Two groups working to help war-displaced descendants of Japanese in the Philippines acquire Japanese citizenship are redoubling their efforts as time runs out for the aging applicants, many of whom technically remain stateless.

These second-generation Filipinos are the children of Filipino women and Japanese men who migrated to the country in the early 20th century, when the Philippines was home to the largest population of Japanese immigrants in Southeast Asia.

But when World War II broke out, large numbers of the children became separated from their fathers, who either joined the Imperial Japanese Army, were repatriated to Japan or died during the tumultuous times.

Although efforts to obtain the citizenship of their fathers started decades ago, since 2003, Filipino-Japanese descendants have started receiving assistance from the Philippine Nikkei-jin Legal Support Center (PNLSC) in bringing their petitions before Japanese family courts.

Under the 1935 constitution in effect in the Philippines until after the war, Filipino-Japanese descendants were automatically considered Japanese nationals. Most of their family records, however, were either destroyed during the war or purposely abandoned amid the strong anti-Japan sentiment left in its wake.

Many then entered limbo when, unaware of their technically stateless situation, they failed to assume their mother’s Philippine citizenship when they reached a certain age.

Norihiro Inomata, director of PNLSC Manila, said in a recent interview that a survey commissioned by the Japanese Foreign Ministry showed that there are 1,069 second-generation Japanese descendants in the Philippines.

“If we base it on our annual capability of getting 20 petitions (for Japanese citizenship) approved a year … we would need 50 years to complete those,” he said.

A personal appeal made by war-displaced descendants to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2015 resulted in the ministry’s first direct participation in the PNLSC’s gathering of personal data and documents. That reinforced the credibility of their petitions at Japan’s family courts.

But Inomata said more and quicker efforts need to be undertaken because despite 15 years of work on the issue, only about 230 of the war-displaced descendants have recovered their citizenship.

“The average age of the remaining stateless is 80, so time is running out,” Inomata said.

“Definitely, we need the support of both governments.”

In February, the center, along with Philippine Nikkei Jin Kai Inc., a national organization of Filipino-Japanese descendants, successfully petitioned Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. to take up the matter, with Manila moving to seek a bilateral agreement with Tokyo.

The two groups hope an agreement forged by the Philippines and Indonesia to cater to Indonesians who have long resided on the Philippine island of Mindanao will serve as a template for their proposed Philippines-Japan accord.

They appealed as well for granting permanent residence status in the Philippines to any descendants granted Japanese citizenship. This is to spare them from any immigration penalties for staying despite their foreign status and to allow them to continue legally owning their properties.

“It’s about their status here, because they have been here for their entire lives, but will suddenly become foreigners and then charged,” Inomata explained.

“Although they really want to become Japanese nationals, you cannot take away their being Filipinos also, and they don’t want to leave the Philippines,” said Ines Mallari, the president of Philippine Nikkei Jin Kai .

The groups are also closely coordinating with the Philippines’ Department of Justice, which has a refugees and stateless persons protection unit that tries to certify the “stateless” status of such Japanese descendants.

With that certification, the war-displaced descendants can be issued travel documents in lieu of Philippine passports if they intend to travel to Japan for court appearances related to their petitions, visits to their fathers’ hometowns or graves, or to meet their relatives.

It can also be used to bolster their petitions because “if they are not Filipinos, then they are potentially Japanese,” Inomata said.

Representatives from the two support groups hope to personally discuss their concerns with President Rodrigo Duterte this month ahead of a planned trip to Japan to convey what could be their “final appeal” to Abe before Aug. 15, the annual commemoration of the end of World War II.

Inomata said they hope to keep the momentum up this year because Japan has just transitioned into a new imperial era with the ascension of Emperor Naruhito and will also be preoccupied next year with the Olympics.

“There are things that may be forgotten. But we should not leave this issue behind as just part of history,” he said.

Aside from maintaining pressure on the two governments, the organizations are training their own members, specifically the younger ones, on how to preserve the second-generation descendants’ narratives.

Since last year, the two groups have already organized five seminar-workshops with the younger generation of descendants on how to collect statements and proper documentation, which will be useful in court petitions.

“We devised that plan of having the younger generation interview the second generation so they will also understand their Japanese roots as they make their own family statements, instead of the PNLSC or other agencies doing that for them,” said Mallari.

With the death of around 100 descendants up to last year, Inomata expressed hope that their current efforts will bear fruit “as soon as possible” so as to give those still alive the citizenship and corresponding benefits that they are their families are due.

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