Faced with a graying population and a decreasing birth rate, Japan is now publicly debating whether to allow greater immigration to alleviate potential labor shortages in the future. Half century ago, however, in the wake of Japan’s defeat in World War II, Japan was considering quite the opposite. To relieve population pressures caused by a mass repatriation of soldiers and other citizens, the government encouraged Japanese nationals to emigrate to Central and South America. A court ruling last week shed light on shoddy government work that caused great suffering for many of these Japanese emigrants. Although the government won the trial on a technicality, it still must offer relief measures to these aging emigrants.

From the mid to late 1950s, as part of the emigration policy of the Foreign Ministry and the then Agriculture and Forestry Ministry, the Federation of Japan Overseas Associations (Kaikyoren) — the predecessor of the Japan International Cooperation Agency — was involved in an emigration program to the Dominican Republic. Kaikyoren lured people by publicizing the republic as a “paradise in the Caribbean Sea.” The program’s “sales point” was its free-of-charge transfer of large tracts of land to emigrants. From 1956 to 1959, 1,319 people, or 249 families, emigrated to the Caribbean country. But what they found upon their arrival were tracts of salty, stony soil unsuitable for farming. To make matters worse, the emigrants found that they were not given the land to own, as they had been promised, but they only had the right to till it. Their suffering was such that the Dominican Republic emigration program gained a notorious reputation and was dubbed a “policy of dumping people” overseas.

From 1961 to 1963, the government repatriated some of those who emigrated to the Dominican Republic and sent others to South America. But more than 50 families remained in the Caribbean country. In 1997, talks began between these emigrants and the Foreign Ministry over compensation for their hardships. The talks broke down in the fall of 1999, and in July 2000, 126 emigrants started a class action with the Tokyo District Court. By August 2001, 51 more people, including relatives of deceased emigrants, joined the lawsuit. The plaintiffs sought 3.1 billion yen in compensation.

In the ruling, the court said that the duties of the officials of the Foreign Ministry and the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry included determining whether the land for settlement was fit for agriculture, negotiating with the government of the Dominican Republic the conditions under which Japanese emigrants would be accepted and providing all information that people needed to decide whether to emigrate to the Caribbean country. The court determined that the officials had failed to fulfill these duties.

Part of the ruling said that when a government inquiry mission went to the republic for on-site inspections, it failed not only to sufficiently study the characteristics of the land in question but also to discuss with the Dominican Republic government the details of its conditions for accepting Japanese emigrants. It was also pointed out that the mission did not even obtain complete information on the amount of land that would be distributed to each emigrant, and that the pamphlets prepared by officials did not include concrete information on the restrictions in tilling rights and ownership that would be imposed on emigrants.

The ruling determined that both the foreign minister and the agriculture and forestry minister failed to fulfill their legal duties and confirmed that the government committed an unlawful act. Recognizing that the plaintiffs have suffered great psychological and material hardships for many years, the court admitted that the government has a responsibility to pay compensation to the plaintiffs.

But the court stopped short of offering compensation to the plaintiffs, citing a provision in the Civil Law Act that states that the right to seek compensation expires 20 years after the illegal act has taken place. The court pointed out that more than 20 years have passed since the emigrants went to the Dominican Republic.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said after the ruling that even though the government was the formal winner, it was also a loser in the trial. In March 2004, Mr. Koizumi admitted in the Diet that the government had mismanaged the program and he promised “to take appropriate measures” to help the emigrants. To make up for its mismanagement, the government is considering taking such measures as helping to build a community center for the emigrants and providing assistance to teach their children the Japanese language. But first the government must apologize to the emigrants. It then needs to prioritize measures that will help them substantially improve their livelihoods.

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