In April 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Philippines reported that several groups in the Philippines, including that of Japanese descent, were in danger of statelessness. This report defined persons of Japanese descent as children of the Japanese migrants who arrived in the Philippines from the late nineteenth century to 1945. Moreover, most of these children described are the mixed-race children of Japanese fathers and Filipino mothers.[ref]The report also mentioned a small number of children who were born to Japanese parents. They became orphans as their parents either died in WWII or abandoned them to return to Japan. “Desk Review on Populations at Risk of Statelessness,” UNHCR Philippines, April 2021, 7.[/ref] As seen in many other histories of white and Asian settlement/migration from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries, Japanese intermarriages with local populations were predominantly Japanese men having intimate relationships with Filipino women.[ref]For example, Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980); Jean Gelman Taylor, The Social World of Batavia: European and Eurasian in Dutch Asia (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983); Ann L. Stoler, “Making Empire Respectable: The Politics of Race and Sexual Morality in 20th-Century Colonial Cultures,” American Ethnologist 16, No. 4 (1989): 634-660; Camilla Townsend, Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2006); Durba Ghosh, Sex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Anne F. Hyde, Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011); Emma Jinhua Teng, Eurasian: Mixed Identities in the United States, China and Hong Kong, 1842-1943 (Berkley: University of California Press, 2013); Christina Firpo and Margaret Jacobs, “Taking Children, Ruling Colonies: Child Removal and Colonial Subjugation in Australia, Canada, French Indochina, and the United States, 1870–1950s,” Journal of World History 29 No. 4 (2018): 529-562; Paul D. Barclay, “Cultural Brokerage and Interethnic Marriage in Colonial Taiwan: Japanese Subalterns and Their Aborigine Wives, 1895-1930,” The Journal of Asian Studies 64 No. 2 (2005): 323-360. Nayan Shah, Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); Vivek Bald, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013); Kathleen M. López, Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Chie Ikeya, “Colonial Intimacies in Comparative Perspective: Intermarriage, Law and Cultural Difference in British Burma.” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 14, no. 1 (2013), online; Julian Lim, Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017). My dissertation analyzes the absence of other forms of intimacies, including that between Japanese women and Filipino men.[/ref] The release of the UNHCR was part of their wider campaign, “Global Action Plan to End Statelessness.” Statelessness as not being “considered citizens or nationals under the operation of the laws” uniquely characterizes a state of being refugees, which is the organization’s mission.[ref]The definition by the UNHCR.[/ref] According to the report, since 1995 there have been over 3,800 individuals identified as Japanese descent.
According to the report, since 1995 there have been over 3,800 individuals identified as Japanese descent.
Why are Japanese mixed-race children in the Philippines at risk of statelessness? Multiple reasons are possible. The biggest reason is that the Japanese government continuously refuses to recognize these descendants as Japanese. Under the contemporaneous Japanese family law, children born to Japanese fathers were supposed to be Japanese nationals. Many of the mixed-race children were not documented in the Japanese family registration system and it has become difficult for them to demonstrate their patrilineal connections today because their fathers skipped such paperwork. Additionally, due to the turmoil during World War II, bureaucratic procedures were halted and caused a loss of documents. Many families may have had such materials as municipal documents and photographs, which later they could have used as evidence but strong resentment against Imperial Japan in the postwar Philippines forced them to destroy anything related to Japan and to change their Japanese family names into Filipino ones. Despite these complicated backgrounds, the Japanese government has been reluctant to move forward with a comprehensive solution for the reason that many of these children were not documented in the Japanese official records. But, according to groups advocating for a solution, the government’s reluctance comes from the fact that these children are not fully Japanese.
Another answer to their potential statelessness is the multi-layered history of imperialism and colonialism in the Philippines, which shaped the settlement of Japanese migrants and the experiences of mixed-race children. What were their histories and their experiences like?
Why are Japanese mixed-race children in the Philippines at risk of statelessness? Multiple reasons are possible. The biggest reason is that the Japanese government continuously refuses to recognize these descendants as Japanese.
Twenty elementary school girls in a uniform bob cut (okappa) are posing together, kneeling on their futon. Probably taken in the late 1930s, this photo captures a rare, insider scene of Davao Japanese School in the American Philippines. During weekdays, these girls would sleep and wake up in the room of the school dormitory. Also, they must have giggled, chuckled, played in that space, and sometimes might have quarreled with each other or cried themselves to sleep. Yet, girls in the photo above look a little stiff and serious rather than simply smiling. Their sitting position, called seiza in Japanese (literally “proper sitting”), implies that they were well disciplined in a Japanese manner. Unfortunately, neither I, my fellow scholars, nor experts can identify names of the girls in that photo, but it is undeniable that some were from the mixed-heritage families.
Davao Japanese School was built in 1924 in response to the growing demand of Japanese migrant communities for educating second generation Japanese boys and girls. Located in Davao Province, Mindanao, it was the first Japanese elementary school of twelve in the region which became home to the largest Japanese community in the American Philippines. Before the creation of this institution, parents had no choice but to send their children back to Japan or put their children in local public schools. However, the economic boom during World War I changed their situation. It led to the rapid development of the Japanese community, including the 1918 establishment of the Davao Japanese Association and the 1921 opening of the Japanese Consulate in the downtown district of Davao. These two institutions were central to the making and management of Japanese schools in the region.
Why did those girls stay in that dormitory? This question relates to the growth of the Japanese migrant community in Davao during World War I, and to the history of American colonialism in the Philippines. Through the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars at the turn of the twentieth century, the Philippines was ceded from Spain to the United States. The U.S. colonial government endeavored to make profits from cash crops in the newly acquired archipelago. During the American colonial period, Davao became dotted with the plantations of coconuts and “abaca,” also called Manila hemp, a material for cordage fiber. Many Japanese migrants started to settle there in 1903 to be involved in commercial agriculture. The war boom increased the demand for ropes used in battleships and raised the price of abaca, and further lured Japanese laborers, entrepreneurs, and companies to Davao. Thus, the plantation fields often determined where Japanese migrants established their neighborhoods. There, they built multiple businesses and created infrastructures, including general merchandise stores – selling miso, soy source, and yukata (casual kimono) – pastry shops, photo studios, hospitals, hotels, cemeteries, as well as farm land. The scattered nature of Japanese towns in Davao made it difficult for children in rural areas to commute to school. Therefore, Davao Japanese School and other Japanese schools in that region had dormitories.
Davao was an important site for the Japanese settler colonial project operating under the influence of Spanish and American colonialism.
The history of Japanese settlement and schooling in Davao went hand in hand with the settler colonial project of the Japanese empire. The empire’s development owes a lot of its expansion to its population’s settlement in Asia and the Americas. Regardless of whether they were in Japanese colonial territories or not, many other Japanese diasporic communities also built schools, receiving support from the Japanese government, and embracing its imperial ideologies. Davao was an important site for the Japanese settler colonial project operating under the influence of Spanish and American colonialism.
Of course, in Davao, there were not only the Japanese, the Americans, and the Spanish but other “locals.” Above all, various indigenous and Muslim communities were already living there. Like the Japanese, Filipinos coming from outside Mindanao and the Chinese also settled in the region, being promoted by the U.S. colonial government for colonial capitalism and the conquest of local indigenous and Muslim groups. In this place, American and Japanese settler colonialism were intersected. As a result, Davao became a multi-lingual and multi-cultural settler colony in which these groups shared work and living spaces, sometimes creating tensions while building interracial families. Japanese men married indigenous, Muslim, and setter Filipino women.
Mixed-race children were of strong concern to the Japanese migrant community in Davao and the Japanese government/empire. From its inception, Davao Japanese School counted the number of these children. The Japanese popular press often problematized them and Filipino mothers as an obstacle to the education of second-generation Japanese. But Japanese businesses and social life strongly depended on the status of Filipina mothers and their children. As foreigners in the U.S. colony, the Japanese migrants could not access the resources and rights that Filipinos and the Americans possessed, like land ownership; Filipina mothers/wives have long helped their Japanese husbands and communities. As I discussed in the beginning, theoretically and legally speaking, the nationality of these mixed-race children should be that of Japan. At the same time, for the first-generation Japanese, these mixed-race children could be defined as both Japanese and Filipino. Japanese school principals and observers from mainland Japan described how the Japanese migrant community expected that these mixed-race children would obtain Filipino nationality to serve as a vehicle for the prosperity of this community. Yet, such aspirations of the first-generation Japanese were not fulfilled. World War II dismantled Japanese communities and mixed-race families in Davao and the entire Philippines. The Japanese fathers were either killed during the war or repatriated after the war with other Japanese migrants while many mixed-race children and their Filipino mothers stayed in the Philippines.
But Japanese businesses and social life strongly depended on the status of Filipina mothers and their children. As foreigners in the U.S. colony, the Japanese migrants could not access the resources and rights that Filipinos and the Americans possessed, like land ownership; Filipina mothers/wives have long helped their Japanese husbands and communities.
These children are now approaching the end of their life, facing the risk of statelessness that the UNHCR are warning us of. These descendants have not been silent about this situation, but actively called for urgent solutions, organizing communities of Japanese descendants throughout the Philippines since the 1970s. The second and third generations’ social movement spawned the Philippine Nikkei-jin Legal Support Center (PNLSC), a transnational nonprofit organization based in Japan and the Philippines. It has helped the descendants of Japanese migrants recover Japanese nationality and reunite with their families separated by World War II. In Japan, a documentary highlighting the mixed-race children was released in the summer of 2020, and a photo exhibition was held in Tokyo by the PNLSC in February 2021.[ref]“The Forgotten: War-Displaced Japanese in the Philippines and China” [Nihonjinno wasuremono: Firipinto chugokuno zanryuhojin] directed by Hiroyasu Obara (2020), https://wasure-mono.com/[/ref]
To push the Japanese government into action, support beyond Japan and the Philippines and more specifically, in the United States, is necessary. History through the lens of colonialism, race, and gender enables us to understand the experiences of these mixed-race children and take action for this community.