Matsumoto, an anthropologist at Yokohama National University who researches Japan’s African diaspora, says that Chuks’ shifting sense of geographical destiny reflects a pattern among African expatriates, many of whom are choosing to marry, have children, build homes and start businesses in Africa, often without informing their Japanese spouses. Matsumoto says this shift is accompanied by its own “discourse of disappointment,” fueled by two anecdotes widely circulated in the Nigerian community.
In one, a Nigerian loses the home purchased with his life savings (earned through factory labor) to his Japanese wife in a divorce, and becomes homeless overnight. In the other, an older Nigerian immigrant retires to Nigeria with his wife and children, who — intimidated by life in Africa — promptly abandon him and return to Japan.
“For Nigerians, family is everything, and the husband is the head of the family — he decides where to live. So that story scares people,” says Okeke Christian Kevin.
The protagonists in these stories declined to be quoted, but acknowledged that the narratives had taken on lives of their own, replete with exaggerations (one night spent on the street before being taken in by friends does not necessarily constitute homelessness, for instance).
“These stories are like myths now,” says Matsumoto. “They have a lot of power to influence behavior in the community.”
Kennedy Fintan Nnaji failed to account for the power of these myths in 2013 when, as chairman of the Imo State Union, he proposed constructing a union hall. The space would host the civic group’s meetings and facilitate contact between Nigerians and Japanese citizens interested in African culture. “We’ll hang a sign above the door,” Nnaji told me at the time. ” ‘We live here.’ This is our home, too.”
Not all of Nnaji’s constituents shared his sense of belonging, and the plan generated widespread opposition. Supporters of Nnaji’s initiative say they noticed a social division between their side of the issue and their opponents: supporters tended to be members with some Japanese literacy, stable marriages and decent jobs in Japan; the opposition was comprised of a larger group, many of whom lacked similar reasons to think of themselves as members of Japanese society.
“Kennedy is a strong leader,” said J.J. Johnson, a union member who supported Nnaji’s initiative. “But he was blind to the feelings of his members. He never expected they would react with so much anger to any plan asking them to invest in Japan as if it is their real home.”
The opposition prevailed, and the hall project was scuttled. Instead, the union would build a shopping mall in Nigeria, a plan several union members described as a “get-rich-quick scheme.” The proposal, predicated on the unrealistic expectation that the Imo state government would provide free land, died quickly and left union politics in a contentious state, in part because Nnaji appointed union members he regarded as incompetent to conduct the mall feasibility study in an attempt to ensure its failure, union members and organizers say. This followed (and perhaps resulted from) an earlier pledge Nnaji had made to provide significant financial backing — using his own money — to the union’s next initiative.
In August, After Nnaji took the reins of the Nigerian Union (an umbrella organization for Nigerian civic groups in Japan, facilitated by the Nigerian Embassy), his former vice chairman, Carl Madumere, was elected to succeed him. The soft-spoken, consensus-building Madumere, who has established a stable business in the notoriously unpredictable containerization industry, denies members’ claims that internal politics are fractious.
“There’s no factionalism,” he said. “We’ve always had two goals: improve our relations with Japan and promote the interests of our members. They are not always easy to balance, but we put our faith in the democratic process of the union.” He paused before adding: “When we came here, I don’t think any of us expected we would stay. Me, too. Sometimes I look around and wonder.”
Justin Okafor, who preceded Madumere as vice chairman, commented on the difficulty of encouraging Africans to integrate.
“No incentives,” he said. “If you learn Japanese — which is the first thing you must do — you are still an African in Japan. You apply for jobs and they tell you, ‘Nihongo jōzu!’ [‘Your Japanese is excellent!’] but you don’t get the job.”
The absence of short-term benefits, explained Okafor (who studied Japanese and attended business school here) distracts immigrants from the long-term consequences of illiteracy and isolation: “You don’t realize until there is too much to lose — when you have a family to support, when you own a business.”
Union members reported various struggles consistent with Okafor’s statements. J.J. Johnson’s bar sustained serious water damage when plumbing in the building malfunctioned due to lack of maintenance. His landlord — a known corporate slumlord — ignored repeated requests to fix the pipes until Johnson’s father-in-law intervened with an attorney.
I also spoke to three union members driven into debt by a well-known fence in Chiba who sells used goods and rents warehouses to Japanese-illiterate foreigners at inflated prices. And Basil Etele, an Anambra state native, was one of several Roppongi business owners scammed by Takashi Tomatsu, a petty racketeer who — according to victim accounts, credit card records and corporate documents — rents credit card machines to foreigners who lack the language skills to obtain them and disappears after payments made through the machines have been processed to his account.
I asked Etele whether such incidents affect his perception of Japan as an adoptive home.
“I’ve been here too long,” he replied. “I’m never surprised anymore. If you want to feel bad for somebody, feel bad for the people who are newly arrived.”
Between appointments with inmates at the East Japan Immigration Control Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, Elizabeth Obueza, a Nigerian advocate for foreign detainees, remarked on the demographic nature of ongoing African migration to Japan.
“The boys coming now are from a poor background. They had hard lives. Many cannot read in any language.”
She gestured to Eric Aidoo, a Ghanaian who only a few moments earlier had been granted provisional release (kari-hōmen) after 10 months of detention.
“You went to secondary school?” Obueza asked. He shook his head.
Aidoo’s journey reflects an emerging pattern among West African immigrants. He was approached by a broker in his home country who offered to sell him an entry visa for Japan, where jobs were ostensibly plentiful. Brokers frequently offer their services on credit, allowing clients to pay via remittance once they find work in Japan. Typically, brokers obtain a short-term athletics visa, and the ease of obtaining these visas has made Japan an attractive target. Japanese immigration officials have nonetheless publicly expressed befuddlement at the sudden increase in refugee applications from Africa, a situation they’ve exacerbated by instituting universal fingerprinting, thereby thwarting the preferred overstay remedy for long-term African expats (leaving Japan and re-entering under an assumed ID).
Advocates for immigration detainees say roughly half of West African immigrants arriving via brokers are detained on arrival. This is a critical pivot point for their welfare: Those detained at the airport will likely be held for a year or more, and their eventual release on kari-hōmen will not provide valid immigration status. Because Japan only accepts a tiny minority of refugee applications, applicants on kari-hōmen have no path to legal status except through marriage, with better chances of obtaining a spouse visa if they have children, “which is an incentive to create broken marriages and broken families,” Obueza says.
Those who are able to enter the country, however, and claim refugee status before the expiration of their entry permit are eligible for a “designated activities” visa and work permit. Such was the good fortune of Simeon Conteh, 28, a Liberian national who departed Monrovia after Ebola had reached the country, but before it arrived in the capital. When Conteh entered Japan, fellow Africans directed him to nonprofit organizations that assist refugee applicants, which helped him obtain housing and apply for financial support from Refugee Assistance Headquarters. He spends days in the park near his flat in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, where he plays soccer with the local children. He also studies Japanese at a nearby nonprofit that provides low-cost classes.
It’s better than the life he left in Monrovia, where Conteh says his brother was murdered and his sister died of starvation when he was young, details he has not reported (because he does not view them as relevant) on his refugee application, which is based on his claim that Muslims want to kidnap him and force him to take his late father’s place at the local mosque.
When I talked to Conteh in the park near his house, he frequently paused our conversations to scrutinize his neighbors while they walked their dogs. Finally, he said, “Dogs here have better lives than the average Liberian,” and ended the interview.
Conteh’s description of his childhood — which produced loud, anguished sobs in the public place where we discussed it — sounded genuine. It’s more difficult to trust the story about his father, which matches stories told by many West African refugees who arrived in Japan via broker-procured sports visas. Brokers often provide narratives for use on asylum applications to their clients at the time a deal is made.
Theo Ngoh, a 40-year-old husband and father of four, reported a similar reason for leaving Cameroon on his own in 2012, when he was detained on arrival in Japan. Ngoh, who walks with a permanent limp because his leg was mangled in a car accident, had obtained a short-term athletics visa to participate in a marathon, an incongruity that apparently did not strike his visa broker as problematic, and about which Ngoh remains cagey: “I love to run,” he told me. “Of course I would have completed the marathon.”
Ngoh spent 11 months in Ushiku. His chronic leg troubles likely saved him from further incarceration. The Ministry of Justice views kari-hōmen as a way to avoid taking responsibility for detainee medical expenses, say lawyers for detainees in ill health, who report having to fight to keep their clients in detention in order to obtain treatment for them.
After release, Ngoh disappeared from a succession of low-wage jobs arranged for him by activists and members of the Cameroonian immigrant community, telling friends he wanted a bigger payday. He bounced around junk yards in Chiba and Tochigi, taking odd jobs and sleeping in empty shipping containers.
The last time I saw Ngoh, he’d just been swindled out of six weeks’ pay by Marcel “Iron Must Obey” Anagoba, a con man accused of owing at least $100,000 of bad debt to various members of the Nigerian community. When he got out of my car, Ngoh turned and said, “The worst pain I have ever felt in my entire life is the pain I have felt here in Japan.”
More disturbing than Ngoh’s travails is the emergence of a shadow economy based on migrant African laborers like him. Visa brokers I spoke with reported receiving kickbacks from “agents” in Japan, a phenomenon they claim became rare after the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy, but which has become typical again over the last five years. Agents act as a point of first contact for new arrivals, selling them their first job and driving them further into debt.
One Ghanaian agent agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity. She explained that she and her husband also receive payments from employers when they successfully refer a migrant to a work site. Of the seven employers I spoke with who utilize illegal migrant labor, six admitted to paying agents of various nationalities, including Japanese.
“The Japanese population is going down,” says Elizabeth Obueza. “Their own people don’t want labor jobs. And the immigration system is trapping people without legal status. Any fool can see what is about to happen.”
I used my last few days of reporting to catch up with sources, which included a trip to Chiba to visit Conteh in his park. He seemed withdrawn. He explained he couldn’t make any progress in his Japanese classes; only one of the instructors spoke English and had any teaching qualifications. The weather was turning cold and he didn’t have a TV. Having finally acquired a phone, he’d run up a ¥64,000 bill calling Liberia.
“I can’t find my mother,” he said. “The number where I call her, she is no longer picking (up).”
I asked how long it had been since he spoke to her.
“Many weeks, maybe. Two months.”
I remembered a day earlier that week when I’d been awakened by an early-morning phone call from his Japanese teacher, who demanded to know how long Conteh had been in the country.
“Please,” the teacher said. “Japanese people are very sensitive to Ebola.”
I went to see Father D’Souza the next day at the Tokyo hospital where he serves as chaplain. By way of apology for his buzzing pager, he said, “People are being born and dying all the time.”
He talked fondly about his days at St. Ignatius, and about the children he’d baptized. He remembered one set of twins in particular, the product of a marriage between a Nigerian parishioner and one of the church’s Japanese teachers. I didn’t tell him the husband had come home to a locked door one evening and never received any explanation for it, nor for the divorce he learned of shortly after. Instead, I asked him if he misses the work he did at St. Ignatius.
“Whenever a baby is born,” he replied, “I say to the parents, ‘Don’t think of this baby as a Japanese baby. Kokusaijin ni shite kudasai,’ [‘Please make this child a global citizen’]. Then I tell them that when this child is as old as I am now, we will be living in a world where we no longer use passports.”
He laughed, and added: “Of course, I’ll be dead by then. When it happens, please think of me.”
Akira Yoshikawa contributed from Tokyo and Shiga. Kenny Gorman contributed from Tokyo. Special investigative support was provided by Onomichi Investigation and Associates/Fukuryukan. Your comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org