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A difficult homecoming for foreign-born Japanese

Limited employment and few educational opportunities plague foreign workers

A difficult homecoming for foreign-born Japanese

Willian de Moraes Yabiku awaits his flight from Tokyo to Brazil correspondent, Tokyo

January 31, 2014

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Until quite recently, he had been living happily in Hamamatsu City in Shizuoka prefecture, about 200 kilometers southwest of Tokyo – the place he had called home since his infancy.

But on January 9, Willian de Moraes Yabiku, a 23-year-old Brazilian-Japanese, made his way to Narita International Airport with his wife and two-year-old son.

They would board a plane to leave Japan for good.

“If possible, I would like to have continued living in Japan, but I couldn’t see a future for my wife and daughter here,” Yabiku said.

“It’s too bad. I’ve lived in Japan since I was one year old, so even if Brazil is technically my homeland, it seems like a foreign country. I’m very nervous and worried.”

When he was 22, he says, Yabiku came to the realization that “for the son of migrant workers” there simply isn’t any real “freedom to choose your own work”.

“There’s really no choice but to work at a subcontracting factory, say, or a construction site. I could live with that, if it were just me. But I don’t want to force that on my child. That’s why, although I have a life in Japan, I chose to leave.”

In 1990, the government of Japan moved to offer residency status to those of Japanese descent living overseas, recognizing descendants down to the third generation.

The move was precipitated by anxiety in economic circles about the strength of Japan’s labor force. However, little has been done to ensure proper education of immigrant workers’ children. Though some “second generation” immigrants have succeeded in law and similarly elite professions, their numbers are miniscule in proportion.

When Yabiku was younger, his parents considered returning to Brazil. During his final year of junior high school, they even transferred him from a Japanese school to one for Brazilians so that he could hone his Portuguese.

However, the return to Brazil never happened. Yabiku quit high school and got a job in a factory. Eventually he resumed his high school classes at night while continuing to work during the day, but he was laid off during the economic shockwaves following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. With no way to pay for tuition, he couldn’t stay in school.

“My dream was to become a soccer player. The chances were there, but I couldn’t pull it off,” says Yabiku.

In his second year of junior high, a soccer scout from Niigata recruited Yabiku for a junior team. However, he was told the team didn’t offer any scholarships for high school tuition. He was scouted again when he was 22 by a soccer club in Osaka. But even after he moved to Osaka and trained with the club for a month, they never paid him as promised.

Poverty is a common feature of the “second generation” community.

Since the economic crisis, Yabiku says that he has responded to job advertisements, but that each conversation would end the moment he said, “I’m a foreign resident”. Even worse, since his appearance immediately reveals his mixed lineage, he has been stopped by the police many times.

The situation has prompted anger even among native Japanese.

“The Japanese school system and a failure of government policy have yielded a community of children who aren’t proficient either with Japanese or the language of their home countries,” says Professor Kimihiro Tsumura of Hamamatsu Gakuin University, who has known Yabiku personally since Yabiku was in elementary school.

“If we had cultivated their cultural and linguistic potential, they would have become bridges between Japan and their countries of birth. The Japanese government will educate Japanese children, and they will even educate exchange students with ties to friendly governments, but they have done nothing for the ‘second generation,’” says Tsuruma.

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