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30 yrs of backing distressed foreigners in Japan (Pt. 3): Fighting discrimination

Ippei Torii discusses online with a partner organization about foreign technical interns who are suffering due to the coronavirus pandemic, in Taito Ward, Tokyo, on Feb. 18, 2021. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

NAGANO -- What is the source of the passion of Ippei Torii, 67, representative director of the nonprofit organization Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan (SMJ), to support foreign workers? One of the reasons is that he is familiar with the issue of discrimination.

    Torii grew up in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, and one day when he casually looked at his family register, which he had to submit when he entered high school, there was no entry in his father's name. He had long wondered why his father's surname was different from his own, even though there were four people in the family including his mother and younger brother. In fact, his father was not married to his mother in the family register, and he hadn't recognized Torii as his own child.

    After graduating from high school, Torii took an employment examination for a major company. At the final interview, he was asked, "You have a father, don't you?" He wrote his father's name on his resume, but the father section of his family register was blank. The interviewer looked at Torii with a puzzled expression, and he knew that he would not get the job. Torii tried to cover up his uncomfortable feeling by laughing. In the end, he was not hired.

    Torii went on to study at Kobe University's night school. He was involved in the activities of the neighborhood association and learned about the discrimination suffered by people from the "burakumin area," or former outcast communities, which made him angry about the incident at the employment interview. When he was interrogated by the police for his involvement in the neighborhood association, the officer talked about his family and mocked him, saying, "That's why you've got a bad personality."

    The father of Torii existed, even though the family register was blank. His dad's certificate of residency was available, but the family register does not exist at his legal domicile. Torii also heard his father's original family name was common among people from the Korean Peninsula. However, until his father passed away when Torii was 40 years old, his father never talked about his upbringing except to say that he didn't have any relatives as a child.

    In his late 20s, when he was working at a factory in Tokyo after dropping out of university, Torii was haunted by the question, "Who am I?" In the labor movement, support for the democratization movement in South Korea also became a theme. But Torii thought, "Am I Japanese? In what position should I get involved?" His concerns only deepened.

    Unable to contain his feelings, Torii visited a town in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, where his father had told him he had spent his childhood. Torii spent several days walking around the area with a map that his father had drawn, but he found no one who knew his father. Then he thought, "What am I doing? I don't care about my roots." His cloudy feeling disappeared, and his journey of self-discovery was over.

    Torii still doesn't know why his father's family register is missing, or whether or not his father is from the Korean Peninsula. "All I can say is that the government's management at the time was very sloppy, and now they talk about workers' nationalities? I want to tell them they shouldn't be so arrogant," Torii said.

    Although he has never forgotten his anger at the discrimination, he had avoided revealing the circumstances surrounding his father's family registration to others. Torii didn't want people to misunderstand and think that they can't get involved in helping foreigners unless they have special circumstances.

    This is the "origin" that Torii had kept in his heart for 40 years. However, one event prompted him to speak out about it. In October last year, the SMJ held an online dialogue event. The guest, photojournalist Natsuki Yasuda, 34, said, "When I was a high school student and got a copy of my family register to apply for a passport, I found out that my late father was a South Korean living in Japan and that he hadn't recognized my older brother as his son." Torii learned that Yasuda's thoughts on "nationality" were behind her decision to make issues surrounding refugee status and hate speech one of her reporting themes.

    Listening to her story, Torii was reminded of the days when he struggled with the question about his identity. At the same time, he was glad to know that he was not the only one who struggled with the issue of family registration, and that such a young person was working to fight against discrimination.

    "I was hoping that someone who heard my story would be interested and make this an opportunity to start getting involved in activism," he said at the event, revealing for the first time in public that his father's name was not on the family register.

    "I am not the same age as Ms. Yasuda, but I wonder why our society continues to create suffering and conflict. How can we move forward as a society?" he asked listeners while summarizing his thoughts on his activities.

    The coronavirus pandemic continues to cast a dark shadow over the lives of foreign workers. The family of Mirakuru, 17, a high school student in Japan with Ghanaian parents, was allowed to live in part of a Christian church building and was getting by on donations from supporters. However, the church's finances have become tight due to the pandemic, and they do not have sufficient funds. The family is surviving on food donations from supporters.

    Last fall, the SMJ collected about 49 million yen ($449,500) in donations to support foreigners in need. From these funds, Mirakuru's family received 90,000 yen (about $825). Mirakuru shared her feeling of being saved, "There are people in Japan who are willing to help us. And Torii is like another father to me."

    Torii said, "If we can't save this child, our society is useless." Japan is treating foreigners as a convenient labor force. He has been working hard to correct such practices and has supported more than 5,000 foreigners, but Japan is still far from an ideal society.

    Still, there is a future for multicultural coexistence. In response to Mirakuru's appeal, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said, "I would like to apologize. Up until now, the party has not tackled the issue (of immigration), and we have caused a lot of trouble."

    Torii said, "The coronavirus pandemic has revealed discrimination, but it has also made it clear that this country cannot function without foreigners. We must use this as a springboard to aim for an ideal society."

    (This is Part 3 of a three-part series)

    (Japanese original by Go Kumagai, Nagano Bureau)

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