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Foreign children slip through school administrative cracks, fall victim to abuse

The building where Ayumi lived, left, is seen in Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, on Nov. 6, 2018. Her body was found hidden inside of a cooler in a car in the parking lot to the right. (Mainichi/Takehiko Onishi)

At a small apartment building in the city of Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, in central Japan, the body of Brazilian citizen Bianca Ayumi Nagatoshi, 6, was found stuffed into a cooler in a car in the parking lot in August 2017. There were bruises on her face and back.

The incident occurred just one month after her Brazilian mother, 27, told the elementary school that Ayumi was attending to remove her from their enrollment list because she was moving her to a Brazilian school.

Indicted for the assault resulting in the death of the girl and other charges was the mother's common-law husband, Peruvian citizen Fernando Jose Valero Tokuda, 37, who was handed a sentence of nine years and six months in prison by the court in his first trial. He has appealed the ruling. Ten months prior to the incident, he had begun living with the mother and child in an apartment in the neighboring Mie Prefecture city of Suzuka.

In the spring of 2017, Ayumi enrolled in an elementary school in Suzuka. With her school bag on her back, she went to school with her sister who was one year her senior. At home, all conversations were in Portuguese, and in order to be able to keep up with her classes at the school, Ayumi attended a Japanese language school. In the area around Yokkaichi and Suzuka, there are many factory workers hailing from South American countries and their families.

Ayumi's mother herself was fourth-generation Japanese-Brazilian, and came with her family to Japan in 1996, after a 1990 revision to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act allowed for Brazilians of Japanese descent to come into the country to work. Ayumi's grandfather worked at a factory in Osaka, and her mother also moved around the prefectures of Aichi, Gifu and Mie from a young age, working in shopping areas.

Ayumi's time at school did not even last two months, however. With her mother pregnant, she started to miss classes often from the end of April. When her sister was handed over to the local child welfare consultation center for "not listening to what she was told" at the end of May, Ayumi stopped attending school almost completely. Her homeroom teacher visited their apartment several times, but her mother kept saying that Ayumi was not feeling well, and the teacher never got to see her. On June 9, 2017, the teacher noticed that the electricity was turned off at the apartment. When they called Ayumi's mother, she announced the family had moved to Yokkaichi.

The Suzuka elementary school last saw Ayumi on July 18. She showed up suddenly with her mother, who said she was transferring the girl to a Brazilian school and requested that she be removed from the school registry. If Ayumi had been Japanese, then the Suzuka school would keep her on record until the day she officially began attending another school in order to protect her right to education. There are no procedures for removing a child's name from enrollment. However, in the case of a child with foreign nationality, the local government has no responsibility to confirm that the child has begun learning at their new school.

"Her mother said she was going to go to a Brazilian school, and we couldn't keep track of when or where she was going to be going," said the principal of the Suzuka elementary school.

According to relatives, Ayumi's mother had also once been a child whose enrollment status had been unknown. Around the time she was 10 years old, she said she was being bullied and stopped going to school. For her as well, there was no administrative guidance or follow up, and Ayumi as well fell victim to the cycle of not attending school.

The Yokkaichi Municipal Government confirmed that the family had moved to the city in June, and the Yokkaichi Municipal Board of Education sent a letter about enrolling the girl in school. There was no answer, and when an official visited the family's apartment to check on the status of Ayumi's enrollment in school on July 24, they said there were no signs of life. The education board only considered whether or not to visit the residence again, but took no further steps than that.

Around that time, Ayumi's mother was hospitalized, so the girl was living alone with Tokuda. During defendant questioning at his trial, Tokuda testified that he prohibited Ayumi from leaving the apartment and hit her with a slipper for not doing the homework her mother assigned to her and other reasons. She died around Aug. 19 or 20, shortly before her second term of elementary school began.

During the 2018 academic year as well, a foreign child went missing at the Suzuka elementary school that Ayumi had attended. Last May, the child and their family suddenly vanished, and even though one of the parents phoned and said they would return in September, the school was unable to locate them until November.

On weekdays, unable to go to school, Ayumi would ride around the vacant parking lot on a pink bicycle. When a Brazilian high school girl, 18, who lived in the same Yokkaichi apartment that would become Ayumi's grave, would call out to her, she would smile and say, "I'm going to school in September."

(Japanese original by Haruna Okuyama, City News Department)

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