Thursday, April 30, 2009

Redefining Japaneseness

On March 17, I opened up my newspaper and found an article about the Japanese government granting one-year temporary resident status to Noriko Calderon, a Filipino-Japanese girl. Noriko's undocumented parents, who were facing deportation, finally returned to their native Philippines on April 14. The couple thought it was better for their daughter to continue her studies at her junior high school in Japan. So, they entrusted Noriko to her aunt, who is a permanent resident.

I was puzzled by the news because Noriko was born and raised in Japan. And just like most of her ethnic Japanese counterparts, Noriko said she loves her native country and its culture. Still, the Japanese government treated her like an "alien." My first reaction was to ask the Justice Minister, Eisuke Mori, "Why does Noriko need a special permit to stay in her country of birth?"

Noriko is definitely not a foreigner, and she shouldn't need any special permit to live in Japan. Sure, her parents are Filipinos, so technically one could argue she is of Filipino ancestry. But for that matter, all the children born to Japanese parents in Brazil, America, Canada, Peru, Australia, or France are of Japanese ancestry—does that make them "aliens" in their respective country of birth?

People of Japanese ancestry, commonly known as Nikkeijin, have been accepted as full members of other societies. And when their descendants visit Japan, speaking only "broken Japanese" or none at all, they have had to be regarded as foreigners. Some have even become lawmakers in their country of birth or adoption. But, the contrast with Japanese attitudes is sharp. The government in Japan persistently maintains a racist and xenophobic system under which people who fulfill every internationally accepted qualification for citizenship are denied it.

In 1994, Japan ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and its most important principles are: "non-discrimination" (Article 2), and "best interests of the child" (Article 3). But, an examination of the situation of Japan-born stateless children clearly shows the violation of these two basic principles by the Japanese government.

There's a tremendous number of children born to Japanese fathers and undocumented foreign mothers, living in Japan without proper citizen rights, including the right to compulsive education or to healthcare. Even worse, many have been deported. This awful problem should be an international outrage, but unfortunately it is not.

The light of peace begins to shine where lawmakers regard children as precious, and don't discriminate against any. Regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, all children are human beings and must be treated with dignity.

Indeed, the Japanese government needs to grant nationality to every single child born in Japan, and also make it easier for foreigners to acquire citizenship. Redefining Japaneseness by birth or choice, instead of "blood," will surely encourage the ethnic Japanese to accept individuals of other ethnic origins as their fellow citizens.

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: May 1, 2009 (Published in Japan Times ST)