Chapter 79 – Changing Japan’s Laws


1. Learning Spanish
2. The Visa Problem
3. The Immigration Reform Committee
4. Asylum Seekers
5. Worker Immigration Problem
6. Visa Overstayers
7. The Ten Year Wait
8. Rescue Carolina
9. Discovering Peru

My interest in Spain had been kindled while at university in Oxford.

The daughters of rich families were being sent there to learn English.  I and my scruffy mates were only too happy to help teach them.

We did not deserve them.  They were much more vivacious and educated than we were, and already fluent in two or more languages.

One – Lola – had even taught me some rude Spanish phrases.

They stuck in the memory and I liked to I trundle them out each time I met a Latino or a Spaniard.

That way I could feel I still had some connection with the language.

On the slow, Suez-delayed boat trip back to Australia in 1956 I even tried to repeat my ’Teach Yourself’ book experience, this time with Spanish. 

But I did not get far.

1. Learning Spanish

Many years later, however, I was to find myself in urgent need to become much more serious about learning Spanish.

Some of the Peruvians forced to seek refuge abroad during Peru’s chaos of the 70’s and 80’s ended up in Boso, near where I was trying to build houses and grow kiwi fruit.

They helped me, and I tried to impress one of them – Carolina – with my Lola Spanish (todos los hombres son una mierda secha – all men are dried turd.)

But she had already taught herself passable Japanese – no easy feat.

I decided I wanted to get to know her better

First move was to make another attempt to learn Spanish. 

Her English was already passable. But she preferred to talk Spanish, mainly to encourage me in my efforts I suspect.

I spent a small fortune collecting books that promised me Spanish fluency. But I had lost the  language skills of my youth.

Fortunately we could also talk to each other in Japanese, until my Spanish got better.

2. The Visa Problem

Like most foreign workers in Japan in those days, the Peruvian refugees had a visa problem. 

Most had entered Japan with three month tourist visas and had deliberately over-stayed – virtually the only way refugees could get into Japan. 

The Japanese government and bureaucracy had been fairly tolerant during the Bubble years, when Japan needed workers. 

Post-Bubble it wanted to get rid of them as quickly as possible, especially since some (mainly Iranians) were causing trouble.

To be caught without a valid visa – at a railway station, riding bike to go shopping, or simply cleaning outside your apartment – was to be held in police detention for weeks, or even months, while they decided what to do with you.

Usually they would then decide to just send you back to your country, which meant being tied together with other over-stayers, taken to the airport and put on a plane with the advice never to come back any time in the next ten years

Refugees, Carolina included, lived in constant fear of being found and deported. 

In her case it would be tragic since her workable Japanese was an asset she could only use properly in Japan.

Fortunately I could help her.

At my Nakadaki development I had an empty Lockwood house where she could stay. 

It would be much safer than continuing to stay in a police-targeted apartment building with other visa over-stayers.  

It also meant I could have a year of free Spanish lessons

3. The Immigration Reform Committee

Meanwhile I was serving on yet another government (Homusho, Law Ministry) committee – this time for reform of immigration policy, in particular the problems of refugee visa-overstayers and asylum seekers.

4. Asylum Seekers

For Tokyo, deciding what to do with asylum seekers was fairly easy. 

To enter Japan they would have had to smuggle themselves in, overstay a visa or enter on a false visa (you could not enter just by declaring that you were an asylum seeker). 

So from the moment of entry they would have broken the law.

In Japanese eyes, as law-breakers they automatically qualified for expulsion, no matter what the excuse.

So in all but special cases the decision was simple – out.

If they did not want to be expelled forcibly,  there was a special jail in Ibaraki where they could sit on tatami behind bars and wait for as many years as they wanted till they decided to go back to the country from which they had fled seeking asylum. 

Some ended up suicidal.

Some of us on the committee suggested a softer attitude. Japan was getting a bad reputation for its asylum policy.

But I could sense the problem it faced in deciding who were genuine asylum seekers and who were not.

5. Worker Immigration Problem

Already it was clear that Europe with its open-door policy was facing severe immigration problems, assimilation especially.

Japan had would have even greater assimilation problems.

Indeed the problems were already being shown by the adult children of Brazilian workers in the car factory districts of northern Gunma and Toyohashi which had taken many Brazilians during Bubble years. 

Many had not mastered Japanese, could not find jobs and were causing trouble.

That, plus the migrant problems in Europe.  provided a good excuse for Japan to just say no to the idea of more migrant workers, and more asylum seekers. 

6. Visa Overstayers

For the visa over-stayers the government solution was just as simple. 

No matter what the reason for having over-stayed the original visa, you had committed a crime. The only escape was to avoid being caught by the ever-vigilant police.

For to be caught by the police meant certain detention, followed by demeaning expulsion.

(Thanks to those vigilant police efforts, our local town, Ohara, has since lost all the vitality that the refugee workers – mainly Iranian and Latino – brought to this conservative outpost during the Bubble years.)

For those like Carolina who had learned the language and were beginning to organise a life in Japan, fear of being caught was a constant nightmare.

On the immigration reform committee I was able to team up with Keio University professor,  Nakatani Iwao, (later my successor as president of Tama University) to try force through some reforms.

Up till then the policy for immigrant workers had been entrance visas for those who could prove some Japanese ancestry – mainly Latinos – and almost zero for the rest.

The authorities had the quaint belief that blood links assisted assimilation.

But problems in Gunma and other Latino ghettos were making them realise that education and skills were more important. 

I had seen how Australia had used a points system to select immigrants. Nakatani had seen the same system at work in Canada.

We teamed up to push the idea.

The bureaucrats resisted – too complicated they argued. But two years later they changed their minds after seeing how the system worked in Canada.

Sorting out Japan’s immigration policy was a source of some pride. But most of the kudos should go to Nakatani.

7. The Ten Year Wait

But I also had to do something about the ten year expulsion dilemma Carolina and many others like her faced. 

With Nakatani support I argued strongly for a system whereby refugees and others without proper visas could turn themselves in freely and voluntarily to the authorities, avoid detention if they had a return plane ticket, and go back promptly to their home countries. Back home they could then apply to return to Japan after one year, not ten years. 

Amazingly, the authorities agreed (they were probably getting tired of having to hunt down over-stayers and hold them in detention ).

A law was passed approving exactly what I had suggested – a great satisfaction considering I was not a citizen of Japan. 

And I also had the very satisfying experience of visiting the large office in Tokyo where once a week the visa-less or visa-overstayers turned themselves in.

It was packed, mainly by Chinese and Koreans, many with young children speaking fluent Japanese.

I asked the poker-faced official in charge whether he felt proud to be expelling so many young people, potential future workers,  who were already assimilating to Japan.  

No reply. 

But in one simple move Japan had solved its visa-overstayer problem. 

8. Rescue Carolina

But new laws in Japan need one year to take effect after promulgation.

So Carolina had to wait another year before she could declare herself and go back to Peru.

I did not mind; the Nakadaki house was still vacant and I had one more year of free Spanish lessons.

Later I invited her very lively family for a visit.

In return they invited me to visit them in Peru. 

9. Discovering Peru

Lima is built on the top of a long cliff facing the ocean where they were starting to build sea-view condos for the rich, the middle class and the tourists.

To me as an Australian, the sea-view condos seemed the ideal place to invest some of my earnings from the lecture circuit. (In Australia you either pay a fortune have a habitation by the sea or you fail to exist. But in Peru those condos were still going quite cheaply.)

If and when she returned to Peru (as seemed inevitable), Carolina could get good experience managing the properties, I thought. 

And with her good Japanese she had no problem getting a return visa to Japan after the year back in Peru.

Today in Japan I move between Tokyo and Boso, with occasional visits to Latin America. 

But none of this would have been possible if we had not changed the law.