JIN-371 -- Rescuing an Abandoned People

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Issue No. 371
Tuesday June 13, 2006 TOKYO

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@@ VIEWPOINT: Rescuing an Abandoned People

The Population Survey Report, released by the Ministry of Health,
Labor and Welfare on June 1, showed that the birthrate was more
abysmal than feared, 1.25 children over the course of a woman's
lifetime. This statistic brought more gnashing of teeth by government
bureaucrats and editorial writers.

Six days later, on June 7, the Tokyo District Court rejected a suit for
damages filed by a group of aging Japanese immigrants in the
Caribbean. In view of the plummeting birthrate, the law suit is an
ironic reminder that Japan once felt compelled to massively export

For much of the 20th century emigration was a national policy
promoted by the Japanese government. In fact, the first Akutagawa Prize,
Japan's most prestigious literary award, was given to Tatsuzo
Ishikawa for "Sobo" in 1935. The novel, a work in three parts, was based
on Ishikawa's experience aboard an immigrant ship and on a Brazilian
plantation. The first part, which depicts the lives of people in the Kobe
National Emigration Center in the days before their departure,
was awarded the prize.

Even in the immediate postwar years, before the period of high
economic growth, the government implemented a policy of large-scale
emigration as an outlet for a population swollen by soldiers back
from a lost empire and by a boom in babies in a country without
enough jobs.

This policy recently came under scrutiny with the rejection by the
Tokyo District Court of a suit filed by Japanese emigrants to the
Dominican Republic in the 1950s.

The 177 plaintiffs were among 1,320 Japanese who in the latter half
of the 1950s emigrated to the Dominican Republic to farm. The government
enticed emigrants with a promise of "a paradise in the Caribbean Sea."

Awaiting the settlers was hell rather than paradise. The land,
one-third the size promised in government guidelines, was rock-strewn
and rendered infertile by salt and limestone. There was little water and
no electricity. What's more, the settlers were not given title to the
land, as promised, but only the right to cultivate it.

One of the plaintiffs, Toru Takegama (68), told Reuters the Japanese
were confined to barbed-wire-enclosed settlements that served as buffers
against intrusion from Haiti. "Some of settlers committed suicide
because they thought if they died, their wives and children would be
returned to Japan," he said.

The court recognized that responsibility for the settlers' hardships
rested with the government, which had conducted a slipshod survey of the
prospective settlement site and halfhearted negotiations with the
Dominican government. Thus it seemed to reject the government's argument
that it was merely performing a service in providing information to
would-be emigrants and bore no legal responsibility for what befell
them in the Caribbean. However, the court rejected the plaintiffs'
suit on the grounds that the term for filing for damages has expired.

The government won in court, but no person of conscience could fail to
recognize its obligation to make reparations. In a positive sign, Prime
Minister Koizumi told parliament that payment of damages is appropriate.

"Sobo," the title of Ishikawa's novel, is written with two Chinese
characters. Together they mean "the people," while the "bo" alone refers
to the plight of refugees or bond laborers. In his day Tatsuzo Ishikawa
had denounced the reality of Japanese emigrants as a people abandoned
by their country. Today, in the 21st century, the status of "abandoned
people" should not go unchallenged.

If politicians hope to instill patriotism, Japan should prove it is a
country with a deeply felt love of principle and responsibility by
hastening to heed Koizumi's call to pay the damages.

-- Burritt Sabin

SUBSCRIBERS: 30,634 as of June 12, 2006

Written by Burritt Sabin


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