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Neither here nor there: Stretched between Nigeria and Japan, family ties fray

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This is the last of a two-part series on Japanese-Nigerian families torn between Asia and Africa. The first part can be found here.

On his first night out of jail, Nosa goes back to work soliciting customers for a Roppongi hostess club. Business is slow; two clubs in the neighborhood recently closed. He glances down the block and remarks that the only Nigerian profiting from the evening’s work is a woman selling meat pies out of a Styrofoam cooler.

“If I can settle the matter of my son,” he says, “I might leave this place.”

It is the first time Nosa, 38, has considered departing Japan. He has lived in Tokyo since 2006, earning a livelihood on which his wife and four children in Nigeria still depend. But the loss of his spouse visa following his estrangement from his other, Japanese wife, Taeko, in 2012, has forced him into a cycle of detention and provisional release he is unlikely to escape unless he self-deports.

Before leaving Japan he is determined to ensure that he will not suffer a permanent loss of communication with his 6-year-old son, Ryuma Muratsubaki. Nosa hasn’t spoken to Ryuma or Taeko since Taeko left, but he’s confident she’ll let him visit Ryuma if he offers to sign a cooperative divorce agreement. He knows she is working long hours at a temp job. Divorce would make her eligible for social benefits that could exceed her salary.

He calls her on his break, using a colleague’s phone, but can’t get through. Paul, who lends him the phone, is familiar with Nosa’s travails, having organized a collection among nightlife workers to pay Nosa’s legal fees.

“I thought I had struggled since I came to Japan,” says Paul, who arrived in 1990, “but today I’m grateful I never had to face this one — the loss of my children.”

In August, Paul partnered with retired SDF special forces member Taku Tsuaki to launch Nigeria’s first imagawayaki (azuki bean- or custard-filled shortcake) business. They shipped a griddle to Lagos last month.
In August, Paul partnered with retired SDF special forces member Taku Tsuaki to launch Nigeria’s first imagawayaki (azuki bean- or custard-filled shortcake) business. They shipped a griddle to Lagos last month. | DREUX RICHARD PHOTOS

Paul is a permanent resident of Japan, a status he obtained during a previous, childless marriage to a Japanese national. He, too, intends to return to Nigeria, where his current wife is pregnant with their fourth child. For the past 11 years, he has periodically used his nightclub wages to purchase goods for export to Nigeria, with the goal of moving home once the business stabilizes.

He sympathizes with Nosa, but his mind is elsewhere, on a shipping container of secondhand clothing scheduled to depart within the month — a joint venture with a Japanese investor who has promised to establish an import-export company with Paul if the first shipment proves profitable.

Nosa’s and Paul’s worries — the worries of one street corner on a Thursday — exemplify the challenges faced by Nigerian immigrants whose access to their children has been hindered by incarceration or impoverishment. Responding to a Japan Times survey, 68 percent of Nigerian immigrant parents agreed with the statement, “I am the parent of at least one child in Nigeria or Japan who I have not seen (or did not see) for a year or more.” Forty-three percent of these respondents indicated they could not be near their children while continuing to earn a livelihood; 39 percent claimed that a former or current spouse was withholding access.

Civic leaders in the Nigerian community and social sciences scholars contend that the gradual winnowing of economic and social opportunity for less-integrated immigrants over the past three decades may have already prompted a rapid increase in the number who are unable to participate in the lives of their children.

“Many give up and come back to Nigeria,” says Felix Osaigbovo, whose organization estimates that 1,500 or more children are living without access to their Nigerian parent. “Imagine how many stay out of love for their child, or the need to send money home. They are treading in proverbial water.”

Nosa and Paul fit this description. During his incarceration, Nosa filed an asylum application in order to qualify for provisional release. When his application is rejected, he’ll be detained again. Paul’s attempts to establish himself as an exporter have yet to turn a profit. He estimates he has lost two years of wages trying to launch his business.

According to Paul, returnees like Emeka Igwilo, who fund their repatriation by establishing themselves as exporters, provide the best example for Nigerians hoping to bootstrap their way home. According to The Japan Times’ survey, his feelings are shared by his compatriots. Sixty-three percent of respondents said they had containerized goods for resale in Africa. Only 11 percent had profited enough to improve their finances. Forty-one percent reported losing the equivalent of a year’s income in failed attempts. Still, 87 percent stated a desire to try the business — or try it again — in the future.


 

Emeka Igwilo discusses repatriating to Nigeria with his wife and two sons during an interview at a hotel in Abuja.
Emeka Igwilo discusses repatriating to Nigeria with his wife and two sons during an interview at a hotel in Abuja.

In 2013, Emeka tells me he is betting his family’s future on the success of two projects in Abuja: a restaurant and a hospital annex. In early 2014, the restaurant burns down. Unable to know whether the fire was intentional, he cuts his losses and makes a clean break from the site.

The hospital project, on the other hand, pays out. Actually, he is pleased by both outcomes — they confirm his sense of reality.

“The ‘safe’ business could have killed me, but the risky one paid well, on time,” he says. “Nigeria.”

He uses the money from the hospital to seed his favorite potential project, a student housing complex near Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Awka, the capital of his home state. According to Emeka’s figures, the complex would provide his family with a monthly income adequate to all of their regular expenses, leaving him free to use profits from other projects to send his sons to college abroad.

Yoko — Emeka Igwilo’s wife — and her youngest son, Roy, pose for a photo during a vacation in Japan.
Yoko — Emeka Igwilo’s wife — and her youngest son, Roy, pose for a photo during a vacation in Japan.

Shortly after the project breaks ground, Emeka’s wife, Yoko, is hospitalized for hypertension. Her symptoms persist until summer, when she returns to Japan on a vacation with her sons. She has previously been reluctant to consider the possibility that life in Nigeria doesn’t suit her. Now her sons also express a desire to remain in Japan, though she can’t see how that could work — both boys have forgotten how to read Japanese.

Yoko discusses her difficulties with Emeka and they decide she’ll return with the children as planned. Emeka regards the discussion as an important reminder: His home and his wife’s are not the same — not even alike; for his children, the notion of home is complicated.

“My sons are not wrong to prefer Japan. I would, too,” he says. “But a boy from Nigeria, if he goes to any English-speaking country, can become whatever he likes, whether police officer or prime minister. In Japan, it isn’t so.”

According to leaders in Japan’s Nigerian community, joint decision-making like Emeka and Yoko’s is often absent from Nigerian-Japanese marriages.

“If a Japanese woman can realize how important Nigeria must be in the life of her husband, she may keep the family together,” says Ernest Obi, an Igbo civic leader. “But a husband must also recognize he is not in Nigeria and he cannot force any choices onto his wife.”

Social sciences scholars concur. “Patriarchal family structure in Nigeria is based on earning ability,” says professor Hisashi Matsumoto of Yokohama National University. “But in Japan, social benefits for single mothers often exceed the monthly budgets immigrant workers provide for their wives.”

Emeka is perplexed by the notion his marriage is exemplary. He narrates the scenario his family now faces: increased financial pressure as his sons reach college age, requiring him to focus more intently on his project in Awka, a city prohibitively distant from the amenities his wife and children depend on.

“So I will divide my time between two places again, one where I can be at home with my family, and one where I can make money,” he says. “Is that what I came to Nigeria to achieve?”


 

Emanuel runs errands in Benin City, where he lives with three of his four children.
Emanuel runs errands in Benin City, where he lives with three of his four children.

In April 2015, after nearly a year of legal proceedings, Emanuel wins his lawsuit against his Japanese ex-wife, who obtained a fraudulent divorce while Emanuel was in Nigeria and took custody of their youngest daughter. The family court awards him child support, compensatory damages and monthly visitation with his daughter. The money will make him whole, but he is most excited by the possibility that he is the first African plaintiff to obtain a favorable verdict in a divorce fraud suit.

“If others who have the necessary evidence can now follow,” he says, “that would be the better half of the blessing.”

After the trial, he books a flight home and quits his job. He also invites his former wife to accompany him to Nigeria with their daughter so their four children can spend time together. To his surprise, she agrees.

Divided loyalties: Emanuel
Divided loyalties: Emanuel’s three oldest children pose for a photo in Benin City, Nigeria, with their classmates. While the children live with Emanuel in Nigeria, his youngest daughter resides with his ex-wife in Japan. Emanuel recently won a lawsuit in Japan that granted him child support, compensatory damages and monthly visitation with his daughter.

They have been in Benin City for five days when kidnappers force their way into Emanuel’s compound. They hold Emanuel, his ex-wife and the three older children at gunpoint. They demand to see the white woman’s baby (Emanuel’s youngest daughter, they mean, who is asleep elsewhere in the house). When Emanuel feigns ignorance, one of the kidnappers fires a round past his head. The bullet travels through a window into a neighbor’s compound, setting off a commotion. The kidnappers flee, taking nothing — no one — with them.

Emanuel’s relief is twofold; no one was hurt, and it seems unlikely the attack was facilitated by an informer in his household. If it had been, the kidnappers would have known that all the children were the foreign mother’s. They would have taken any or all of them.

Nigerians considering repatriation from Japan often worry about the security risks posed by friends and family. These concerns reached their apex in May, when a widely admired Nigerian entrepreneur living in Tokyo was murdered while traveling in Benin City, southern Nigeria. Word spread in Japan’s Nigerian community that the killing had been orchestrated by his brother. According to police records and eyewitness accounts, however, the killing was a crime of opportunity.

This discrepancy doesn’t surprise Felix Osaigbovo, who counsels recent repatriates on issues of personal security.

“In Japan, because Nigerians already sense discrimination from their wives and children, no fear is greater than betrayal from your birth family,” he says.

Survey responses reflect his assessment. Seventy-nine percent cited kidnapping and armed robbery as their greatest safety concern in Nigeria. Fifty-nine percent said the greatest risk of attack comes from within their household.

After the attack on his compound, Emanuel presumes his ex-wife will leave Nigeria on the next flight. Instead, they talk into the night, and she decides to extend her stay so the children will not be traumatized by her sudden departure. They arrive at reconciliation of a kind — a promise their youngest daughter will not be estranged from her siblings, an agreement to keep whatever conflicts arise between them out of their children’s lives. They are surprised by how natural it feels to be patient with each other at such a difficult time.


 

Adam was reunited with his Nigerian father, Ekwueme, several years after Ekwueme returned to Nigeria.
Adam was reunited with his Nigerian father, Ekwueme, several years after Ekwueme returned to Nigeria.

The story repeated most frequently in The Japan Times’ survey concerned Adam, the son of an Igbo immigrant. In the prevailing version, Adam’s Japanese mother is a mentally disturbed woman who obtains a fraudulent divorce and manages to get her former husband, Ekwueme, deported. For the rest of Adam’s childhood, she works to deprive him of any information about Ekwueme.

After the triple disaster of March 2011, Adam ostensibly realizes he could have died without knowing his father, and threatens to kill his mother if she doesn’t put them in touch. Reluctantly, she accompanies Adam to Roppongi, where they approach Africans on the street to ask if anyone can contact Ekwueme in Nigeria.

The last part of the story is true. Paul, the aspiring apparel exporter, was among the first people Adam and his mother approached in Roppongi. The rest of the story, however, says more about what is hoped for by the people who tell it — many of whom have lost their children to parental child abduction — than about the events it refers to.

Adam is now 19. He will tell you that his mother always insisted he take pride in his Igbo heritage, and he has always known as much about his father as she was capable of telling.

When Adam was 10, a stranger yelled racial epithets at him while he walked home from school, then crossed the street and assaulted him in front of several bystanders. Adam’s screams attracted a police officer, but not before a clear image of the moment lodged in his mind. Today, he can’t remember the face of the man who assaulted him, but he vividly recalls the faces of the people who watched the assault — how they strained to pretend they couldn’t see what was happening.

After the assault, Adam told his mother it was time to meet his father. She thought so, too.

His relationship with his father wasn’t natural right away, but it has become an important source of confidence.

“My father believes I’m capable of anything,” he says. “Japanese people don’t say those kinds of things to their children.”

He credits his father’s influence with helping him win a prestigious scholarship to study English in Australia during high school. Today, he’s fluent.

Ekwueme surveys his warehouse in Nigeria.
Ekwueme surveys his warehouse in Nigeria.

Ekwueme, who has started a new family in Nigeria, points out that the joy of his reunion with Adam has not exempted him from the obstacles that parents in his position confront.

“I’m the most blessed Nigerian who went to Japan because I’m the only one whose son was returned to him,” Ekwueme says. “Now it’s the bigger question — if I’m the father he deserves.”

Ekwueme owns a restaurant and a warehouse in Nigeria, but wasn’t able to earn enough to send Adam to college last year. He recently began importing auto parts from Japan in an effort to stabilize his income. But Adam insists the quality of his relationship with Ekwueme is not contingent on the level of financial support his father provides.

“The decision to find my father still feels really fulfilling,” he says. “I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I wasn’t given that choice.”


 

Paul’s daughter plays with a toy shinkansen at home in Nigeria in 2014.
Paul’s daughter plays with a toy shinkansen at home in Nigeria in 2014.

In midsummer, Paul’s wife miscarries. He is at work on the street when the news comes, via text message. He contemplates with regret how his wife has spent the past month: traversing Lagos on foot and by taxi, making preparations for the arrival of his shipping container. He thinks about his eldest son, whose right arm was crippled by a careless obstetrician during birth. He finds himself recalling the fertility treatments his Japanese ex-wife once sought — how much was done for an unconceived life in Japan, how little for his infant son in Nigeria.

Three weeks later the clothing deal falls apart when Paul asks his Japanese sponsor for a daily allowance and the sponsor decides Paul is fleecing him. The container departs without Paul’s involvement, and he feels neither vindicated nor amused when it shows up in Nigeria full of somebody else’s knockoff Beanie Babies.

He grows listless, leaving his apartment only to go to work. Often, there is no work to be had. For the first time since 1999, he can’t make enough to pay his rent. A week later he finds himself at the Shinjuku jobs office, asking about factory work.

Nosa displays a birth photograph of his son, Ryuma Muratsubaki, who is now 6 years old.
Nosa displays a birth photograph of his son, Ryuma Muratsubaki, who is now 6 years old.

Nosa is no better off. For the first time since his release, he goes a month without remitting money to his family in Nigeria. Desperate to stabilize his finances or otherwise go home, he calls Taeko several times a day. His intentions are inconsistent: One day he’s desperate to divorce, the next he’s convinced he’ll never see Ryuma again unless he persuades Taeko to get back together.

I interview Taeko in August, at a park in Saitama. She brings Ryuma. She can’t afford childcare, she says. While we talk, Ryuma sprints from one piece of playground equipment to the next, fixating intensely on each for a few minutes, then moving on. He never walks or stands still.

“He always plays like that,” Taeko offers. Then, defensively, “It’s normal.”

She says signing a divorce agreement with Nosa would make her eligible for social benefits she badly needs. But she won’t give him visitation if that’s what it takes. Nor would she honor court-ordered visitation. Nosa was a doting father, she says, but a terrible husband who lied to her about his income in order to extract resources from her and her family.

“I’ve told Ryuma he’s 100-percent Japanese,” she explains. “And I told him his father is dead.”

When I relate the meeting to Nosa, he asks me to photograph him holding a picture of Ryuma (one of several he carries) in case his son someday reads this article.

“In a way, I’m relieved,” he says, looking otherwise. “It’s no question now; I’ll never leave this country until my son can find me.”

He knows another period of incarceration is inevitable; he knows it could be years before he sees his children in Nigeria again — as Taeko knows she has committed herself to poverty.

Blessing, Nosa’s Nigerian wife, with her youngest son at their home in Benin City.
Blessing, Nosa’s Nigerian wife, with her youngest son at their home in Benin City.

By the time I visit Nosa’s family in Benin City this May, his wife, Blessing, has stitched together enough income to keep all of her children in school. Still, she worries about a long-term solution. If Nosa would get back together with Taeko, that would be easiest.

Blessing is a pragmatist about Nosa’s double life. They were married and their eldest was already 3 when he left. She knew he’d need to marry in Japan in order to stay.

“If I could speak to the wife in Japan,” she begins, then pauses and laughs a little. “I’m imagining the conversation,” she says. She asks me to remind her of Taeko’s name. I say it. She repeats it a few times, tries to make the foreign syllables sound familiar.

The younger of her two daughters glances up from her coloring book. She says, “Are you making a wish?”

Adaeze, Paul’s wife, helps her daughter with homework in their apartment in Lagos.
Adaeze, Paul’s wife, helps her daughter with homework in their apartment in Lagos.

Paul’s wife, Adaeze, is equally fretful when I visit her. Like many Nigerian women whose husbands work in Japan, she’s not sure what Paul does for a living. If he doesn’t volunteer details, she doesn’t ask. She doesn’t want to interfere with this precious part of his dignity — explaining his vocation in a way that feels true.

The texture of daily life for Adaeze and her children is particular to their circumstances. Every morning and afternoon she drives the children and several of their friends to and from school in a sports coupe purchased during a more optimistic time, when Paul had first set out to start his own business. No matter how slow she goes, the coupe bottoms out on the unpaved roads, until finally she arrives and the passengers disembark as if from a clown car. A friend visits from abroad and the children fuss over his stubble, which they can’t remember feeling on their father’s face, so rarely does he visit home.

Adaeze also remarks that the apartment where she lives with her children is beneath the flight path for Lagos airport. The planes often remind her of what her marriage has so far demanded.

“I only see the departures,” she points out. “The arriving flights go another way.”

Most names have been changed at the request of the article’s subjects. Reporting contributed by Ryosuke Mineta, Akira Yoshikawa, Eri Sagayama, Erina Suto and Kenny Gorman. Special investigative support provided by Onomichi Investigation and Associates / Fukuryukan. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp