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Kawasaki Youth’s Murder Exposes Japan’s Social and Policy Failings in Coping with Immigration

Sugiyama Haru [Profile]


The brutal murder of a junior high school student in Kawasaki stunned Japan. As more information came to light about the victim and his alleged assailants, it revealed profound rifts in the fabric of Japanese society. This incident has cast a glaring light on shortcomings in Japan’s capacity for adequately dealing with the issues of single-parent households, poverty, and immigration.

Young People Unable to Connect with Society

Uemura Ryōta was killed in the predawn hours of February 20, 2015, on the bank of the Tamagawa river in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. The 13-year-old boy had been forced to swim naked in the river’s frigid winter water and his face and body had been slashed with a box cutter. The fatal wound was a deep gash to the neck. There were cable ties on the ground nearby and Ryōta had bruises on his knees, suggesting he had undergone the brutal treatment while bound and forced to kneel.

The police arrested three underage males as the perpetrators of the murder. One of the three, “Child A,” was identified as the leader and charged with murder. He was 18 years old and lived with his Filipina mother and Japanese father, having dropped out of high school. The other two, both 17 years old, were charged with inflicting fatal injuries. One was a former junior high schoolmate of the ringleader and the other, in the year below, had attended a different junior high school. This younger child was the son of a Filipina single mother and a Japanese father.

Ryōta, too, lived in a single-mother household as the second of five children. His father had moved the family to Nishinoshima in Shimane Prefecture’s Oki archipelago when Ryōta was five to work as a fisherman. The parents divorced when Ryōta was in the third grade of elementary school and the mother moved with her children to Kawasaki two years later.

On entering junior high school, Ryōta joined the basketball team, but he stopped showing up for practice after a few months and started hanging out with a group of older boys. He began associating with the group led by Child A in December 2014 and stopped attending school the next month. In a photo taken around that time, Ryōta has a black eye—the result of being punched by the older boy.

From 2004 to 2008 I was involved in reporting on children in Japan with foreign parents. And my first impression when I heard of Ryōta’s murder and of the Philippine connection was that my fears had materialized. I had sensed that delinquency among children of foreign parents was partly the result of deep-rooted prejudice in Japanese society and a wholly inadequate social safety net. And I had been especially concerned about the circumstances of children of Filipina mothers.

I had seen that children raised in non-Japanese-speaking households encounter a language barrier in daily life and frequently have difficulty staying in school, while I also learned that domestic violence is frequently part of the equation. Another troubling discovery was that those responsible for providing assistance to children are out of touch with the reality of what they face. Third-party support was all but nonexistent for the children most in need.

Impoverished single-mother households, irrespective of nationality, are a profound and worsening problem in Japan. Children from such households lack a sound interface with society on account of inadequate support structures. The murder of Ryōta struck me as symptomatic of a broad social and policy failing.

Filipina Newcomers in Kawasaki Ward

Ryōta’s mother issued a statement through her lawyer after her son’s wake. She had left for work each morning before her son left for school, and she got home late, so it was difficult to know how he was spending his time. That statement elicited sympathetic responses from numerous single mothers and supporters.

The relative poverty rate among Japan’s single-parent households—85% of which are headed by a woman—is 54.6%. About 80% of the single mothers in Japan work outside the home, some of them holding down two or more jobs to make ends meet. The demands of work limit the time available to those mothers to interact with their children and impinge on their child-rearing capacity.

Several factors have aggravated the position of Japan’s single mothers, even as the number of single-mother households has burgeoned. For one, the implicit assumption in labor policy has been that males are properly the primary breadwinners and that wives’ work outside the home is of a supplementary nature. Another problem has been the surging proportion of part-time and temporary jobs in overall employment.

Also noteworthy is the location of Ryōta’s murder: Kawasaki’s Kawasaki Ward. As an industrial district, the area has seen an influx of many kinds of residents since before World War II. In May 2015, a fire at neighboring low-rent hostels in Kawasaki Ward killed 10 people. The victims were of the class of laborers who powered Japan’s high-growth period of the 1960s and 1970s, but lived out their lives in poor conditions and the fire took place not far from where Ryōta and Child A had passed their nocturnal hours.

Some 5% of the residents of the ward are foreign nationals. Those residents comprise “oldcomers”—laborers from the Koreas and other prewar Japanese colonies and their children and grandchildren—and “newcomers”—foreigners who have come seeking work since the 1980s.

St. Claire Kaizuka Church, which serves the area, holds mass in English every Sunday afternoon. About 80% of the 200 to 300 faithful in attendance are Filipinas. A lot of them entered Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s on entertainer visas, married Japanese men, and secured residency qualifications as spouses of Japanese. Two of the three youths arrested for killing Ryōta were children of women who fit that pattern.

His murder came as a devastating blow to Filipina mothers in Kawasaki Ward. I talked with one of them, whom I will call “Maria” to preserve her anonymity. She is 45 and is caring for a 10-year-old son as a single mother.

“It was shocking,” said Maria. “I was receiving public aid, but I was working hard to avoid relying overly on welfare. Since the murder, I’ve cut back my working hours so that I can have dinner with my son, spend time talking with him, and check his homework. I failed his older brother, and I want to get things right this time.”

Maria is struggling to support her son and herself on low-wage work and a minimum of public assistance. Her plight is something lamentably familiar to Japanese single mothers.

  • [2015.06.12]

Born in Tokyo in 1958. Worked as a magazine editor after graduating from Waseda University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences and has since worked as a freelance investigative reporter. Works include Negurekuto—ikuji hōki, Mana-chan wa naze shindaka (Neglect: What Caused Little Mana’s Death?), which received the Shōgakukan Nonfiction Prize  and Imin kanryū—Nambei kara kaettekuru Nikkeijintachi (Completing the Immigration circle: The Return of Ethnic Japanese from Latin America).

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