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4th-generation Japanese visa applicants hamstrung by language, age requirements

A group of fourth-generation Brazilians of Japanese descent is seen studying at a Japanese language school in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on June 3, 2019. (Mainichi/Taichi Yamamoto)

July 1 marked one year since Japan launched a new visa system to accept fourth-generation foreigners of Japanese descent, or "nikkei yonsei," to work in Japan, but the requirements for acceptance under the system present too high a hurdle for many.

The government initially anticipated the scheme would see around 4,000 users per year, but up until June 17, 2019, only 43 people were granted the certificate of eligibility required to apply for a visa.

Many fourth-generation Japanese people have deep ties to their home countries. The scheme is aimed at encouraging those people to serve as a bridge between Japan and their home countries, but the new language requirements present a high hurdle for them, especially as programs for third-generation Japanese descendants did not impose such conditions.

An association of Japanese descendants in Brazil is urging the government to complete a widespread review of the current system.

Jaqueline Oliveira, 23, is a fourth-generation Japanese person living in Sao Paulo, Brazil, home to the largest Japanese diaspora in any city in the world. "The third-generation didn't have to speak the language; there's injustice between the generations," she lamented. For the third-generation's visa applications, proficiency in the Japanese language was not necessary, but for the fourth, a basic level of linguistic understanding is required.

Candidates are expected to have obtained at least the N4 level of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test. While doing sewing work, Oliveira is studying to pass the exam at the end of the year. She attends a language school three days a week, studying for three hours a day.

Oliveira lived in Mie Prefecture, central Japan, until the age of 5, after her father, 50, a third-generation Brazilian of Japanese descent, arrived in the country to earn money. She attended the same kindergarten as other Japanese children, but after returning to Brazil, she forgot most of the language she had acquired. Even so, she said, "I love Japanese culture. I always thought I wanted to go back there. My dream is to work in the fashion industry there." But when it comes to the language requirements, she said, "Memorizing kanji is very difficult. I want them to ease the Japanese language proficiency requirements a little more."

Even some fourth-generation foreigners of Japanese descent who overcome the language requirements, seen to be the scheme's greatest hurdle, still cannot obtain a certificate of eligibility. One example is Marjorie Kamura, 23, a Japanese language school student who is certified N2, two levels up from the scheme's N4 criteria.

In February 2019, she applied for the certificate of eligibility at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau via her father, 50, living in Japan. But her application was unsuccessful.

The immigration bureau was reportedly concerned by Kamura's lack of steady employment in Brazil, as well as her receiving support from her father to live. They questioned whether she would be able to find work sufficient to sustain her life in Japan. "I don't understand why they denied it even though I've worked part-time there before," she said, expressing feelings of distrust for the immigration bureau that rejected her attempt to live in Japan.

Kamura spent around 10 years of her childhood in Japan, living in the prefectures of Kanagawa and Chiba in east Japan. Because she was unable to continue residing in Japan after reaching adulthood, she returned to Brazil. For two years beginning in 2016 she stayed in Japan on a foreign student's visa. She studied at a Japanese language school, and worked part-time at a convenience store.

In smooth Japanese she said, "To become an interpreter of Japanese and Portuguese, I want to improve my Japanese in Japan." She also wants to live near to her father and younger sister, 21, and intends to reapply for the certificate of eligibility again in 2020.

Yasuo Yamada, president of the Japan Federation of Provinces Associations in Brazil, a group for Brazilian people of Japanese descent, spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun. He said other restrictions for issuing the visas are causing many people to give up on applying, including that applicants must be aged 30 or under and cannot be accompanied by family members.

It's estimated there are over 150,000 fourth-generation foreigners of Japanese descent aged 30 and older. The federation is trying to get the government to review current requirements including abolishing the age limit to open up the scheme. Yamada said, "The new system is a considerable distance from what we're asking for. A program that isn't used is a failure. We want them to open the door wider for fourth-generation foreigners with roots in this country."

(Japanese original by Taichi Yamamoto, Sao Paulo Bureau, Takakazu Murakami, City News Department, and Kana Takagi, Foreign News Department)

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