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Crowdfunded documentary to delve into postwar Japan's anti-foreigner discrimination

Wishma Sandamali's image is seen at a funeral held in May in Nagoya, in this photo provided by Ko Chanyu.

OSAKA -- Nonfiction writer and Ikuno Ward, Osaka resident Ko Chanyu, 74, is producing a documentary about discrimination against foreign people living in Japan.

    Ko was spurred to redouble his efforts by the shocking death of Sri Lankan woman Wishma Sandamali in March 2021. She was just 33 when she succumbed to illness in detention at the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau without being given access to appropriate medical care. Describing his aims for the work, Ko said, "I intend to paint a full picture of postwar discrimination against foreign people living in Japan, including against Zainichi Koreans and issues around the immigration services."

    He is planning to complete the work by spring 2022, and is raising the money to make it through crowdfunding and other means.

    Born in 1947, Ko graduated from Korea University in the Tokyo suburban city of Kodaira. He has been a playwright, a magazine editor, and his serialized reports in the Mainichi Shimbun -- "Ikyo Gurashi (Tahyansari)" -- roughly translating to living in a strange land -- were made into a book.

    Ko Chanyu is seen holding a flyer asking for support for a documentary, in this image taken in Osaka's Tennoji Ward in September 2019. (Mainichi/Ken Uzuka)

    He has continued writing on the various issues faced by foreign nationals who live in Japan long term, with a special focus on Zainichi Koreans. He has released many books, but the 2019 film he produced -- "Aitachi no Gakkou," or "our children's schools" -- received the Japan film revitalization encouragement award. It was well received, was even shown in South Korea, and is in university library collections across the U.S.

    His film this time is intended to be a culmination of all his investigations thus far, and will provide a comprehensive portrayal of the continuing discrimination against foreign nationals in Japan's postwar era. He began work on the film in February 2021, but Wishma's death in the custody of the Nagoya immigration bureau came shortly afterwards.

    Ko said the case was "representative of the attitude that does not see foreign people as human beings." He said that rather than being a problem concerning specific individual immigration bureau employees, it was "a crime committed by the state." He added, "Wishma's case is just one that happened to rise to the surface. In 2019, at the Omura Immigration Center (in Nagasaki Prefecture), a Nigerian man starved to death on hunger strike. And there are countless instances of verbal and physical abuse."

    Ko was among those who attended Wishma's funeral, and he interviewed her supporters and lawyers, too. A woman who supported Wishma and met her numerous times while in detention said she looked weaker and weaker by the day. "There were times when she'd come to the visiting area in a wheelchair and with a sick bucket," she told him. Although she pushed for the immigration bureau to give her the appropriate care, she said they did not listen to her calls.

    He also spoke to many foreign nationals currently on temporary release from immigration bureau detention. Ko said, "Many of them told me they were treated cruelly at immigration facilities, and they told me, 'I am not an animal.' To be forced into a situation where they were compelled to say that, it shows the xenophobia here, and the worship of Europe and America."

    The harsh postwar discrimination against Zainichi Koreans was the starting point for Ko to hear from a wide range of foreign nationals, including refugees, people of Japanese descent who have come to work in Japan, foreign technical trainees and others. Through these conversations, Ko felt the oppression of foreigners in Japan that has been consistent since the end of World War II.

    People are seen demonstrating against revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act and other issues in the city of Osaka, in this image provided by Ko Chanyu.

    "Doesn't it seem that the Japanese government saw its discrimination against Zainichi Koreans as successful, and has used that to oppress people of other nations, too? Whether they're Koreans, Chinese, Nepalese, Vietnamese. It seems they've continued to look for people they can abuse, people across the world who can be worked into the ground."

    Ko is also thinking of ways to get people with no interest in the issues surrounding foreigners in Japan to see the film. "People who commit one kind of discrimination become involved in other kinds, too. Discrimination against foreigners ultimately leads to discrimination against Japanese people, too. If you think, 'Oh, discriminating against foreigners is fine,' we'll probably see a further rise in Japanese people becoming non-permanent workers, a cut in welfare, and more people in distress."

    The subjects of his criticism are the government as a system and the ruling class. Previously, Ko took part in a research trip to Canada. There, the world's first multiculturalism policy was adopted in 1971, and many women and immigrants have gone on to take positions of responsibility in society, including as national lawmakers, lawyers, school principals and others.

    "If the government and those in charge declare they would 'not tolerate discrimination,' and put it into action, society will change," Ko said. He says his ongoing work is being made with a glimmer of hope that it will help bring about a world without discrimination.

    Shooting is coming to an end, and now Ko is calling for support. The film's crowdfunding, ending Oct. 7, can be found by searching online for "A-port eiga" (eiga in kanji characters). Money can also be wired directly to Ko Chanyu's postal savings account, at: 00980-8-115342.

    (Japanese original by Ken Uzuka, Osaka Photo Department)

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