Ad Hoc Meeting between Two Stateless Citizens - PART 1

Saturday, November 07 2009 @ 06:39 PM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto


Left: Ms. Chen Tien-shi, alias Lara, answering my questions
Right: Lara on a study tour

It is something I am inclined to call a serendipity that the brilliant author of Mukokuseki - Stateless (Shincho-sha, 2005) turned out to be my neighbor and that a restaurant owned by her family is located just around the corner from my apartment. Despite the differences in age, ethnicity and educational/occupational background between us, we seem to have one thing in common: we are stateless at heart.

Currently Chen Tien-shi, better known to her friends as Lara, spends weekdays in Osaka as Associate Professor at National Museum of Ethnology (MINPAKU) but on weekends she comes home to spend time with her husband, son, parents and siblings who are living in this neighborhood.

On Friday night I visited that restaurant without knowing Lara had already flown back from MINPAKU. I ordered mapo tofu ("stir-fried tofu in hot sauce" as the Beijing Travel Bureau translated the name of the dish in 2008) for my late dinner. But when I was working on my mapo tofu, Lara emerged from the innermost alcove typical of a Chinese restaurant, which I call a "family nook," and spotted me. She looked a little tired from the hard-working week, but was kind enough to say, "Let me answer some of your questions when you are through with your dinner." A couple of days earlier I had sent her six questions together with my take on her book.

The first one was about how specifically she defines statelessness. You don't have to define homelessness or joblessness, but when it comes statelessness, it's not that simple. So I asked her:

"You wrote that according to the statistics compiled by the Justice Ministry, there were 1,846 stateless people in Japan as of the end of 2003. You went on to say that if you include unregistered people and those who are 'unaware' of their real situation, the stateless population must be much bigger. I can't agree more, but could you define these 'unaware' people more specifically?"

Her answer: Obviously the biggest group that falls on this category is found in Zainichi (Koreans living in Japan.) Especially, she added, a good part of their second and third generation belong in this group. Their parents and grandparents were recruited from the Korean Peninsula as forced laborers or "comfort women."

The population of Zainichi peaked at the vicinity of 2 million by 1945. After the war, some of them chose to return to the Peninsula, but those who opted to stay on faced the same difficulty that the Chen family encountered in 1972 when the Republic of Korea came into existence in 1948 because, at the same time, the Korean Empire-turned-Japanese colony ceased to exist. Yet the Japanese Justice Ministry was unjust enough to issue their resident registrations just stating they are "Koreans." Some of them found it unavoidable to become naturalized in Japan - the very country that had inflicted unbearable humiliation on them for 34 years from 1911 to 1945.
Ms. Chen thinks basically the same thing can be said of most refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia because countries by these names have been nonexistent at least since 1975 when the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the Lao People's Democratic Republic and Democratic Kampuchea (currently called Kingdon of Cambodia) were founded. To be more precise, there have never been such names. No matter whether they are fully aware that there is no "home country" to return to, they are stateless, literally and figuratively.

Japan has practically closed its door to "political refugees" because of its pathological obsession with homogeneity, and yet there are more than ten thousand such people living here with stateless status.

If you take account of "economic refugees," Lara concluded, these 1,846 people certified by the Justice Ministry as stateless in 2003 must have been the tip of the iceberg. In my interpretation, economic refugees include those the Palermo Protocol of 2000, or United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, termed "willing participants in trafficking in persons," i.e. prostitutes.

Lara told me across the Chinese dining table that the definition of the word statelessness should be given in a multilayered way - legally, factually and from an inner angle.

In relation to my first question, I had also asked her where she classifies herself and other "stateless citizens" including myself. She confirmed that as she wrote in Mukokuseki - Stateless, she remained essentially stateless even after she acquired Japanese citizenship. But she corrected me as to the particular part of my book review where I cited practical consideration as the primary reason she wanted to become a legally established citizen.

She said to the effect that that is only part of the reasons. "Most importantly," she said, "I wanted to find out if my problem could be solved just by legally establishing myself here. In other words, I wanted to know exactly what it would be like for an individual to willfully enter into a 'contract' with a state."

Although she said she has not found the answer yet, it was obvious that she thought this contract deprives her much more than it gives.

We didn't specifically talk about political figures but those who have ruled Taiwan in the last 60 years - from Chiang Kai-shek to Ma Ying-jeou. But I gathered that we share the same views of other national leaders such as Barack Hussein Obama, Hu Jintao and Yukio Hatoyama. They claim to rein over the Pacific Rim and boast that they are there to solve, or at least help solve, our problems.

To us stateless individuals, however, this is a downright delusion because they are the problems. How can the problems solve themselves?

Our unscheduled meeting was held in a family-like atmosphere because Lara's sister, her brother and his wife occasionally came over to our table to take part in our conversation when Lara was talking about her 88-year-old father, who was currently on a business trip to South Korea, and the hardships the Chen family went through in the last 60 years.

My own family has long broken down just like any other Japanese families. So I was all the more impressed to see these folks huddle together that way at least on weekends. I suspected that without this traditional family bond, Lara might not possibly have overcome her identity crisis.

When we were moving on to my question No. 2, two other people showed up at the doorstep of the homey eatery: one was a youngish man and the other a toddler. Lara introduced them to me, saying, "They are my husband and son. The kid's name's Tien-qi. They came here to take me home."

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