Nikkeijins find their way to their forefathers’ home

… but find out there’s still a long way to go

Benigno D. Tutor, Jr.
nikkeijin Japanese descendants working for a Canon subcontractor in Ibaraki Pref. celebrate Christmas together as one big family.

There was a time when Filipinos equated the word “Hapon” to cruelty. Filipino men who are now at least 30 years of age are likely to have engaged as boys in war games in which the enemy was invariably the “Hapon.”

Until the early 80s, when Japan swung its doors open to Filipino entertainers, the mere mention of “Hapon” brought forth sinister images etched deep into the mind of young Filipinos who have heard tales of Japanese wartime cruelties retold a hundred times over by their grandpas and grandmas. The relatively isolated incidents of entertainers who were allegedly maltreated by their yakuza employers, most of which remained unproved, were sensationalized by the Philippine media still hung up on the iconic “Hapon.”

While the “Hapon” was a make-believe role for most boys who were forced to grudgingly take it as “taya” or “it” in a game, it was real horror for Filipino-Japanese descendants who bore the stigma in their facial features. Among those who heard such gruesome tales are second and third-generation Japanese descendants or nikkeijin who have learned to live with the anger brought about by even rehashed memories of the war.

Since most nikkeijin are born of intermarriages between the Japanese and local or tribal people, their Japanese ancestry can be slightly traced only to their eyes. Many of them have purposely hidden their identities by assuming the family names of their mothers or grandmothers. Dreading physical harm, those who were unable to hide their features withdrew from the mainstream and lived literally in the backwoods of Philippine society. For most of the post-war period when they were literally hunted, they camouflaged their identities in the margins of Philippine society, managing to disguise their distinctive eyes with their dark skin.

The troubled 1980s ushered in a propitious time for the nikkeijins. Grateful for the heroic role of the Japanese journalist who witnessed the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr., then President Corazon Aquino welcomed parties after parties of Japanese families to visit the graves of their wartime relatives and pursue leads to the rumored survival of some of them. It was only then that the difficulty of determining the identities of the descendants came into light. Some 15 nikkeijin associations were organized all over the country to help in the field work and documentation. With funding from the Japanese Foreign Ministry, the federation of nikkeijin associations helped in the collection of data on second-generation Japanese in 1995 and 1997 and generated about 2,500 names. Of these, only about 1,000 or less than 50 percent were properly documented and determined to be of Japanese descent.

In the same period, the Japanese immigration law was revised to accommodate third-generation Japanese descendants as long-term residents. At the same time, a series of amendments tightened the noose on overstaying foreigners. Then, the Japanese economy was heading towards what is now referred to as the “bubble burst.” Smarting from the recession, Japanese companies turned to trainees, mainly from China and Southeast Asia, for cheap labor. But a money scandal involving trainees in Choshi, Chiba, one of Japan’s largest marine product processing centers, resulted in restrictions in the hiring of trainees to Japan. Without trainees and overstaying workers, the manufacturers were pushed against the wall.

Finally, in 1999, the first large group of third-generation Filipino nikkeijin entered Japan as long-term residents, largely through the concerted effort of the local government of Choshi, the manufacturers, and the sending and receiving nikkeijin associations in both countries. Many of the first group of nikkeijin have established their identities as Japanese descendants through painstaking documentary research and field work and have already naturalized or acquired permanent residency.

However, many nikkeijin are still excluded from the full benefits of their Japanese descent because of deficiencies and discrepancies in their documents. These documentary problems arose mainly because of their parents’ attempt to hide their identities, resulting in falsified family names. In many cases, the lack of education resulted in stark spelling mistakes. In a number of cases, the haste to document family members through the late registration procedure resulted in mindless spelling mistakes and discrepancies in important dates.

The discovery of fraudulent sale of family registries has also alerted the Japanese Immigration to the presence of the so-called “peke-jin” (fake nikkeijin), making the screening for visa purposes tighter. Before, sworn affidavits were acceptable to address discrepancies in birth and marital documents. But now, discrepancies are required to be corrected through the arduous court process and should be reflected as remarks in the original document kept with the National Statistics Office.

In the course of following the documentary trail of their ancestors, some nikkeijin also discovered that their parents were born to bigamous or polygamous marriages, illegal in both countries, and are therefore considered illegitimate. The present nationality law of Japan does not acknowledge the citizenship of illegitimate children, unless their father formally applied for paternal recognition within three months of pregnancy of the mother. But with the recent breakthrough decision of the Tokyo District Court granting citizenship to nine Filipino-Japanese children born to unwed parents and unrecognized by their Japanese father in the period provided by law, a ray of hope has shone anew on the nikkeijin who are now at home in the land of their ancestors but still in limbo as to their legal and nationality status.

On the other hand, nikkeijins whose lineage have been consistently and clearly traced to the family registry of the first-generation Japanese, on the Japan side, and through the birth and marital documents, on the Philippine side, have had their status upgraded. This usually involves the registration of the marriage of the first-generation Japanese and of his children and having such details entered in his family registry. Nikkeijins who were formerly classified as“third generation” automatically become “second generation” and the “fourth generation”, heretofore ineligible for visa, can now enter Japan as long-term residents.

A number of those who have been upgraded as “first-generation” descendants have become full-fledged Japanese by acquiring Japanese citizenship. Many of the second- and third-generation nikkeijins have also received permanent residency after five years of stay in Japan.

However, the series of highly publicized crimes committed by Japanese descendants from Latin America have put a brake on the fast-track legal assimilation of the nikkeijins. Since May 2005, the Japanese Bureau of Immigration has required long-term residents who are Japanese descendants to produce police clearances from their home countries upon renewal of their visa. Another revision in the works is to require them to have a certain level of Japanese proficiency.

While nikkeijins are slowly becoming legally integrated into the homeland of their ancestors through documentary inclusion, their actual assimilation into the society of their forefathers is very low. In fact, most of them do not have contact nor communication with their Japanese blood relatives. Most of them do not have Japanese language ability and are unfamiliar with the customs and culture of the Japanese. Unrestricted in their employment activities, they live together in family or nikkeijin clusters, using the network of relatives for job security. Such clustered lifestyle also gives them token protection from unscrupulous brokers and employers who prey on their lack of Japanese language ability and low education. Employers, on one hand, are frustrated by their lack of long-term commitment to work, as they hover from one job to another over the minutest wage differentials or problems at work.

As with the other foreigners, it seems that the Japanese society value them less for their blood affinity than for their labor.

(This is based on another article written by the same author for the March 2006 issue of Airmart Newline.)