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Caught in a downward spiral: S. American man deported 'home' after 22 years in Japan

A postcard written to a Mainichi Shimbun reporter by a man deported for robbery is seen in this partially modified photo taken in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Takehiko Onishi)

TOKYO -- A third-generation Japanese man who served nearly seven years in prison for robbery was deported to South America in late November 2019, after spending 22 years in Japan.

Now 32, he has almost forgotten his mother tongue and has no one to depend on, as his family have decided to remain in Japan for his disabled younger brother currently in junior high school.

The man came to Japan aged just 10, when his parents arrived here looking for work. At elementary school, other children would break his belongings and call him "gaijin," a term sometimes used pejoratively to refer to foreign nationals. He learned hiragana, one component of the Japanese writing system, and simple kanji Chinese characters taught in lower grades. But he had a hard time understanding classes once he moved up to junior high school, and from the second semester of his first year his attendance started to drop off.

He began getting invited over to the home of a Japanese kid who was older than him and had a reputation for trouble. One winter day, unable to understand what the Japanese boy was telling him, he stayed silent. Angered by what he perceived as a slight, the older boy beat him up using a guitar. "What are you ignoring me like that for," he said. Blood streamed from the younger boy's head and onto the tatami mat floor.

When he finally returned home, his parents were both asleep, tired from their work at a food factory. Alone, he quietly took a shower and washed off the blood. He recalled thinking, "Because I've come to Japan, I should listen to what Japanese people say."

Under instructions from the older boy, he started to engage repeatedly in crimes including snatching cash offered at shrines, extorting money from people, and stealing motorcycles. Unlike his experiences at the elementary school, he found he could avoid being bullied if he did what the older boy told him.

But then he was put in a juvenile detention center for theft and extortion at age 15. After his release at 16, he worked part-time at a bakery to acquire working skills. But the older boy found him, and came to visit after hearing the news about his release. He ended up back under his control, and became unable to work at the bakery. At age 17 he spent another year at a juvenile detention center for arson.

When he turned 18, the man started work at a factory for a subcontractor making auto parts. But at 20, all of the foreign employees including him were laid off due to a decline in revenues at the firm. Shortly after that, his father also lost his job due to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the resultant financial crisis.

After a while, a 31-year-old foreign man he met while at the factory called him to come over to his house. When he arrived, the man showed him a video of news reports on a robbery case at a convenience store. When his acquaintance then suggested they do the same to pay for their living expenses, the man agreed without much thought. The two went on to break into convenience stores and restaurants, and the man was charged for four robbery cases and sentenced to seven years in prison at age 22.

While serving his sentence, he acquired qualifications to operate forklifts and aerial work platforms. As he achieved his dream of obtaining a job-related skill, he became able to concentrate on learning Japanese. The man attended a class to learn the language which were held at the institution. For the first time in his life, he won a certificate for his effort and hard work.

He was eventually released on parole at age 28 and with 10 months left on his sentence. He was excited to live with his parents again, but instead was immediately taken to a facility run by the Immigration Bureau at the time. There, he learned that foreigners sentenced to imprisonment for one year or more lose their residency status and are deported.

The man had no one to consult with in his home country or in Japan. Based on advice from a lawyer, he sought the right to stay in this country and filed a lawsuit to have the deportation order nullified, but it was dismissed.

In an act of desperation, the man wrote a letter explaining his situation to Utsunomiya University professor Matsuo Tamaki, who authored a vocabulary book he studied Japanese words from while serving his time. Along with a petition written by Tamaki, the man applied for provisional release to be freed from the Immigration Bureau's custody, but this was also dismissed.

"It's a downward spiral we often see among foreigners who can't understand Japanese. The individuals are seen as liable for their crimes and their efforts to rehabilitate are not acknowledged," Tamaki explained.

The 32-year-old eventually accepted his deportation order in October 2019 -- after having spent a total of 10 years in prison and at the detention center. At the center, he told a Mainichi Shimbun reporter about his anxiety: "It's been so long since I was a part of society, and there's so many things I don't know."

On the New Year's Day, the same Mainichi reporter received a postcard from the man, sent before he left Japan. It read, "May this be a great year," and, "I'm finally getting used to life in my country, but it's very difficult."

Professor Tamaki says he received news that the foreigner who had been an accomplice in the robbery cases was also deported, and had come to the airport to pick the 32-year-old up. Though the man had told the Mainichi that he now dreams of becoming a tour guide, he reportedly does not have a job. He has not contacted the Mainichi reporter since sending the postcard.

(Japanese original by Haruna Okuyama, City News Department)

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