Famous scofflaws hit Japan

Bobby Fischer, the American chess legend, is in Japan fighting a US deportation order.

For a country that shut out foreigners for hundreds of years, Japan has proved strangely attractive for problem migrants of late.

The latest gaijin to show up in Japan is chess legend Bobby Fischer, who was caught trying to leave Japan on a revoked US passport last month. Still in detention as he fights deportation, the former world chess champion announced this week he wanted to renounce his US citizenship and marry his Japanese partner.

The Japanese government is treading lightly around Mr. Fischer, who is wanted in the US for winning more than $3 million in prize money in a chess match against Boris Spassky in the former Yugoslavia in violation of United Nations sanctions.

"It's a rather political matter, so the government is being very careful," says Naoya Wada, an immigration lawyer in Tokyo.

Also entangled in extradition proceedings here are former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, and Sgt. Charles Jenkins, who is accused by the US of deserting to North Korea. In both men's cases, fame and kinship connections to the nation have engendered sympathetic treatment in this insular society. However, Fischer's star-power - neither he nor the game of chess have big followings here - may not be bright enough to spur Japan to risk alienating its close ally, the US.

Fischer is waiting on an appeal to Japan's justice minister to recognize his passport as revoked without due process and thus valid. Mr. Wada says the problem in the Fischer case may not have been the passport, but an expired visa - which means that if Fischer is able to legally marry before his two-month detention period is up, he could have grounds to legalize his stay in Japan. Indeed, the status of the passport is key - a valid US passport or document confirming citizenship is essential to register a marriage in Japan.

The human rights group Amnesty International criticized the Japanese government's handling of Fischer's case Thursday, calling it "sloppy and political."

Different dynamics are at work in the cases of Messrs. Jenkins and Fujimori.

Fujimori is currently holed up somewhere in Japan while Peru seeks his extradition to face charges that he authorized massacres during his rule. The extradition request was submitted more than a year ago, but the case has become bogged down due to Fujimori's right to protection as a Japanese citizen that was extended to him when his Japanese-born parents registered his birth at a consulate in Peru.

Japan has also successfully held the US back from arresting the accused defector Jenkins, given his poor health as he meets with lawyers to discuss his case. The idea of a plea bargain has been floated in what may amount to leniency in return for a valuable first-hand account of the machinations of the North Korean regime. Many say it is the high public profile of Jenkins's Japanese wife, abducted by North Korean agents and returned to Japan in 2002 to an adoring local media, that has prompted politicians in Tokyo to lobby for leniency in his case.

While Jenkins has gained considerable leverage from being married to a Japanese, and Fujimori's parentage has protected him from extradition, Fischer may not prove so lucky. His relationship with Japan Chess Association President Miyoko Watai appears genuine and long-standing, but has no weight under the law.

The couple will have a tough time whipping up the kind of public attention that surrounds North Korean abductees. Although most Japanese are somewhat nonplussed that Fischer chose Tokyo's chess clubs as his hiding place for all these years, media attention is meagre.

The final outcome is likely to depend on Fischer's marital status. "He will be deported unless he gets married legally," Wada says.

Japan's relationship with its immigrant community has long been a complicated one. Even for highly skilled foreigners, obtaining Japanese citizenship can be daunting. Unskilled workers are welcomed as maids and laborers but only on a temporary basis. Even Japan's Korean community - many of whom are Japanese nationals, speak only Japanese, and have no connection to the land of their heritage - are viewed to a certain degree as outsiders.

The tiptoeing by Tokyo around the extradition cases of famous people contrasts sharply with a new crackdown on everyday immigration at major airports as Japan aims to stop terrorists crossing its borders. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Tokyo has stepped up its investigations of illegal aliens - with some surprising results. Some 8,000 foreign nationals were denied entry at Japan's two largest airports last year, up 9 percent from a year earlier.

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