The process of immigrating to a new country can be complicated at the best of times, even more so amid a global pandemic.

This year we’ve seen Japanese borders go from being open in January (wide enough for Carlos Ghosn to make an escape) to being closed to anyone but Japanese citizens as the virus known as COVID-19 spread. With borders slowly reopening, some foreign residents, students and workers have been able to return to Japan, but what this whole process has taught us is just how much our fates can depend on the people who are guarding the front gate.

Pato knows the feeling of dealing with the so-called gatekeepers, and as a result of some negative experiences she has asked to keep her last name private. Local activists have come to campaign for her under the name “Pato-chan,” her first name with an affectionate Japanese honorific attached to the end of it.

She came to Japan from the Philippines in 2015 on a tourist visa to visit her father, who had cancer. In July of last year, she was found to have overstayed her visa and was placed in detention at the headquarters of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau in the Konan area of Minato Ward.

The detention center at the immigration bureau houses a number of people with similar stories, but what sets Pato apart from the others who are currently fighting their detentions is that she is a transgender woman. Other trans women have been held in the center, but Pato’s story illustrates just how little the authorities have learned from those who came before her.

On Oct. 6, Pato was able to win karihōmen (provisional release), and while that hasn’t put an end to her fight, it has been a welcome reprieve. She hopes that by speaking up she will be able to shed light on the way trans people are treated in such vulnerable situations.

“Right now, I am still a bit traumatized,” Pato, who is now staying with family, tells The Japan Times. “I can’t think of good things, my thoughts are negative and I’m afraid of going for walks and doing things outside my home. (The experience) affected my physical and mental health.”

Life on the inside

When Pato was first detained at the immigration bureau, officials decided against housing her with the general women’s population and instead placed her in a small room on her own.

It was a difficult situation, according to Pato. While the women in the general population are given six hours every day in which they are free to move around the communal spaces of the facility, Pato was only allowed two hours of free time, which did not overlap with the other six-hour blocks taken by the women and men. She says that led to her feeling extremely isolated.

“Of course, it affected me psychologically,” she says. “I’m human.”

Pato petitioned to get extra free time and even asked if she could join the general men’s population in the hope that she could move around more freely and more often. These requests were denied, and so were, until recently, several applications for provisional release.

“I didn’t know why they wouldn’t let me stay with the women or the men,” she says, adding that she overstayed her visa but “didn’t have any big charges against me. I thought that keeping me in a small room for 22 hours a day was against my human rights.”

Need for reform: Lawmaker Taiga Ishikawa says Japan's institutions need to understand the difficulties that trans people face.
Need for reform: Lawmaker Taiga Ishikawa says Japan’s institutions need to understand the difficulties that trans people face. 

According to an article done by BuzzFeed Japan, a representative from the Immigration Services Agency stated that they make their decisions by taking the detained individual’s thoughts, wishes and physical features into consideration, but that they also must consider the situations of the other detainees.

Pato says that, as a result of the isolation, she became depressed and attempted suicide. She was placed on suicide watch and was provided with medication to help her depression. She was then moved to a room with a “see-through wall” that allowed guards to see her at all hours. The feelings of isolation returned.

With no clear guidelines on how to deal with transgender people in confinement, and without the proper training in how to treat them, problems inevitably arise. Pato says both the authorities and some of the other detainees would sometimes use slurs when talking about her, and ask her personal questions about her genitalia. These kinds of problems are faced by trans individuals elsewhere in society, but in Pato’s case there was the added layer of a power imbalance — some of the people creating those problematic situations were also the ones with the power to deny her residence status. She didn’t feel as if she could call them out on their behavior.

On top of that, those same people were Pato’s only possible access to the medications she needed as a result of being transgender; as part of their medical transition, many trans women require feminizing hormone therapy. Pato, now 28, has been receiving hormones since she was 21, and halting such treatment suddenly can have a damaging effect on one’s physical and mental health. Pato says she tried to communicate to officials that she required the hormones for her wellbeing, but was denied them and wasn’t allowed to discuss her medical needs with a specialist.

Help from the outside

Lawmaker Taiga Ishikawa, a member of the House of Councillors who was one of the first openly gay men elected to the Diet, learned of Pato’s case and worked behind the scenes to get her access to medication.

“I’ve learned that there are many trans women who have a difficult time in immigration detention,” Ishikawa tells The Japan Times. “I’ve always thought that Japan wasn’t a very good place for LGBTQ people. But in other places, trans people, especially trans women, face a lot of violence. Compared to those situations, Japan is actually quite good.

“However, many people who flee their home countries because of discrimination and violence end up in Japan. That means Japan and its institutions — especially immigration — need to understand the situations trans people face, and treat them correctly if they’re in detention.”

Fight for change: Demonstrators walk past the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau in Minato Ward.
Fight for change: Demonstrators walk past the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau in Minato Ward.

The staff at the immigration bureau responded to Ishikawa’s efforts by allowing Pato a low dose of estrogen in pill form, which she says still wasn’t enough to meet her needs.

Ishikawa, Free Ushiku and the activist group Justice for Pato-chan continued advocating for Pato through letter-writing campaigns, by visiting her and holding demonstrations.

“Pato-chan is a victim of transphobia and discrimination based on nationality at the hands of the Japan Immigration Bureau,” says Aliza Krobara of Justice for Pato-chan. The organization was launched in April by a group of people, some cisgender and some transgender, and has been working to help get Pato provisional release and improve conditions for detainees overall.

“She is now out of detention, but she’s far from being free,” Krobara adds. “Her financial situation is precarious, so we plan to continue to fight for her and are supporting her efforts to obtain a visa.”

While attempts to improve the situation for trans people are ongoing, as Ishikawa says, Japan is not as bad a place to be transgender as many other countries. There is little fear of physical violence here and, since trans issues aren’t politicized in the way they are in places such as the United States and parts of Europe, most people in Japan are relatively accommodating and willing to try to understand the situation of trans people.

Problems tend to arise when it comes to Japan’s notoriously inflexible bureaucratic institutions. For example, it is very difficult to officially change your gender in Japan, with individuals having to satisfy a number of conditions including: sterilization, being unmarried and not having any children who are minors. Trans people trying to change the situation have lost a number of high-profile court cases recently, though more are on the horizon. The community hopes things will start to change for the better soon.

Circumstances become worse as your position becomes less privileged. That includes groups such as refugees and “non-prestige” immigrants, populations that Japanese institutions have historically treated rather poorly.

“As for me, I hope that there can be good and proper treatment for those in the LGBTQ community in (the immigration process),” Pato says. “The government should think how they can extend equal treatment and basic rights to LGBTQ people in the future.”

For now, Pato is not allowed to work while on provisional release but she is able to visit specialist clinics for her medical needs. And though she has been released into a very different world, one that is coping with a pandemic, she is living with her family and happy that at least she isn’t completely alone anymore.

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