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


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.

Deported to the Philippines for Delinquency

I learned from Maria that she lost her father in 1990 and came to Japan on an entertainer visa to help support her mother, her two younger sisters, and a younger brother. Her two sisters attended college on her remittances from Japan. She worked initially in Japan at a Philippine bar and bore a son with a Japanese man that she met there. The man was in his 50s, and the two didn’t marry. Maria overstayed her visa and returned to the Philippines. When her son was two, she left him with a younger sister and traveled to Japan again. She found work at another bar and entered a relationship with a Japanese man employed as a construction worker.

Her partner’s mother, however, was opposed to their getting married, and she again ended up without legal residency qualifications. But the couple launched a business with her savings and entered a life of round-the-clock work.

Maria and her partner married when she became pregnant, at the age of 37, with her second son. She obtained a visa as the spouse of a Japanese and brought her first son, then 11, to Japan. Maria enrolled him in a junior high school, but he fell in with a crowd of local delinquents, ran away from home repeatedly, and was apprehended time and again for shoplifting and other misdemeanors. Maria would lose touch with the boy for extended periods, only to learn of his whereabouts via the police.

At the age of 17, Maria’s elder son fathered a child but fell out with the mother. An arrest for shoplifting earned him deportation to the Philippines just as his visa was up for renewal. Maria was also in the Philippines at that time with her second son. The business she had undertaken with her husband had collapsed in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008, and her husband had suggested enrolling the younger son in school in the Philippines to learn English. Maria opened a beauty parlor with her savings from Japan, and she put her older son to work in the business.

After five years of a back-and-forth existence between Japan and the Philippines, Maria returned to Japan with her younger son in 2014. She was eager for the boy to retain what he had learned of the Japanese language and Japanese customs. No sooner had she returned, however, than the recurrent violence inflicted by her husband prompted her to seek a divorce.

The Trauma of Witnessing Violence Against His Mother

Maria’s husband, I learned, had physically abused her daily for as long as they had been together. When the violence resumed on her returning to Japan, Maria’s 10-year-old son urged her to leave the man. His urging proved decisive. Maria’s elder son had also been eager for her to leave her violent husband. He had been appalled at the daily violence against his mother that he had witnessed on joining the couple, and he, too, had suffered beatings from his de facto stepfather.

Maria had not protected her sons from her husband’s wrath and had even raised her hands against them herself in the family’s apartment. Her suffering at the hands of her husband left her with little patience for any disobedience from the boys.

“My sister who cared for my older boy in the Philippines says that he was always friendly and straightforward with everyone there,” reported Maria. But the boy felt uncomfortable and out of place in his own home, and his reaction to the continuing violence was to shut out his family members. The people to whom he ultimately gave himself over were a local band of delinquents. Maria sensed the problem, but she had no one to turn to for help.

“People in the Philippines think that getting married to a Japanese means a life of happiness,” sighed Maria. “I didn’t have the heart to tell my mother or my sisters what I was going through.” Nor did Maria discuss her problems with her Filipina acquaintances in the neighborhood. They all had the same kinds of problems, and they preferred to talk about more pleasant subjects when they got together.

Kids Who Can’t Speak for Themselves

Violence begets violence, robbing both victim and perpetrator of self-esteem and engendering mutual feelings of shame. Victims frequently lack or lose the ability to interact with others and withdraw from the world. More often than not, those who have wrought appalling violence are individuals who have suffered or witnessed domestic violence. The ringleader in Ryōta’s murder reportedly waited outside the home whenever his parents started quarreling until the argument subsided.

Domestic violence is distressingly common between Japanese husbands and wives from other Asian nations. A lot of those men are blue-collar workers or substantially older than their brides, and a lot of them are social misfits. They tend to be from home environments where women are not regarded or treated as equals of men. Thus we find marriages infused with Japanese prejudice toward other Asians and with male contempt for women.

The relationships between husbands and wives affect, of course, the commitment to child rearing. They affect, too, the children’s acquisition of Japanese-language skills and of self-expression capabilities in general. Some children born to foreign mothers and raised in Japan might appear to be entirely fluent in Japanese, but even they require careful support in their language skills development.

Japanese men often do not take part actively in child rearing and the Japanese husbands of Filipina brides rarely speak Tagalog or English, so they ordinarily speak to their wives in Japanese. The wives, meanwhile, are rarely fluent in Japanese and are hardly in a position to help their children build vocabulary in that language.

On entering school, the children typically have a hard time keeping up with the schoolwork because of difficulty understanding what the teachers are saying. They tend to be reticent to discuss their problems frankly with their mothers. As for the teachers and the school administrators, they are prone to blame the students’ poor performance on insufficient effort or on a basic lack of aptitude. Few of them take the trouble to examine the possible role of home environment in the students’ academic performance.

The problems described above figured consistently in the stories of the children of Filipina mothers and Japanese fathers with whom I talked. One male child had closeted himself in his family’s apartment after finishing junior high school, refusing to engage with other people. He had never been able to express his innermost feelings in Japanese and had lost the ability to come to terms with his feelings even on his own. The young man had wanted to get a job but couldn’t stand the thought of dealing with people. He developed severe anxiety and, one day, erupted suddenly into violence.

Like Maria’s sons, the young man had seen his mother suffer violence repeatedly at the hands of her husband. He had succumbed to self-contempt on account of his inability to protect her. And he had suppressed the rage that he felt toward his father. The young man recalled experiencing discrimination at school, starting in elementary school. But he retained no memory of whatever had triggered his outburst of violence. He continues to agonize over his inability to verbalize his experiences.

Another young person with whom I talked was born in the Philippines. His mother divorced and moved with her then two-year-old son to Japan, where she married a Japanese man. The son described suffering violence inflicted by his stepfather and by members of the stepfather’s family. His mother was unable to prevent the violence, and the boy found himself unable to tell his mother about the bullying that he experienced at school.

The young Filipino engaged in serious delinquency in junior high school, but he got his life in order and completed high school. Now 24, he is holding down a job as a construction equipment operator. The young man evinced confidence in his skills with the construction equipment, but he confided to me that he struggles daily to conceal a consuming rage that lurks within. I asked him about the target of his anger, but he was unable to answer precisely.

Reluctance to Divorce

The question arises as to why Filipina wives put up with violent husbands. Maria said one reason for their reluctance to pack up and leave is the women’s upbringing in the Catholic Church, which forbids divorce in general. Another reason, Maria added, is that the women recoil from the prospect of raising children alone in a foreign land.

“Some Filipina wives still can’t speak Japanese after living here for more than 20 years,” Maria observed. “Women like that are especially terrified at the thought of setting out on their own as single mothers. Just thinking of having to fill out the divorce forms on their own is enough to make some of them abandon the idea.”

Maria attributed her decision to file for divorce to a stay in the Philippines. Removed from the violence, she regained the emotional stability to take the decisive step. Maria, who left her family at the age of 20 and came to Japan to work at a bar, had acquired little practical competence in negotiating life in society. Her time back in the Philippines was something of an epiphany. The sight of her family members handling the exigencies of daily life, heedless of their poverty, was inspiring. Maria gained the confidence in the Philippines that she, too, could overcome hardship and manage a household independently of her husband.

Back in Japan, Maria called the police one day after her husband had knocked her down a flight of stairs. She learned from the police of a city-run consultation center for victims of domestic violence, and she sought help there. The help available from the city included financial assistance, which enabled Maria to rent an apartment on her own.

Too many Filipina wives lack the strength that Maria mustered to seek the help that is available from public agencies. Too many are unable to marshal the courage required to escape violence.

Trends in Residency Qualifications by Nation of Origin

Foreign nationals residing in Japan numbered 2,121,831 at the end of 2014, having increased by 2.7% over the previous year. Japanese immigration policy, resistant to immigration in general, has been somewhat flexible in accommodating the nation’s need for labor. We thus find distinct trends in the residency qualifications most common among the different nationalities of foreign residents.

For example, Japan accommodates ethnic Japanese workers from Latin America and their spouses with “long-term residence” visas. Those visas are available to second- and third-generation ethnic Japanese. The visa holders are free to undertake any kind of work in Japan. Factory jobs mediated by employment services are a common line of work for these residents. The number of Brazilians in Japan, principally under the long-term residency program for ethnic Japanese, reached about 317,000 in 2007 but declined sharply after the world economic crisis hit Japan the following year. About 175,000 Brazilians resided in Japan in 2014.

Chinese constitute the largest group of foreign residents in Japan—about 655,000 in 2014. They reside in Japan under diverse qualifications, such as spouse or child of Japanese national, student, and trainee. About 100,000 Vietnamese resided in Japan in 2014. Most were in Japan on trainee or student visas, though some of them were Cold War–era refugees or the children and grandchildren of those refugees. Individuals admitted to Japan as refugees ordinarily reside there under the same long-term residency program that accommodates ethnic Japanese residents from abroad.

Japan’s flagship program for trainees is the Technical Intern Training Program. That program is ostensibly an initiative in the realm of international cooperation—a platform for sharing Japanese manufacturing technology with developing nations through on-the-job training for young workers. In practice, the program is largely just an avenue for importing unskilled labor to supplement Japan’s shrinking labor force. Japan’s mandarins cannot bring themselves to open the nation formally to an influx of unskilled labor, so they resort to the subterfuge of admitting workers as “trainees.”

Observers in Japan and worldwide have noted that sham trainee visas are tickets to abusive employment practices. But far from scaling back the trainee visa programs, the Japanese government is expanding the programs. Japanese contractors will need a greatly increased supply of labor in the building rush up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The government is moving to accommodate them by lengthening the residency periods possible under the trainee programs. And it is increasing the appeal of the trainee visas by allowing visa holders to leave and re-enter the nation during their residency periods.

Japan was home to about 218,000 Philippine nationals in 2014, and women accounted for some 80% of those residents. Holders of entertainer visas, once a favored means of entering Japan for Filipinas, numbered only 436. In contrast, some 116,000 Philippine nationals resided in Japan as permanent residents, 4,000 as spouses of permanent residents, 29,000 as spouses of Japanese citizens, and 44,000 as long-term residents.

Time for a Real Immigration Policy

Japan had essentially no policy for dealing with foreign residents in 2004, when I began investigating the issues confronted by those residents. Local governments were in the vanguard of immigration policy, and support for foreign residents differed greatly by prefecture and by city. Municipal and prefectural assistance for foreign residents has since improved greatly across the nation. Numerous local governments have adopted proactive policies for nurturing multicultural communities. Their initiatives have included ensuring access to public schools for non-Japanese children, upgrading their capabilities for consulting with foreign residents about children’s education, providing Japanese-language tutoring for foreign schoolchildren, and deploying interpreters to accompany foreign residents at medical clinics and hospitals,

We can take heart at the undeniable improvements in the environment for Japan’s foreign residents. At the same time, we need to note the gaping differentials among prefectures and cities. Those differentials are especially conspicuous in the availability—and unavailability—of language tutoring. Japan desperately needs to assemble a unified policy for accommodating foreign residents.

Numerous immigrants have done well in Japan, of course, despite the inadequate support infrastructure. They have built livelihoods and raised families, and second-generation foreign residents have, in numerous instances, carried on in the same successful manner. On close examination, we identify a common thread in the experience of foreign children who have thrived in Japan. Most of those children have enjoyed the benefits of loving parents and understanding schoolteachers. And those benefits have invested the children with confidence in their communities. We need to be equally attentive, however, to the experience of children who have fared less well in Japan.

This comment comes from an individual who has been engaged professionally for years in providing support for foreign residents: “Children are beginning to associate on the basis of social class rather than race or ethnicity. Kids who have been cast off by society naturally bond, but exiting a group can be difficult or even impossible.”

Ryōta, having received little in the way of spiritual support from his parents or from society, drifted into the orbit of the group headed by Child A. The messages he left with friends on the social network Line proved tragically accurate: “When I said I was leaving the group, the violence only got worse. I can’t take it anymore. I might get killed.”

News media have reported that Ryōta had good friends on Nishinoshima and in Kawasaki. Child A presumably couldn’t stand the thought of Ryōta’s leaving his group and returning to another social class. He delivered a severe beating to Ryōta about a month before the murder. At that time, some friends of Ryōta went to the ringleader and urged him to apologize. “I was really pissed off,” Child A told prosecutors, “that so many people cared so much for [Ryōta].” The lethal violence unleashed by Child A seems to have been directed as much against the society that rejected him as against an individual.

Japan is losing some 220,000 citizens a year due to its declining birthrate. A growing influx of foreign residents is inevitable. Accommodating that influx needs to include measures for addressing the needs of non-Japanese children. Treating the people who move to Japan well is more than a matter of displaying hospitality or of observing human rights. It is part of a common-sense approach to reinforcing social stability for the nation. The time has come for Japan to formulate a real immigration policy.

 (Originally written in Japanese and published on May 27, 2015. Banner photo: Flowers and other items left in memory of Uemura Ryōta near the site where his body was found beside the Tamagawa river in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. Photograph taken on February 24, 2015. @ Jiji.)

poverty immigrants Kawasaki Filipina Philippine single-mother households domestic violence immigration policy multicultural communities immigration