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Letter from Japan — From the April 2017 issue

The Boy Without a Country

Tokyo’s painful exclusion of immigrants

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When Utinan Won was twelve, he liked to sprawl out on the floor of his living room and read manga. His favorite series was Naruto, the story of a lonely orphan. Naruto, who also happens to be twelve, has spiky yellow hair and dreams of becoming a ninja, but he is forced from his village after his neighbors learn that he has a mystical fox inside him — a source of ominous power.

In those days, Utinan and his mother, Lonsan Phaphakdee, lived just outside Kofu, a small but bustling city two hours west of Tokyo, where neon billboards flash against a backdrop of green hills. Utinan rarely went outside, but on weekends, the kids from his neighborhood would tell him about their classes, school plays, and soccer games. He was envious. He had never been allowed to join them in school, because he was an undocumented immigrant.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Lonsan had come to Japan from Thailand in 1995, after a chatty recruiter showed up in her village and offered her a job at a restaurant. She was living with her parents, who had no money or property, and the recruiter offered to pay for her plane ticket. When she arrived at the airport in Tokyo, she was given a visa that allowed her to stay in the country for seventy-two hours. Then she was met by a different recruiter, who informed her that she owed him 3.8 million yen — nearly $40,000 — and that she’d have to start paying off her debt. Lonsan was terrified, but followed him to his car. He confiscated her passport and took her to a brothel. She worked there for two years, until she paid back her debts and fled to Kofu, where a friend of hers lived. Later she heard that the brothel was raided by police, but no one came looking for her.

Lonsan was free, but she lacked both the legal documentation to remain in the country and the money to return home. In Kofu, she met a Thai man who had also overstayed his visa. The two of them briefly dated, and she became pregnant. Weeks after Utinan was born, the man was discovered by the police and deported back to Thailand. Lonsan never heard from him again.

Citizenship in Japan is jus sanguinis — determined by blood, rather than by place of birth. Though Utinan qualified for Thai citizenship, Lonsan didn’t know how to register his birth from abroad, so he was rendered stateless. Until 2012, immigrants in Japan applied to their regional government for identification cards, which allowed them to access public resources, including schools, and local authorities sometimes turned a blind eye toward undocumented residents. Lonsan, however, was too scared to get I.D.’s for herself and Utinan — the risk of being reported to the same officers who had deported her boyfriend loomed too great. Five years ago, Japan created a new residency-management system that centralized oversight of foreigners, requiring all immigrants to procure a national I.D. card. For people without the right papers, any encounter in a hospital, school, or government office became perilous.

Before Utinan turned twelve, he and Lonsan changed apartments frequently, so immigration officers couldn’t find them. They moved between suburbs, went to Nagano — a larger city to the north — and then back to Kofu. Shunji Yamazaki, a longtime immigration activist, had friends in the area’s Thai community and heard rumors about a child who had never gone to school. Shortly after Utinan’s twelfth birthday, Yamazaki tracked him down and invited him to take courses at Oasis, a nonprofit he’d founded to provide tutoring, legal services, and meeting spaces to local immigrants.

There were six other children in Utinan’s class. They all needed help with their Japanese, but their parents — who came from China, Korea, Indonesia, and Brazil — had visas, and the kids had grown up attending Japanese schools. Utinan was the only undocumented student. He was gangly and shy, with shaggy hair that he was always brushing away from his eyes. He couldn’t figure out what to talk about with his peers. He wasn’t even sure how to introduce himself. His mother called him by the nickname Sifa, but he wanted something that seemed more Japanese. His complexion, lighter than Lonsan’s, might let him pass. He knew that his father’s last name was Wuthipang, so he landed on a Japanese-sounding version: Utinan, a name of his own making.

To help Utinan socialize, Yamazaki arranged for him to eat lunch at a local junior-high school. There were assigned seats in the cafeteria. “I had to sit in front of a girl,” Utinan told me. “I couldn’t look at her face.” For the first week, he sat in complete silence as he picked at his rice. Eventually he lifted his eyes to meet hers, and managed to blurt out, “Can I borrow your eraser?”

Yamazaki urged Utinan and his mother to apply for legal status. If they were denied, he’d find them a top-notch lawyer to appeal the decision. It was a big gamble, but Yamazaki believed that their case was strong. Lonsan couldn’t read Japanese, but Utinan had learned it quickly — he cannot read or write Thai — and any judge, Yamazaki thought, would surely sympathize with Lonsan’s plight as a victim of human trafficking. After they applied for residency, they could stop living in hiding while they awaited the government’s decision. Utinan could register for junior high at a regular school, and Lonsan, who had a seasonal job picking fruit, would have an alibi if immigration police ever raided the orchard where she worked.

In July 2013, Lonsan and Utinan, then thirteen, borrowed a friend’s car and traveled eighty miles east to the Immigration Bureau in Tokyo, to surrender. At ten in the morning, they arrived at a tall steel-and-glass building and found seats in an empty waiting room facing an array of intimidating signs. Utinan tried to translate the Japanese for his mother, but the messages had too much bureaucratic jargon he didn’t understand. Hours passed. They didn’t know when their names might be called, so they were afraid to use the bathroom or buy a snack from the 7-Eleven downstairs. Late in the afternoon, they were summoned into separate interrogation rooms, where, Utinan recalled, an official explained to him that the Justice Ministry would make a decision about their deportation within a year. The official also said other things, but Utinan was too nervous to listen. By the time he and his mother were dismissed it was nearly ten, and they didn’t get home until after midnight.

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