Without a Country : Culture: Because its citizenship is based on ancestry, Japan must cope with a growing number of 'stateless' babies whose foreign mothers work in the shadowy sex industry.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Andrew is a bouncy 14-month-old with an engaging grin and a warm home with an adopted family in a hamlet 100 miles northwest of Tokyo.

But he lacks one treasure most people take for granted: a country.

Born in the seamy world of sex and gangsters, Andrew is the product of a suspected tryst between a Filipino bar hostess and a Japanese client. Both of his birth parents have disappeared. As a result, neither the Japanese nor the Philippine government will grant him citizenship.

Andrew cannot automatically receive citizenship by being born on Japanese soil because this nation's system is based on bloodlines, unlike that of the United States.

"He is stuck between two government systems, and nobody from either side is going to help," says American Roberta Rees, Andrew's adoptive mother.

As bar hostesses, prostitutes and entertainers from throughout Asia flood Japan seeking economic betterment, their liaisons with Japanese clients are producing a growing tragedy: stateless children.

Although Andrew was lucky enough to have found a home, countless others face a bleak and fearful future in legal limbo, denied rights to subsidized health care, schooling and other public services and subjected to social ostracism.

Because they are a byproduct of the shadowy sex industry, no one knows how many stateless Southeast Asian children there are. The issue has begun to emerge only in the last few years. All told, there may be 1,000 stateless people in Japan, according to the Ministry of Justice, but who and where they are is unknown.

The problem is jolting Japan into recognizing its modern role as a magnet for foreign workers. For centuries, the country regarded itself as an isolated island nation, sending out immigrants rather than taking them in, and that thinking still colors official Japanese policy. While sympathizing with the children's plight, bureaucrats say they cannot simply overturn the law and suddenly open the door to scores of newcomers.

"Japan is not a country that can accept immigrants," says Minoru Oyanagi, an official with the Ministry of Justice's Civil Affairs Division. Flipping through his legal books and pointing out sections of the law, Oyanagi adds: "There's no place in the law to say that because it's pitiful we should give them citizenship."

But Japanese attorneys and social welfare workers sharply disagree. They argue that Japanese law provides a way to avoid the problem of stateless children but that bureaucrats are not applying it in the case of Andrew and others.

To force the issue, attorneys this month helped Andrew's adoptive parents, American missionaries Bill and Roberta Rees, file an unprecedented lawsuit on behalf of their son and other stateless children.

"The Japanese have all these prostitutes come, and they get pregnant by Japanese men and then they have a baby. And the baby has no chance in life," says William Rees. "We are trying to get the Japanese government to take responsibility for a problem they helped create."

"This is really a question of children's human rights," adds his attorney, Yukiko Yamada.

Under Japanese law, any child abandoned by parents of unknown nationalities is eligible for Japanese citizenship. The law has traditionally applied to newborns who were discarded after birth. But in the case of Andrew and his adoptive sister, Annette, also stateless, the mothers gave birth at a hospital and told staff members that they were Filipino and Thai, respectively.

To immigration officials, that self-identification was enough to disqualify the children from the "unknown parents" category. But the attorneys argue there is no hard evidence of the mothers' nationalities and that, in any case, they soon disappeared after giving birth.

Meanwhile, Thai and Filipino officials say that unless the mothers accompany their children to the embassies with a passport and other identifying papers, they cannot issue citizenship to the children either.

"To say the mother 'seems Filipino' isn't enough, but the Japanese government is interpreting the law in that way," says Yasushi Higashizawa, a specialist in nationality law. "The interpretation is too strict, and that's why this problem is being created."

Higashizawa and others assert that the Japanese government is violating a treaty that it signed, the 1966 United Nations reaty on civil and political rights, which holds that "every child has the right to obtain nationality."

But Oyanagi disagrees, saying the treaty merely enshrines a principle and does not require lineage-based countries such as Japan to switch to a U.S.-style system and offer citizenship to anyone born on its soil.

Oyanagi adds that under Japanese law, stateless children can apply for naturalization after three years. Higashizawa and others, however, say that route is unsatisfactory because not all children have a sponsor who will apply for them and there is no guarantee the government will grant the petitions.

Monica may be a case in point. A chatty 2-year-old with rosy cheeks and pigtails, Monica is just one year away from being eligible for naturalization. But her mother, Rosa, is not planning to apply. Indeed, she has not even registered the toddler at the Philippine Embassy, leaving the child technically stateless. Nor does she intend to.

Fear and ignorance prevent Rosa, who has overstayed her visa and is illegally in Japan, from venturing near any legal authority.

"I heard if you don't give them money, they won't do anything for you," says Rosa (not her real name). Too scared to seek legal status in Japan, too ashamed to return to the Philippines, she is biding her time at an Asian women's shelter 90 minutes outside Tokyo.

The story of Rosa, a wisp of a woman who looks 16 but says she is 21, provides a glimpse into the sad and shady world that is producing the stateless children. Fresh out of high school, the youngest of six children in a poor family, she was lured to Japan from her native Manila in 1988 with promises of a trip to Tokyo Disneyland and chances to make fabulous money.

As it turned out, she did neither. When she arrived in Japan, her Filipino "promoter" turned her over to the owner of an Osaka bar, a man she calls "master." He was a gangster, she says, as were most of the customers. She was told to sit with them, pour their drinks and make "dates." When he learned she was a virgin, his eyes lit up and he told her she could make a lot of money with the right first date.

But when she refused to make dates or couldn't understand his Japanese, he beat her, slapping her around and pulling her hair. He also kept a close watch on her and the four other hostesses, prohibiting them from straying too far from the neighborhood.

In the meantime, Rosa began to date one particular customer, a jewelry salesman she calls Suzuki. After one month, when the owner threatened her and told her to start dating other customers, she arranged a secret rendezvous with Suzuki and fled.

With his help, she escaped to Tokyo. Seven months after arriving there, she gave birth to Monica. But before Monica was born, Rosa's lover died, supposedly a suicide. Rosa suspects he may have been murdered.

She got a job as a hostess in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, working from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. six days a week, making $100 a night. She sent half the money back to her family in Manila. But after she had her second child--fathered by a customer who told her to get an abortion and deserted her when she refused--Rosa quit. Alone and illegal in Tokyo, with no money and no place to go, she found her way to the women's shelter.

"I don't want to go home to the Philippines, because my parents would get angry about the children and I would be embarrassed around my brothers and sisters and my friends," she whispers.

Despite the bleak outlook for her children and herself, she dreams of meeting a Japanese man who will marry her and give her daughters citizenship.

That kind of story is being repeated so many times that Dr. Takashi Sakata of the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center is planning to ask the yakuza, the organized-crime network of Japan, to help his group pin down the number of stateless children. Sakata, head of the Red Cross Infant Home, says he knows of six cases in Tokyo.

But experts suspect that many more babies are being hidden in resorts and other recreation areas around Japan, where foreign prostitutes flock. In one resort area in Nagano prefecture, where the Rees' children were born, there are said to be 1,000 foreign prostitutes among a population of 40,000.

Such areas are under heavy yakuza control, and the illegal hostesses believe it is easier to hide from the central authorities in Tokyo, experts say.

Stateless babies placed in children's homes might face the bleakest future, Sakata and others say. Without written permission from the birth parents--and most don't give it before fleeing, he says--the children are legally unable to be adopted. As a result, they face a life in an institution until they turn 18. Then they are turned out in the streets, without skills, family or friends.

"They are almost consigned to a life of crime and prostitution," says Roberta Rees, who, along with her husband, met Andrew's birth mother and received permission to adopt him.

Stateless children are effectively prohibited from traveling outside Japan, because they have no passport. They also have no automatic right to schooling or other public amenities.

Rather, such a decision is up to each local government, a system Higashizawa, the lawyer, criticizes as "scattershot." However, there do not appear to be any test cases yet.

But the huge disparity in local government treatment of such children is already evident. In one case involving the child of a Thai woman in the Osaka suburb of Itami, local officials deliberately overlooked the mother's nationality and granted Japanese citizenship in order to facilitate the baby's adoption by an American.

But in Gunma prefecture north of Tokyo, local officials reportedly refused even to register the baby's birth.

Such unequal treatment is unconscionable, Sakata says. Even if the Japanese government does not want to give the children permanent citizenship, he says, it should consider granting some kind of "tentative status" allowing all children basic amenities such as schooling and health care.

"The children aren't guilty of anything," he says. "They should be treated equally."

But Sakata and others say the plight of stateless children is only one reflection of the much broader problem of illegal workers in Japan--particularly those in the sex industry. Until the government takes stricter measures to restrict the number of women entering Japan, and until Japanese society begins to question the need for such a huge hostess industry, the problem is only destined to grow, they say.

"Even changing the laws doesn't change people's consciousness," says Mizuho Matsuda, head of the HELP Asian Women's Shelter in Tokyo. "Why do we need Asian women constantly? They have to be young and fresh. They are used and discarded. We have to change the whole scheme."

Chiaki Kitada, a researcher in The Times' Tokyo Bureau, contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°