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A 15-year-old Iranian girl’s first trip to her home country in 10 years last July began with a surprise welcome at Tehran airport by some 100 relatives.

For the girl, who left Iran when she was 4, vague memories of her relatives, especially her grandparents, have been a source of strength in a long-uncertain life as the daughter of illegal residents in Niiza, Saitama Prefecture.

Her homecoming was the result of an extraordinary decision by the Justice Ministry last year to grant her family and three other Iranian families visas to stay in Japan.

“Having lived with only my family and my dad’s mother, it was such a nice feeling to have my extended family around and to see their almost unconditional love for me and my family,” the girl said in a recent interview.

More than a year has passed since her family gained legal status here, and those who were granted visas say their life has changed so much for the better.

However, they are also aware there are many others who still suffer from the instability of illegal residency.

It was during the asset-inflated bubble economy in 1990 that the Iranian girl’s parents, who asked that their names be withheld, immigrated to Japan seeking job opportunities with only three-month tourist visas.

Contrary to initial expectations of returning to Iran within a few years after saving enough money to build a house, the family stayed on for a decade, mainly because of their dwindling income following the burst of the bubble economy.

As illegal residents, they couldn’t visit their home country; leaving Japan would almost certainly mean not being allowed to re-enter.

“Living (in Japan) as illegal residents for such a long period is both mentally and financially agonizing,” said the girl’s 37-year-old mother. “The lack of visas left us in constant fear of possible deportation at any time, while leaving us with no social benefits, such as health insurance.”

The family has sustained their living on the father’s 300,000 yen monthly income from his welding job and an additional 30,000 yen to 80,000 yen from the mother’s various piecework done at home. Both of them were public school teachers in Iran.

However, a godsend came to them and three other Iranian families in February 2000, when then Justice Minister Hideo Usui approved their application for special visas.

Their appeal was the first collective request for amnesty undertaken by illegal residents with no Japanese relatives and was made at the considerable risk of immediate deportation if rejected. Another Iranian family was granted the special residence permission in June 2000.

Aside from the feeling of safety and social benefits, the family said that the legitimate visas have enabled them, for the first time since they moved to Japan, to start making life plans.

That seems particularly true for their daughter. Though she said she missed her life in Saitama during her one month in Iran, she was comforted to be attached to Japan.

“It is because now I know that I can stay in Japan to live my life as a Japanese if I want,” she said, adding that she now devotes herself to the pursuit of her dream — becoming a nurse in Japan.

Life has also changed for Taghibeigloo Shahroklt, a 42-year-old Iranian man who lives in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward.

His family was among the four who were granted special residence permission in February 2000.

Soon after he gained legal residency, Shahroklt went to a hospital to check the hernia in his neck, which he acquired working as a plumber for 10 years in Japan.

“The neck pain was killing me, but I could not go to a hospital, because I had no medical insurance due to my lack of visa,” he said.

While the visas have relieved their fear of deportation, it has not eased the families’ severe financial conditions, due to limited employment opportunities amid the protracted economic stagnation.

“I’ve just realized that obtaining visas is not our ultimate goal, but is just the starting point of a humane life,” he said.

Shahroklt also expressed concern for a Myanmar family and two other Iranian families, whose applications for special residence were rejected by the Justice Ministry last year.

While reasons for the rejection were not disclosed, it is believed that the minister favored families with children who have entered junior high schools, because it would be difficult for the children to adjust to their home countries.

In the past five years, the number of those granted special residence permission — often considered the last resort for illegal residents — has increased by 4.6 times to 6,930 last year.

The vast majority of them, however, are those married to Japanese nationals or the children of such international couples.

“Illegal residents broke the Japanese immigration law for economic reasons, but many of them have stayed here over concern for their children, who know nothing but the Japanese way of life and language,” Shahroklt said.

“With my word of appreciation to the Japanese government, I would like to beg them again for special permission for long-term residents with children.”

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