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JAPAN: Divorced Men Lose Children Along With Visas

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Aug 15 2011 (IPS) - Shahdul Huq, a Bangladeshi national living in Japan for more than 20 years, last saw his daughter almost three years ago when he lost his ‘spouse visa’ following divorce from his Japanese wife.

Huq has filed a lawsuit to stay on in Japan. “The first step to gain rights to visit my daughter is to have legal permission to remain in Japan. Then at least I have a platform to fight and meet my daughter,” he said.

Huq, now on overstay status and facing possible deportation, is in a difficult situation, but one which is not uncommon.

“I am representing several cases involving Asian and African men who are divorced from Japanese spouses and must leave Japan and their children behind because they do not have legal visas,” Yushi Nagase, Huq’s attorney, told IPS.

Last week, Huq, along with two other immigrants, appealed through the media to be given rights to visit their children. All of them were denied visiting rights after separating from or divorcing their Japanese spouses.

Zidi Mourad, 36, from Tunisia, said he has not seen his two children since separating from his wife in February 2010. His spouse visa ends in April 2012 after which, he says, his future in Japan is uncertain.

“We are barred from meeting or playing with our children because under the Japanese legal system fathers do not have rights to their children. No one can help us and it is quite hard for us,” he explained.

Coulibaly Tidani, from Mali, was detained by immigration authorities when he tried to get his spouse visa converted to ‘long-term resident’ status as the father of a Japanese child.

“I want to meet my child,” Tidani, 28, told reporters.

Jotaro Kato, spokesman for the Asian People’s Friendship Society (APFS), a leading grassroots human and labour rights organisation, explained that Japan’s divorce laws do not recognise dual custody of children.

That leaves foreign spouses vulnerable since they lack visa guarantee, especially if they are Asian or African men who arrive as immigrants.

“Japanese immigration reeks of discrimination against nationals of developing countries. We help men from countries such as India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Africa to fight for visas after their divorces,” he said.

Under pressure from divorced parents, both Japanese and foreign, the government announced in June that it would sign the Hague Convention that ensures right of custody and access to children.

The move followed thousands of unhappy stories from parents denied access to their children.

In most divorce cases the mothers are given custody of young children, which is also the case in many other countries.

According to attorney Nagase, the situation is particularly hard for male immigrants who arrive in Japan on short visas and find employment in factories or other low-paid jobs. They marry Japanese women and gain spouse visas, cancelled on divorce or legal separation.

“Westerners or other foreign nationals employed in large corporations are not as vulnerable. People stuck in the lower echelons of society risk not being allowed to remain in Japan simply because of their status,” he said.

The situation has also raised the issue of discrimination against foreigners in the Japanese family register system, a vital piece of identity documentation.

“Foreigners are entered in the family register under a separate category from Japanese nationals, even if they are legally married and with legal resident visas,” he explained.

The system, says Mourad, indicates deep-rooted discrimination. “Are foreign fathers simply biological donors?”

APFS also mediates on cultural clashes between Japanese wives and their Muslim husbands on issues such as permitting women to work and become breadwinners which is resented by some conservative men.

Family relations are another problem, says Kato. Japanese society increasingly identifies the nuclear family as the basic unit as compared with other Asian and African cultures that generally follow the extended family concept.

Huq, now unable to work in Japan because he does not have a visa, says he has been forced to stop sending child support allowances to his ex-wife, making it harder for him to accept his situation.

“Hope is the only thing I have now to keep me going. Please help me by telling the world about my difficult situation,” he said.

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