Anti-Racism Movements in Japan Awaken; Help Liberate Trans Filipino Detainee

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As Western countries grapple with issues on race, activists in Japan beam light on racism and migrant struggles in their own land.

For many, living in Japan is a dream. It’s a global hub of rising tech advances, a melting pot of culinary fanfare, and a land that celebrates its own culture and history. But this largely homogenous population is rapidly growing more diverse, with its 47 prefectures already populated by about 3 million migrants — a number already thrice that of the 1990s.

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Gaijins (外人; “foreigner”) and hafu (ハーフ; “mixed-race”) individuals are now a common sight, especially in Japan’s metropolitan areas in Tokyo and Osaka. But despite the First World promises of decent living conditions, these two groups of minorities reportedly experience degrees of racism that are not largely discussed or addressed at the institutional level.

One significant instance was brought to our attention by 28-year-old Japanese activist and translator Nami Nanami from Tokyo. On May 22, around the same time Black Lives Matter protests were gaining traction in the US, a video of a Turkish man getting roughed by Japanese police in the Shibuya Ward spread on social media. Protests broke out on May 30, with about 200 mostly young demonstrators participating. “The timing was coincidental,” Nanami said in an email. “But then also a lot of people in Japan started to understand the problem of police brutality based on systemic racism.”

The demonstrators would later find out that one of the rallyists was arrested by Japanese authorities — prompting the group to also reexamine the country’s justice system. Unlike other First World countries, Nanami said, Japan has what are called daiyō kangoku (代用監獄) or substitute prisons. Activists, however, refer to it as hitojichi shihō (人質司法), literally “hostage justice,” a system that allows the police to jail an offender for 23 days without trial. Compounded with the event concerning the Kurdish man, it was an awakening for the demonstrators that the level of racism present in Japan is a far more concerning issue than it was earlier thought to be. More protests ensued after that, with the largest one in Tokyo drawing 3,500 participants, mostly young progressives and some with foreign roots.

The international community caught whiff of the movement through Nanami, who was translating information and media materials from Japanese to English. On June 6, another demonstration was held, and in the ensuing weeks, more and more people both inside and outside Japan started sending in queries about the protests to Nanami, who worked alongside organizers to protest against racism and for police reforms. A faction of these protesters, some of which have been organizing for years, also called for the abolition of the nyūkan (入管) — the Japanese immigration facilities notorious for being the site of abuse of undocumented migrants.

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The Story of Pato-chan

Nanami later on decided to become an organizer herself. She co-founded a breakaway coalition focused on liberating Pato-chan, a trans Filipino woman migrant who was detained for more than a year due to her undocumented status. Together with trans right activist, nurse, and filmmaker Asanuma Tomoya, Ubereats union member Suzuki Kento, sex worker Aliza Krobara, and college student Akira Hayama, Nanami formed the Justice for Pato-chan (JFP) Movement.

On the midnight of July 27, 2019, Pat was on her way to work in a small bento shop in Tokyo when she was apprehended by Japanese authorities. At the time, Pat had already been living in Japan as an undocumented immigrant for four years, after migrating in Japan in 2015 to take care of her cancer-stricken father and live with the rest of her immediate family.

After being arrested in the streets of Tokyo, Pat was brought to a police station for questioning that lasted until early morning. The next day, without seeing her family, Pat was brought to a nyūkan. That would be the beginning of Pat’s ordeal in the hands of Japanese immigration authorities.

In an interview with COMMONER, Pat said that she was isolated for one year and three months. “When I came to the nyūkan, I looked totally like a woman. They couldn’t put me in a men’s cell,” she said. She was put in isolation, extending to 22 hours on most days. She only had two hours of free time, as opposed to the six to seven hours given to other detainees. She wasn’t able to talk to anyone else, as she was only allowed to leave her cell when the others were inside theirs.

This took a toll on Pat’s mental well-being. All throughout her detention in the nyūkan, she requested to be put together with other women, but was refused. Sensing that the authorities would never allow her to be grouped with women, she requested to instead be detained with other inmates just to avoid isolation.

“She got told by the guards that in order to go to the male section, she has to ‘dress like a man, speak like a man, and fucking become a man,’” Nanami told COMMONER. Pato-chan gave in at the behest of the authorities, but the director of the Tokyo Nyūkan still denied her request.

When pressed further, the authorities told her that it’s because she is an okama (オカマ), a slur in Japanese used to refer to gay men and drag queens. “It was hard being isolated from everyone. I don’t have anyone else inside but myself. It affected me physically, mentally, and emotionally,” Pato-chan told COMMONER. According to her, she was called an okama on a daily basis.

The detention also took a toll on Pat’s transition. Prior to being in a nyūkan, Pat was regularly taking Diane35 and Micropil, her hormonal therapy replacement (HRT) medication that she was buying with her own money. But she was not allowed to bring her own medication in the nyūkan. From July 2019 through April of this year, Pat was unable to take her pills or see a doctor, which gave way for physical and mental complications. “My body and appearance changed. I was vomiting blood. I had problems mentally,” Pat said.

The authorities eventually provided a doctor from Harima Mental Clinic who prescribed Premarin, a conjugated estrogen medication which uses a combination of different types of estrogen. (It has been largely abandoned by professionals due to its possible severe side effects.) She consulted with the doctor only once for the entire one year and three months she stayed in detention.

“It didn’t suit her body. She also needed hormone injections, just as she was outside of the detention center.” Nanami said. “But they never gave them to her. She suffered medical neglect.”

Pat relayed that the doctor admitted that she needed to take proper hormone therapy pills but that the doctor couldn’t give her “good medicine” because she might develop bad side effects while in detention. “[Premarin] was no good. Very low and no good,” Pat said.

But medication is only a part of any trans woman’s medical needs.

“Even if Pato-chan was given the more standard pills, she would still have required constant support and supervision from an endocrinologist, as self-medication is incredibly dangerous,” Rey Valmores-Salinas, trans woman, activist, and spokesperson of Bahaghari, said. “This amounts to no less than torture for our trans sister,” Salinas added.

An Intersection of Struggles

Pat’s ordeal with Japanese authorities paints a scenario that’s difficult to be retold. Her struggles as a trans woman and a migrant intersect, and cannot be taken separate from one another.

“I think that, firstly, Pato-chan’s chase is a call for us to question why, even now, transgender women are so violently dehumanized, whether put in prison or in other spaces relegated to us in society,” Salinas said. “This also begs the question on why Pato-chan had to be detained for over a year simply for visa overstay.

“No human being is illegal, especially when we consider the vast number of immigrants, particularly from poor countries like the Philippines, who have simply been forced to seek opportunities elsewhere because of a lack of alternatives and oppressive working conditions back home,” Salinas added.

For decades, Japan has been the choice of many Filipinos working and migrating abroad. A 2017 estimate puts about 251,000 Filipinos living in Japan, with around half of them carrying permanent resident visas — notches higher than the national average of 29.9 percent. We place third in the most number of foreign immigrants in Japan after China and South Korea. With better wages, Filipinos are able to live better lives and remit money to their families back home.

But the nyūkan is a particularly horrific place to be in for undocumented immigrants. According to reports, there have been at least 15 deaths of foreign nationals since 2007 while being transported or detained in these immigration facilities across Japan. In 2017, 576 out of 1,351 detainees had been in detention for six months or longer — four months longer than the 60 days permitted by Japanese immigration laws. In 2018, the number of detainees went down to 1,246, but those detained for an extended period reached 681 or 55 percent of the total.

The prolonged detention of immigrants, including undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, has long been renounced by activists in Japan. There have been multiple attempts, involving protests and hunger strikes inside and outside the facilities, to seek better treatment for these disenfranchised minorities. Last year, the death of a Turkish man in a nyūkan in Nagasaki triggered a four-month-long hunger strike by 198 detainees. This has not been met with institutional reforms, and hundreds of detainees remain in nyūkans for months on end.

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For trans women, Japan is also far from ideal. They are required to be diagnosed with a gender identity disorder — a notion long debunked by the World Health Organization — before being allowed to change their sex in legal documents. They are also required to go through an irreversible gender reassignment surgery prior to application. This puts women like Pat under intense scrutiny and mental unrest.

As Pat is now in a state of karihōmen (仮放免) or provisional release and in the process of applying for a visa, she is still not allowed to work legally, have health insurance, or leave Chiba (the prefecture where she is staying) without permission from the nyūkan. “I’m staying with my family. I’m just babysitting now,“ Pat said.

Pat also relayed how she’s been having “negative thoughts” due to trauma. “I’m still afraid to go outside. My normal life hasn’t recovered,” Pato-chan said. “When I do something, I’m afraid that I might not do it properly. My physical balance is not yet good so I can’t even go to supermarkets or convenient (sic) stores.”

Despite her experiences in the nyūkan, Pat said that she does not want to blame them, and she is simply telling her story to advocate for changes in how they will handle members of the LGBTQIA+ community. “They don’t know how to deal with and protect LGBTQ+ people inside. But I do not have anything against Nyukans.”

At the moment, activists from the JFP Movement led by Nanami are helping Pato-chan get back on her feet. Though still reeling from mental trauma, she has gotten back to her medication and restarted HRT using viable medication.

“They provide funds for my needs. They were very good in helping me in many ways. I want to thank them for believing and fighting for me.” Pat said.

COMMONER reached out to the Japanese Embassy for comment but they refused to provide comment as the “embassy is not in the position to respond to the issue at hand.” We were referred to the Japanese Immigration Services Agency. We will update the article as soon as we receive a response.

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