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Japan is young Kurd's only home, despite challenges of 'illegal resident' status

Ramazan, a 23-year-old Kurd who will have lived in Japan for 15 years this year, is seen in the city of Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, on April 20, 2021. He has been forced to lead a life under severe restrictions as he does not have legal residency status. (Mainichi/Yukinao Kin)

TOKYO -- Imagine you have lived in Japanese society since you were a child. The customs and the lifestyle come naturally to you, though you were born elsewhere. Japan is home. Now imagine that you cannot work or move around this home freely, because you are officially categorized as an "illegal resident." This is the plight of not a few people who live amongst us.

    The Mainichi Shimbun sat down with one young adult in this crushing situation.

    "Isn't working a good thing? I don't really understand why they disapprove of it this much," said 23-year-old Ramazan of Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture. He shrugged. His Japanese flowed smoothly, making it apparent that the young man had truly grown up in this country. This spring, he obtained national certification as a car mechanic after graduating from vocational school. However, he cannot put his qualifications to use.

    Ramazan is a Kurd, who moved to Japan from Turkey at age 9 with his parents and younger brother, then 1 year old. His family made the move as their circumstances had turned tense after his relatives were convicted and imprisoned for a political crime.

    The city of Kawaguchi is home to Japan's largest Kurdish community, and Ramazan's family stayed at the home of relatives who had arrived in Japan earlier. Ramazan was placed in a third-grade class at a local public elementary school.

    Ramazan, a 23-year-old Kurd who will have lived in Japan for 15 years this year, is seen in the city of Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, on April 20, 2021. He has been forced to lead a life under severe restrictions as he does not have legal residency status. (Mainichi/Yukinao Kin)

    "As I watched anime, I gradually became able to pick up Japanese words, and my worries about communication disappeared in about half a year. Although I also went through hard times because I'm a foreigner, the most important thing was language. If you can convey your feelings, you'll be able to understand one another. I managed to adapt to school quickly," said Ramazan.

    Ever since Ramazan and his family arrived in Japan, they have repeatedly sought protection as refugees, but no matter how many times they have applied, the Japanese government has not granted them refugee status. As they have no residency status, they are not allowed to work or join the national health insurance scheme, and the family is not even allowed to leave Saitama Prefecture unless authorized by immigration officials. They have had no choice but to rely on the help offered by relatives who have residency status when going about their daily lives. To curb medical expenses, even when Ramazan had a fever of nearly 40 degrees Celsius, he endured it at home. After graduating from junior high, he went on to a high school with a part-time course because the tuition was relatively cheap.

    Ramazan is currently under "temporary release," a provisional status for asylum seekers exempting them from detention at an immigration center to await deportation. However, when he turned 20 years old, an immigration official summoned him to tell him, "You're an adult, so you could be detained at any time. It doesn't matter whether you're attending school."

    The 23-year-old can speak Kurdish, Turkish, and Japanese proficiently. He said, "Making my way around the world was my dream, but I feel that's impossible as I'm not even allowed to go outside Saitama Prefecture. I thought that despite this, interpreting is something I could do. I also wanted to learn English, so applied to vocational schools with English programs, but..."

    He was rejected by eight schools because he has no residency status. Eventually, Ramazan found a vocational school for vehicle maintenance. "When I explained my situation, the school told me, 'We don't discriminate against individuals, so please join us. Although we can't make an enemy of the national government, we'll do what we can do.'" He recalled thinking, "Ah, this is the place I was searching for," and felt touched by the lengths the school went to for him.

    People at a gathering of Kurds living in Japan are seen holding signs reading, "I want to stay in Japan," among other phrases, in the city of Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, on April 18, 2021. (Mainichi/Yukinao Kin)

    After studying for two years, Ramazan obtained a car mechanic license. As his peers began working, he was left behind with a lot of time on his hands. This was not totally unexpected. But he went to the school anyway, in the full knowledge that his efforts could be wasted.

    Ramazan told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I did this because I wanted to open up a path for myself and others. I thought that under these circumstances, if I could go to vocational school, get a visa, and work, other children could see me as an example and envision futures for themselves as well. I could very well be detained, and I wouldn't be doing all this if it was just for my own sake. I want to show people that there's a future if you study."

    Three years ago, Ramazan and his family filed a lawsuit demanding special permission from the Japanese government to stay in the country. The Special Permission for Residence system considers special circumstances to provide residency status to some foreigners who have been subject to departure orders and deportation proceedings. It has been over 10 years since the Kurdish family came to Japan, and their lives are now based here. If they return to Turkey, it is feared that they will face oppression. In the trial, the family has claimed that being sent back to Turkey would violate Article 13 of Japan's Constitution, which guarantees the right to the pursuit of happiness, as well as Article 24 of the International Covenants on Human Rights, which states the importance of valuing the utmost benefits for children. The lawsuit is ongoing at the Tokyo District Court.

    Chuo University Law School professor Yasuzo Kitamura is seen in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on June 2, 2021. (Mainichi/Yukinao Kin)

    About 2,000 Kurds are believed to be living in Kawaguchi and the surrounding area. However, excluding cases where individuals have Japanese spouses, most of them do not have residency status. This occurs against a backdrop of Japan's low refugee recognition rate, which stood at 0.4% in 2019. Many of the Kurds accompanied their parents to Japan as young children or were born in Japan and grew up without being recognized as refugees. For them, their "home country" is a faraway presence, and Japan is their de facto "hometown." Meanwhile, they cannot carry on with their lives freely unless they are given permission to reside in the country legally. Through the lawsuit, Ramazan intends to crack open this contradictory situation.

    According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, up to around 10,000 foreign nationals are deported after receiving departure orders each year. Meanwhile, the number of foreigners given special permission to stay in the country has stalled between 1,000 and 1,999 over the past several years.

    Meanwhile, Japan, too, has made a significant policy shift to accept more foreign nationals in recent years, as it struggles with a labor shortage. It is an unquestionable fact that many industries in the country are dependent on foreign students and technical interns for workers.

    Yasuzo Kitamura, an international human rights law professor at Chuo Law School, said, "That undocumented residents take on tasks known in the past to be tough, dirty, and dangerous, such as demolishing houses, is simply a fact. It doesn't make sense to only rely on them when it's convenient, while also adopting the official stance that 'illegal residents cannot work.' It is necessary to improve the system in accordance with reality."

    Kitamura went on to emphasize, "Many of the foreign nationals that the national government deems illegal residents in Japan have circumstances that don't allow them to return to their home countries. This is likely even more so for children who grew up in Japan. They should be accepted as members of Japanese society, and allowed to stay in the country legally."

    Ramazan has a partner he intends to marry. They went to the same high school, and have been dating for eight years. However, his partner's father began to show support for their relationship only recently.

    The refugee team is seen entering the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro during the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics in this Aug. 5, 2016 file photo. A refugee Olympic team is also set to participate in the Tokyo Olympic Games. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

    "I'm not qualified to work or stay in the country. What would you think if you were told such a person would marry your daughter? They wouldn't be able to take care of her, right? Despite this, her father gave his approval. Now, we're so close that we drink sake together." As he said this, Ramazan appeared bashful, but also happy.

    The Japanese government is moving forward with preparations to hold the Tokyo Olympics. "Unity in Diversity" is one of the slogans of the Tokyo Games, with the objective to "foster a welcoming environment and raise awareness of Unity in Diversity among citizens of the world." A refugee team is also set to participate.

    If that is the case, it is all the more necessary to direct our attention to the presence of foreign nationals stuck in unjust situations around us. What Ramazan wishes for are ordinary days filled with the little things that make people happy. Exactly what| 'national interest' is Japan determined to protect by unyieldingly denying individuals such a simple wish?

    (Japanese original by Yukinao Kin, Digital News Center)

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