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Second of two parts

Staff writer

When a 34-year-old Filipino woman overstaying her visa sought help from a volunteer group last year, she was trying to escape — not from a harsh working environment, as is often the case, but from abuse by her Japanese husband.

“After I gave birth to my daughter in Japan, my ex-husband began growing violent toward me,” recalled the woman, who met the man in the Philippines in 1986 and married him in Japan the same year.

“He hit me with a belt, grabbed my hair and dragged me around,” said the woman, who declined to be named. “He treated me like a slave. Fortunately, he never attacked our daughter. But (she) saw what she should not have seen.”

In the early 1990s, most foreign women who came to abuse shelters for help complained that they were forced into prostitution by job brokers, said Rutsuko Shoji, director of HELP Asian Women’s Shelter, a Tokyo-based organization that supports Japanese and foreign women.

After tours to Southeast Asia by Japanese men seeking cheap sex sparked international criticism in the mid-1980s, these brokers instead recruited foreign women, mainly from the Philippines and Thailand, to work at bars and sex-related industries in Japan.

Many of them were given false information about their jobs and were later forced into prostitution to repay money the brokers fronted to their families.

This remains a serious problem today. But in recent years, the problems confronting women appear to be changing.

More and more are seeking the group’s support over domestic violence, divorce, pregnancy and child-rearing.

After the husband’s abuse started, the Filipino woman left her baby girl, who had Japanese citizenship, with the husband and returned to the Philippines. When she came back to Japan three years later, she learned the man was in prison and was told her daughter was living at a public welfare facility.

The woman filed for divorce and custody of her daughter in 1993 and spent the next few years in court fighting appeals by her husband.

After he was released from prison in 1997, he asked her to live with him to look after the child. She reluctantly agreed, but within a month of moving in, the man started abusing her again, prompting her to escape with her daughter.

In February 1998, she legally divorced the man and obtained custody of the 13-year-old girl, with whom she now lives.

Shoji of HELP said nearly half of the foreign women who have come to the shelter for consultations recently are victims of violence by their boyfriends or husbands, or have been deserted by their partners and left to care for their children alone.

Among 75 foreign women who took shelter at the group’s facilities last year, 31 were victims of abuse by their husbands. Thirty-four escaped abusive situations with their children.

The average stay at the group’s temporary shelters grew from nine days in 1995 to 17 days in 1998. During their stay, women receive legal advice and other help to start their life anew.

“Considering employment opportunities and the educational environment for children, those women often choose to continue to live in Japan. In addition, there is no way in their home countries for them to make a living and raise children,” Shoji said.

The group received more than 950 telephone inquiries from foreign women in 1998, including 430 calls from Filipinos and 405 from Thais.

Even if the women can escape from abuse, there is another hurdle many have to overcome if they continue to live in Japan: Foreigners who overstay their visas are not eligible for public health insurance or welfare.

The Filipino woman, whose spouse visa has expired, said she has rarely received medical treatment because health insurance is not available. Such visas permit the holder to stay in Japan for either three years, one year or six months, depending on the length and stability of the marriage. It is renewable as long as they remain married to their Japanese partners.

“Having gone through the abuse, I sometimes feel the right side of my body is numb and I have strong headaches stemming from stress. If my health was better, I would work much harder,” said the Filipino women, who now earns 50,000 yen to 90,000 yen a month making beds in a hotel. “I wish I had a proper visa so I could return to the Philippines to have medical check-ups and find a better job in Japan.”

She is now waiting for a special permission visa, which she applied for at the Tokyo immigration office in April 1998.

In 1996, the Justice Ministry announced it will provide foreign parents of Japanese children special visas, allowing them to stay in the country.

But the ministry has discretionary power over granting such visas. How soon they are granted — and under what circumstances — is decided on a case-by-case basis, according to a ministry official.

Generally, the ministry examines the financial situation of an applicant and whether the stated purpose of the visa matches the applicant’s situation, the official said.

Shoji of HELP said the longer the ministry takes before granting the special visa, the more seriously the applicant’s human rights are violated.

Koichi Kodama, a lawyer who often handles foreign women’s divorces, said the government should change the immigration rules so applicants receive the visas as soon as possible. Today, the procedure usually takes a year or two.

“They can’t even get sick while waiting for permission,” Kodama said, referring to the lack of health insurance. Grouping applicants according to their situation would speed up the process, he said, adding that “one or two months would be good enough for the ministry to make a decision.”

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