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Olympic torch relay touts Japan diversity, but does it hide foreign residents' reality?

Nandin-Erdene Lkhagvadorj, left, a technical intern at Fujita Rashi Kougyou Co. who will run in the Olympic Torch Relay, is seen at work with Katsuhiko Tagawa, a consultant at the same company, in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, on Feb. 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Kazuhiro Tahara)

The diversity-championing Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay to herald the opening of this summer's Olympic Games is set to begin from March 26. People with roots in various countries and regions will complete a relay around the entire country while holding the torch aloft, which features a five-petalled cherry blossom design that is also meant to represent the five continents of the games.

But does Japanese society really have the preparations in place to accept true diversity?

Fujita Rashi Kougyou Co., a screws manufacturer based in the city of Nagoya, has a factory in the city of Okazaki in the central Japan prefecture of Aichi. Among its employees is Nandin-Erdene Lkhagvadorj, a 28-year-old Mongolian woman. On the day the Mainichi Shimbun visited, she was seen using an inspection unit to scrutinize whether some of the screws had sustained blemishes or damage. She is one of the over 80 foreign technical interns the company has employed at two of its factories in Aichi since 2007, and goes by the nickname Nandia at work.

Nandia was chosen along with other notable individuals including shogi player Sota Fujii, 17, and comedian Atsushi Tamura, 46, to run the torch relay in Aichi. In November, she will reach the end of her five years as a technical intern; the maximum period for the job.

She said, "I wonder if I was chosen by God because I worked hard in Japan. As one of my last acts here, I want to give back in gratitude to everyone at the company," she said in fluent Japanese.

Under the technical intern trainee program, young people come from developing nations to work in Japan and then later take back the skills they attain to their home countries. The report on the state of foreign workers employed in Japan by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare stated that in October 2019 there were 383,978 technical interns in all of Japan. The largest proportion of them, 43,210 people, were employed in Aichi Prefecture, which boasts a thriving manufacturing industry.

The program was established under a lofty goal of creating people who through cooperative efforts would go on to take responsibility for the economic progress of developing nations. But in practice it's often just a way for small and medium-sized businesses to obtain unskilled laborers.

There have been instances of people working in awful employment conditions, doing long hours with unpaid overtime. Repeated cases of people running away from their placements are becoming a social problem.

Ippei Torii, who has a lot of experience supporting foreign individuals and who heads the Tokyo-based nonprofit organization (NPO) Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, said, "The system is a con. It should be ended as soon as possible. People come to Japan under the pretense of receiving technical training only to end up working in low paid jobs."

It appears that firms like Fujita Rashi Kougyou, which offers its technical interns Japanese lessons every Thursday and allows them to shine in the workplace, are in short supply. For this very reason, the company encouraged Nandia to enter the draw for selection for the relay.

Katsuhiko Tagawa, a consultant at the firm, said, "By showing everyone this person who has worked in a healthy environment, we wanted to change the image people have of technical interns. If they connect with their employers like family, then it's by no means a bad program."

To expand the number of foreigners that can be accepted into Japan, the government revised the Immigration Control Act in 2019. Now, if technical interns complete certain training courses they are able to obtain a status of residency which allows them to extend their time in Japan. But there are issues with the changes, including that the fields they can be applied to are limited.

For Nandia, the chance to participate in the Olympic torch relay has further strengthened her ties with Japan. She said, "Even after this event I want to stay in Japan and continue working here."

Alessandra Armitage, an elementary school student selected to run in the Olympic Torch Relay, is seen on a smartphone held up by her mother, Joy, in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture, on Feb. 3, 2020. (Mainichi/Kazuhiro Tahara)

The torch relay is also exposing the light and shade that exists around the living situations for children in Japan who have roots in other countries. Alessandra Armitage, 12, a sixth-grade elementary school student in the city of Ibaraki in the western Japan prefecture of Osaka, was selected with a 1 in 190 chance of being allowed to participate in the relay. "I thought it was impossible, but when they told me I was so happy," she said in the Osaka dialect.

Her parents, both from the Philippines, wanted a better educational environment for their daughter. To secure her one, she and her mother, Joy, 37, moved to Japan six years ago. Initially Alessandra couldn't speak any Japanese, and she remembers that she would resist having to study the language, saying, "I'm not a Japanese girl!" But as she gained more friends and became better able to speak, she found her confidence grew, and she eagerly started taking part in karate and other activities.

Her mother Joy, who obtained a work visa and found employment as an assistant language teacher at elementary and junior high schools in the prefecture, said she is proud of her daughter. Alessandra said, "In the future, I want to be a lawyer and help people."

Miracle, center, who lives in Japan without status as a resident, is seen with her parents in Misato, Saitama Prefecture, on Feb. 19, 2020. (Mainichi/Kazuhiro Tahara)

But in east Japan, life is very different for another girl with roots in another country. Miracle, 16, studies as a first-year student at a private high school in the capital and lives with her Ghanaian parents. Since the third grade of elementary school she has been practicing hard to become a pro basketball player, but she is not able to obtain residency, and she gave up on trying to apply for the torch relay under the belief there was no way she could be chosen.

Miracle's parents came to Japan in the early 1990s on a short-term visa that didn't allow them to seek employment. They overstayed its terms and worked at a rubber goods factory in Misato, Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo. Her mother had Miracle when she was 43 years old, and named her such because she felt it was a miracle to have had a child at a relatively advanced age.

But their lives abruptly changed in January 2010. In consideration of the family's future, Miracle's father tried to register them through the alien registration system (abolished in 2012). It was then that their illegal stay in the country was discovered, and they were put in detention at an immigration facility.

The family were ordered to return to their home country, but Miracle can only speak Japanese and the family had based their lives in Japan for a long time. They refused to leave, and ended up spending around eight months in detention.

Now they are under provisional release, which means their detention has been temporarily stopped. Under the rules of provisional release, the family must as a rule check-in at an immigration facility every month, and the scope for their activities and where they can live is heavily restricted. They are forbidden from seeking work, and receive support to live from sources including a church they attend each week.

According to a support group, if Miracle applied for a foreign student visa she would obtain it. But there are fears that if she did accept it, her parents would have to go back to Ghana in return for the legal change. Her lack of status as a resident has become a sticking point, with offers from high schools known as basketball powerhouses drying up. Her dream of becoming a professional basketball player is fading.

Some countries in Europe and elsewhere legally grant residency under amnesty rules to individuals who live in a country for a certain number of years or fulfills other set criteria. Japan's Immigration Control Act does have a system to allow for special residency permission, but the hurdles to gaining it are high.

Torii, the head of the NPO Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, said, "In the Olympic Charter it says, 'The practice of sport is a human right.' There should be conditions in keeping with that in the host nation where the Tokyo Olympic Games are being held."

Seigo Kayanoki, a researcher specializing in migrant issues, said, "People with roots in other countries live here in Japan in various different ways, but the people chosen for the torch relay are only those who have had success in Japan. They can't erase the impression that the municipal authorities have made convenient choices to feign a sense of diversity."

Ahead of the start of the torch relay, Miracle said, "If you really do hold diversity in esteem, then I want you to look around you. There are people like me in this world, too."

(Japanese original by Kazuhiro Tahara, Sports News Department)

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