Pressing for Child Rights in Japan

Adoptive parents legally challenge cultural insularity on behalf of stateless son

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.

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.

The Reeses are not new to the complexities of adoption law in Japan, however. Andrew is the most recent of 10 children adopted by the couple. But as long as Andrew remains stateless, they cannot adopt him under United States law and bring him to the US.

The last child the Reeses adopted was believed to have been born to a Thai prostitute under the same circumstances as Andrew in 1988. But Annette was spared the ordeal of litigation by a member of the lower house of Japan's Diet, Yukio Hoshino.

A lawyer by profession and a member of the house legal-affairs committee, Mr. Hoshino discovered a never-used clause in Japan's citizenship law saying that a child who has lived in Japan for three years from birth is eligible, at the discretion of the minister of justice, for naturalization.

"Why should we punish babies? They are born innocent," Hoshino said in an interview.

Annette is slated to become the first known case of naturalization under the clause later this year. But the Reeses are still not satisfied.

"Naturalizing these babies is like saying they're not really Japanese," says Mr. Rees.

Undaunted by bureaucracy, the Reeses say they have seen the worst. On one occasion, Mrs. Rees claims she was asked by an official of the Regional Legal Affairs Bureau in Nagano Prefecture, where Komoro is located: "Where are you hiding the mothers? How much are you paying the mothers?"

Rendered speechless, she recalls being warned: "You're going to get in serious trouble with the law because you're not telling the truth."

On another occasion, when Mr. Rees sought the advice of immigration officials in Tokyo on how to get permission to bring Andrew and Annette to the United States, he remembers being told: "These babies should have been aborted. Then you wouldn't have had this problem."

A senior administrator at the Komoro hospital explains that this apparent "lack of compassion" exists to discourage prostitutes from getting pregnant. But he notes that those who do come to his maternity ward appear desperate, shabbily dressed, and unable to afford an abortion (which is legal in Japan).

But the Reeses are not the only foster parents to have come up against a brick wall.

A US embassy official who asked not to be named is locked in a legal battle simply to register the birth of a stateless baby born last year to a Thai prostitute in a town north of Tokyo. Despite his diplomatic status, the official says he and his wife can only depend on a Japanese lawyer to chew through the red tape and eventually allow him to adopt the baby in the US.

In different areas of Japan, the law seems to be applied differently. In a suburb of Osaka, to the southeast, the Rev. Ike Graham says he encountered only cooperative government officials when he applied for Japanese citizenship for his adopted son. They were apparently willing to overlook the fact that the child was born to a Thai prostitute.

Mr. Graham is preparing to take the child home when he moves back to Ohio later this year. The US consulate in Osaka has agreed to grant a visa.

"If a family doesn't take these children, the situation doesn't look good for them. There's really not a lot of compassion shown to them in any way," Graham explains.

But in Saitama Prefecture on the outskirts of Tokyo, Wesley and Julie Hart, an Australian couple, succeeded in finding a Japanese woman who was willing to adopt on paper a half-Thai baby girl, Dannelle.

While this did not make Dannelle a Japanese citizen, it allowed the woman to make the Harts the baby's legal guardians and surrender custody.

The Harts then applied for citizenship for Dannelle at the New Zealand Embassy, as Mrs. Hart is a New Zealand national who holds dual citizenship. The embassy proved far more lenient than its US counterpart, issuing a passport and ending Dannelle's statelessness.

But Mr. Rees says he believes more has to be done for stateless children than can be accomplished by jumping legal and diplomatic hurdles. The focus, he says, should be on the prostitution industry.

"That's where the problem is, in prostitution. We're only taking care of the symptom," he says.

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