"Mukokuseki - Stateless" Authored by Chen Tien-shi

Thursday, October 29 2009 @ 07:01 PM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

The Chinese restaurant sits at the southern tip of Yokohama China Town. That means it's a one-minute walk from my apartment. Nevertheless, I had shied away from it until several days ago because its venerable facade and elegantly furnished inside gave me the impression that food served there must be unaffordable to the poor pensioner that I am.

Unlike cheap, dirty and more crowded eateries in other districts of the town, the particular restaurant and neighboring ones mostly specialize in Taiwanese or Cantonese cuisine. On October 10 they still observe the anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of China, though in a subdued way, nine days after mainlanders celebrated the foundation of the People's Republic of China, filling the entire town with ear-splitting noises and waves of the Five-Starred Red Flags

On Monday night, it was raining and I felt too weak to take a longer trip to the other side of the town. I stopped in front of the particular eatery and said to myself: "I prefer Taiwanese cuisine, so why don't I give this one a try?" When I dared to step inside for a small dinner, however, I found out I was wrong. Most items on the menu were reasonably priced. And yet the restaurant owner, her family members and employees were much more hospitable and polite than those boorish mainlanders I have to deal with everyday.

When paying my bill at the checkout counter, I noticed that half-a-dozen copies of a book were piled up on it. The book was titled Mukokuseki - Stateless (Shincho-sha, 2005.) The restaurant owner, who looked to be in her late-40s or early-50s, fondly told me that its author Chen Tien-shi is her youngest sister.

That is how I came across one of the few Japanese books which are worth reading.

Tien-shi's father and his wife were among the millions of people who fled mainland China in 1949. His family temporarily settled down in Peitou, a rural city in the northern part of Taiwan. Since the young man, who was a government employee at that time, was too ambitious to settle down there permanently, he decided to come over to Japan to study business in the early-1960s. As soon as he completed a higher-learning course here, he brought his wife and five children to Yokohama China Town.

Tien-shi, which literally means a gift from god, was born in this neighborhood in 1971 as the sixth child of the Chens. At the church she was christened after Saint Clara. That is why her kin and friends have called her Lara.

It was when the kid was 1-year-old that the Sino-Japanese relations were normalized between Kakuei Tanaka and Zhou Enlai. Subsequently, then Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ohira announced that the government had decided to renounce the Treaty of Taipei. These events sent shockwaves throughout the Chinese community in Yokohama, or anywhere else in Japan. Especially those who held Taiwanese nationality faced a serious dilemma. The Chen family was no exception.

Some of the family members insisted they should acquire the Chinese citizenship while some others said it was the right time to become naturalized. At the end of the long discussion, the patriarch decided to go for the stateless status. Despite his anguished decision, any family member but little Tien-shi did not totally lose their national identity because they still retained de facto citizenship in Taiwan.

It is against this backdrop that Tien-shi had to deal with an identity crisis throughout her childhood and well into her early adulthood.

After completing the undergraduate course in international politics at Tsukuba University, she went on to pursue her studies in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the U.S. Everywhere she went, she was seeking her identity more than anything else. But most of the time, her overseas experience let her down.

When she visited Hong Kong, the former British colony had yet to be returned to the People's Republic of China. But she felt somewhat alienated there in part because she couldn't speak Cantonese and in part because she found out she was too Japanese to have a good chemistry with the egocentric, self-assertive and insensitive Hong-Kongers.

When she was staying in the U.S. as a guest researcher at Harvard, she hit the wall in the face of formidable difficulties conducting field studies on the issues with statelessness. Ironically enough, that was because of her own statelessness. Over time she had to learn that "one must have a nationality to be able to look closely into the problems facing stateless people."

In the summer of 1998, she applied for a vacancy in the United Nations. The post she had in mind when taking a four-hour bus ride from Boston to Manhattan was one to develop education programs for refugees. But as soon as the interviewer took a glance at her resume, he told her to come back after acquiring a citizenship of any country. He quickly added that Taiwan would not suit the purposes because it did not have a membership in the U.N.

Back in her home town of Yokohama, Tien-shi decided to apply for Japanese citizenship just for these practical reasons. In 2002 she finally became a Japanese citizen after going through the time-consuming red tape at the nearby ward office. The first thing she did with her new status was to apply for a passport because at that time she was planning to visit Brunei where she expected to find a big population of stateless people.

When she showed her Japanese passport to her eldest sister, the one I became acquainted with earlier this week, she said, "Congratulations, my little sister." Tien-shi defiantly answered, "What's to celebrate about abandoning my statelessness?"

In the last chapter of the book, the author proudly proclaims that she still remains essentially stateless. Born and brought up in Yokohama China Town, the newly acquired Japanese citizenship means practically nothing to Lara.

This book is a real page-turner in part because it is filled with episodes about her fond memories of the days she spent with friends and neighbors of various backgrounds and about distressing disputes she has had with immigration officers in Taipei Airport, Narita Airport and everywhere else.

More importantly, however, the first-person accounts of her ordeal make Mukokuseki - Stateless a convincing manifestation of the positive side of statelessness which reminds us of the very basics of politics. Chen seems to imply here that without individual citizens there are no nations, or any international organizations for that matter, whereas without statehood there still can be individual citizens.

As I observe, very few politicians and political pundits live up to this overriding principle these days. They simply take it for granted that they can politicize every issue concerning individual way of life. In fact, though, any policymaker cannot help individuals overcome their predicaments because hardships they are going through has nothing to do with ideologies.

In the foreword, she writes to the effect that according to the statistics by the Justice Ministry, there were 1,846 stateless people as of the end of 2003, but if you include unregistered people and those who are unaware of their virtual statelessness, the Justice Ministry's data just represents the tip of the iceberg.

Indeed, Ms. Chen Tien-shi is a gift from heaven but it is meant not only for the particular family but also for all of these stateless folks, perhaps including those who are technically Japanese but inflicted with similar types of "social exclusion."




Tags: 横浜, 中華街, 陳天璽, チェンティェンジ, 無国籍, 日中国交回復, 田中角栄, 大平正芳

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