Undocumented Filipinos cross the great divide in Japan

…or how ‘overstayers’ acquire legal status in Japan

B.D. Tutor, Jr.

Up to the mid-90’s when Japan’s bubble economy was screeching to a halt, various official and unofficial sources have estimated the total Filipino population in Japan between 200,000 to 250,000, roughly evenly divided between those with and without legal status.

After almost a decade of regular round-ups of ‘overstayers’, the Bureau of Immigration reported in 2004 that there are more than 199,000 registered Filipinos in Japan, about a fourth of which have acquired permanent residency status.

It seems that the “stock population” over the decade has barely changed, considering that conservative estimates toward the end of the bubble economy and the present statistics have practically remained. This is even more surprising since the Japanese government has vigorously been enforcing a policy of expelling illegal aliens year after year.

This phenomenon can be accounted for by the fresh entry of Filipinos with legal status occasioned by the opening of new opportunities for Japanese descendants since the late 90’s to settle legally in Japan as long-term residents, for the trainees under the training program, as well as for the various categories of working visa.

Japanese descendants up to the third generation, whose Japanese roots can be verified through the family registry on the Japan side, and birth and marital documents on the Philippine side, are eligible to apply for long-term resident status. Once the marriage of the first-generation Japanese and the children from that marriage are entered into the family registry of the first-generation Japanese in a procedure called “upgrading,” the counting of generation moves up, with the “fourth generation” becoming “third generation.” For many families of Japanese descent, this means hundreds of new entrants into Japan.

However, changes accounted for by these newcomers are apparently insignificant compared to those accounted for by a shift in the composition of the existing population stock—in other words, the movement of the informal, illegal sector to the formal, legal sector.

A quick study of the year-on-year trend shows that the single sector that accounts for the growth in Philippine resident population is the “spouse or child of Japanese national.” According to the Philippine Embassy, some 7,000 marriages between Japanese and Filipino nationals are processed either in Tokyo or in the Philippines every year. Many of these marriages are between the Japanese and entertainers or former entertainers who have overstayed, a trend which has escalated after the change in Immigration law putting in place an effective ban on entertainer visas since March 2005.

It is therefore apparent that the most common form of internal movement from the informal to the formal sector is through marriage to a Japanese national. The overstayer is almost certainly granted a visa if she is pregnant or has a child by the Japanese. After five years, this former overstayer is eligible to apply for permanent residency. However, a considerable number of these marriages are thought to be “gizo kekkon” or bogus, registered only for the purpose of obtaining a visa. Tales of Filipinas paying their purported Japanese husband a lump-sum fee upon acquisition of visa and a monthly allowance thereafter are rife.

Marriage to a permanent resident is also another means of moving from the informal to the formal sector. About 50,000 Filipinos are now staying in Japan as permanent residents. But given the divorce rate of close to 50 percent for Japanese-Filipino marriages, a huge portion of these Filipino permanent residents are divorcees who are eligible for re-marriage. This inordinately high percentage of divorce is aided by the relative ease of getting a divorce in Japan, a majority of which are filed as “consensual divorce.” Many Filipinas just wait to receive their permanent residency before filing for divorce and then re-marry after the statutory 10-month-plus-one-day period. Many of them remarry with overstaying Filipinos or other foreigners. The overstayer is usually granted a visa if the marriage is determined to be genuine, especially if there is an offspring or an anticipated offspring in the marriage.

Marriage to a Japanese descendant is also another way of making the move from the informal to the formal sector, especially if the descendant has a permanent residency.

When a foreigner who is a “spouse or child of a Japanese national” is divorced, and he or she is not yet a permanent resident, in order for him or her to stay on, he or she has to re-marry with a Japanese, a permanent resident or a long-term resident; change status to “long-term resident”; or in a minority of cases, when the person is qualified, change status to a “working visa.” Most of these foreigners prevent the reverse movement to the illegal sector and remain in the legal sector through re-marriage or conversion to long-term resident.

The change of status to “long-term resident” is easier for those who have a child or children and are designated as the legal custodian or “shinkensha” of the child or children upon divorce and can demonstrate their financial capacity to support the child or children. Many of those whose visas have lapsed in the course of domestic conflict but were eventually designated as legal custodian of the child or children upon divorce have also reacquired their visa status. In an adversarial divorce proceeding, a well-informed foreigner seeks Family Court mediation in the so-called “chotei rikon” seeking the legal custody of the child as a condition for agreement to a divorce. This almost always guarantees that the foreigner can remain in Japan as a “long-term resident.”

A very small percentage of overstaying foreigners have acquired visa status by becoming legal custodians of a child with a Japanese national they are not married to if the child has been recognized by the Japanese partner within three months of pregnancy in the so-called “ninchi” procedure. Through fetal recognition, the child born out of wedlock acquires Japanese citizenship upon birth. An overstaying Filipino was granted a visa by proving that he was the de facto custodian of a child born outside of marriage with a Japanese national whom that national has acknowledged in her family registry as her child.

While many overstayers acquire their “special permission for residence” while in Japan by going through the rigorous Immigration investigation procedures, many overstayers purposely decide to surrender voluntarily first and return to the Philippines and marry with their permanent-resident partners in the country. By voluntarily surrendering to the Immigration authorities, they become subject only to the one-year ban in re-entering Japan, during which period they marry with the foreign permanent resident and return to Japan as the spouse of permanent resident.

It is difficult to determine if the marriages are entered into with the intention of consummating a spousal relationship—i.e., for the purpose of living as husband and wife–or only as an expediency of visa acquisition. But economic necessity is apparently driving many overstaying Filipinos into any of the above means in order to continue to stay in Japan.