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Pressing for Child Rights in Japan

Adoptive parents legally challenge cultural insularity on behalf of stateless son

By Michael ShariSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 7, 1992


SHORTLY after Andrew was born in this remote resort town in Japan's South Alps on Jan. 18, 1991, his mother abandoned him at the hospital. Since she was not Japanese and failed to register the baby's birth, Andrew is stateless - a "shadow person," as the Japanese say.

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That's why Andrew's adoptive parents, Bill and Roberta Rees, an American missionary couple, have taken his case to court. They are suing Japan's Ministry of Justice for human-rights violations that they say affect hundreds, perhaps thousands, of similarly abandoned children all over Japan who deserve citizenship under the United Nations charter. They are suing not for damages but for Andrew's Japanese citizenship.

Filed April 21 at Tokyo District Court, the case can be expected to drag on for longer than a year, as is common in lawsuits in Japan. The Reeses' lawyer, Yukiko Yamada, hopes to make a landmark case out of Andrew's situation.

Mr. Yamada is arguing that the law should be read differently - that Andrew was simply an abandoned child and should be treated like babies who are occasionally found on the doorsteps of monasteries, shrines, and hospitals in this country. The case rests partly on the assumption that the hospital's sketchy records of Andrew's mother, who was believed to be Filipino, will not stand up in court.

"The government's attitude toward the rights of foreigners and children should be subjected to criticism," says Yamada.

Japan has been criticized in the West as an insular, xenophobic culture. By law, all resident foreigners must be fingerprinted and issued identification cards. Refusing to cooperate can mean deportation or prison. At Tokyo District Court, for example, such sentences are handed down in courtrooms reserved for foreigners, or "outsiders," as the Japanese say. As usual in all trials, no jury is provided.

What makes Andrew's situation especially tenuous is that his chances of being adopted by a Japanese family would have been practically nil. He was born into a society where adoption is almost unthinkable.

"What matters in a Japanese family is keeping the bloodline pure, so abandoned children have little hope of being adopted," explains Takashi Sakata, vice president of Japan's private Council of Infant Homes.

Had the Reeses not been running a Baptist church out of their home in the nearby town of Miyota, Andrew would have been put in a state infant home and then an orphanage before being put out on the street at 18. Thereafter, he would have been deprived of the right to medical care, education, or social security benefits.

"In fact, such children have no rights at all," adds Dr. Sakata.

Attorneys representing the Justice Ministry argue that Andrew's mother was rumored to be a prostitute from the Philippines, but without confirmation the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo refuses to act on the child's behalf. On April 21, the government lawyers asked for more time to gather evidence, and in June the request for yet more time pushed the trial date back to July 16.

Similar stumbling blocks have been found in other court cases of abandoned children. Diplomatic missions of Thailand and other Asian and Latin American countries, which are reportedly the countries supplying Japan's widespread and illegal prostitution industry with young women, commonly refuse to acknowledge the mother's nationality.

Because the industry is mostly undocumented and run by the secretive Yakuza crime syndicates, the real numbers of women and abandoned children involved may never be known. Child-welfare officials cautiously refer to it as a "hidden problem," and they admit that some Yakuza syndicates are believed to be raising some of these children on their own, outside of society.

Sakata, who is also director of the Japanese Red Cross Infant Home in Tokyo, scoffs at the only official figures available - which reveal a mere six stateless babies, all of them in Tokyo.

OFFICIALS at the hospital where Andrew was born in this resort town known for its 200 licensed "hostess" bars won't say how many stateless children they've seen, but they're calling the problem "critical."

Those who wind up in infant homes have obstacles other than traditional family values preventing them from being adopted. Japan's adoption law, says Sakata, makes it difficult for a child to be adopted without the mother's permission. Her rights are paramount, in her absence at least.