All I want is to settle and live happily and prosperously in my country, but why can’t I?

Baltazar H. Sabado Jr.

© Copyright 2018 by
Baltazar H. Sabado Jr.

Photo of a travel poster for Japan.

This is a story of our family of four of whom were all born in different countries and have one way or another experienced living in a country other than our birth place except for our youngest who was born in the country where we are currently living; Japan.  This story is about how we transitioned to a new life in Japan and the major challenges our family faced during our moved to Japan, our first year in Japan, our day to day living in Japan and how we assimilated to the Japanese society.

This story
also answers questions common to all immigrants; Xenophobia, discrimination and security for being a foreigner. Lastly this story also tells about our personal opinion whether or not Japan is ready to accept immigrants. 

I hope by sharing our experiences, other families who are trying to (or have the opportunity to) migrate to Japan can use as a guide to make their migration and assimilation to the Japanese society easier.

I am a “guest worker” living together with my family in Japan – a country where I was not born nor grew up in – due to economic reasons and the “hope” of a better life for me and my family. I used the term “guest worker” because it is a term used in Japan rather than immigrant.

I have lived in 3 countries and my nomadic life started when I was born in Myanmar to a Filipino father and Burmese mother. At 2 years old, I became an immigrant when my mother and I moved to the Philippines to live with my father. My mother did this for she does not want me growing up without a father, the political and economic situation in Myanmar was not stable and for her “hope” for me to have a better life. She took a gamble and risked it all to live with my father. Thank God my father was a good man who took care of us until his death 25 years after they got married.

Migrating to the Philippines meant my mother losing all the pleasures of being “born with a silver spoon” including being disowned by her own parents for several years. However, my mother gained something she values more than what she lost; freedom, independence and most of all her own family.

Assimilating to a new life in the Philippines was never a problem for a 2 year old child. I actually felt I was born in the Philippines except that my birth certificate reveals otherwise. I grew up, studied, worked and lived in the Philippines and never thought about immigrating to another country. My father does not have relatives abroad. My mother had adjusted to life in the Philippines and is living a fulfilled life.

Admittedly, my view of life then was very narrow and seeing how we lived comfortably and happily in the Philippines, I never thought of living in another country. That changed when I met my wife who was born in Papua New Guinea and also migrated to the Philippines when she was 10 years old without her parents. For her, living in the Philippines was just temporary and eventually she will live in another country. I grew up in a family that had no intentions of immigrating again while my wife grew up in a family that was geographically apart which strengthens her determination to emigrate out of the Philippines.

In 2003, our first daughter was born and the economic realities (low wage and high consumer prices) required us to seek for work abroad as the amount of remuneration received is well above the local remuneration. Hence in 2004, my wife decided to be an immigrant worker in Saudi Arabia with the intention of someday bringing us to live with her. Unfortunately after a year, due to family circumstances, my wife returned back to the Philippines. Her brief stint working abroad did brought some economic relief however it came at a cost of losing time spent with us and celebrating important family milestones.

Back then I was working for a Japanese company in the Philippines and in 2008 had the opportunity to work in Japan so we decided to take the opportunity. I tried living in Japan for 1.5 years and felt what my wife had felt when she was away from us; the feeling of emptiness. However, my work circumstances allowed me to be flexible with vacations hence I was with my family during important family milestones and technology was much better in 2008 than in 2004 so we had the opportunity to video chat every day. I was even reading bed time stories to my daughter.

However living apart even for economic reasons does not justify the loss of family time as money can be recouped back but time cannot be turned back. A child should grow up with both parents and husband and wife should grow old together.

I went back to the Philippines in 2009 to complete my contractual obligations and in 2011 took the big leap and the entire family decided to immigrate to Japan. This was met with resistance from my mother because she will be left alone in the Philippines. Eventually after 4 years, she married an Australian man and now lives in Australia.

Immigrating to a new country requires a lot of planning and the hardships it brings is overshadowed by the “hope” of a new and prosperous life thus people go to great lengths to immigrate even risking their lives in perilous journeys as what we can see happening in Europe.

Family migration can be difficult and stressful hence, we decided I will immigrate first to prepare the logistics needed and for them to follow once everything has been arranged. Finally on the 8th of April 2011, our new life in Japan started.

Transitioning to a new life in Japan came with lots of challenges. What were the major challenges our family faced during our moved to Japan, our first year in Japan, and our day to day living in Japan? How did we assimilate to the Japanese society? Did we experience xenophobia? Did we experience discrimination? Did we feel our security threatened for being foreigners in Japan? Is Japan even ready to accept immigrants? Let me share our experiences as I answer those questions one at a time.

Preparing for the move – the challenges

First, getting a Dependents visa for my family which requires me to hold a certain type of visa and earn a certain annual salary threshold. Since I passed the requirements, my family’s Dependents visa was approved.

Second was looking for an apartment. This is challenging for immigrants as the contract is in Japanese only, a Japanese guarantor or a guarantor company is needed and aside from the usual deposit and advance rental fees, a “key money” is paid to the landlord as a show of gratitude for allowing his/her apartment to be rented. To overcome this challenge, what I did was to rent an apartment which is partly government owned to avoid having the need for a guarantor and paying key money.

Third was financing. Since my company was not willing to help financially and I had just newly arrived in Japan, we had to think of creative ways to finance the move.

Fourth was my wife’s personal sacrifice. Living with the family in Japan will mean sacrificing her career ambition. She already did it the first time when we got married, the second time when she had to cut short her work abroad and for the third time she will have to do it again. Thankfully, she again decided to sacrifice for the good of the family and little did we know that she will have her fourth sacrifice again in Japan.

Our first year in Japan and day to day living

Looking back, the first few months were challenging and the family took it as an opportunity to learn a new way of life. Listed are experiences I would like to share.

First, I noticed that Japanese people have good etiquettes and will interact in a polite and formal manner. Japanese people are also disciplined as evidenced by the cleanliness, peacefulness and orderliness of their country.

Second, there seems to be little interaction with neighbors. I wouldn’t think this is xenophobia as even Japanese neighbors do not often interact with each other aside from the standard courteous greetings. I think the reason is more of “personal space”.

Third, the day to day conversation with people as you go about your daily routine is a challenge for non-Japanese speakers as most of these people do not speak (or can speak a little) English.

Fourth, difficulty in finding medical care provider near our place that can communicate in English as we experienced it the first time we needed medical care as nobody in our family speaks Japanese then.

Fifth, pre and post-natal care is difficult for someone who does not speak Japanese. Being pregnant and giving birth in Japan was something my wife didn’t intend to do. However, destiny had plans for us hence 1 year and 3 months after we arrived, our 2nd child was born. This will be the fourth time my wife will have to sacrifice her career ambition again.

Sixth, child day care and finding work for my wife. When our baby turned 1, we wanted to put her in a day care facility so my wife could look for work but unfortunately government run day care centers have long waiting list and the very few privately owned facilities have exorbitant fees which we could not afford. We couldn’t do anything but to wait for our child to attend kindergarten. Fast forward 3 years, our youngest daughter has now entered kindergarten and my wife now works part time while pursuing her true career ambition.

How did we assimilate to the Japanese society?

To sum it all, our biggest challenge during our first year was the language barrier. All of us do not speak Japanese. It was specifically more challenging for our (then) 8 year old daughter to study in a local Japanese school where the medium of instruction and interaction were in Japanese.

This is a common challenge for all immigrants in any country and learning the language is the immigrant’s responsibility in order to assimilate into the host’s culture.

Assimilation is something we can do to live comfortably in our host country. Here are some of the things we did:

Learning the language including Japanese etiquette and good manners

Being a good neighbor by giving “moving-in gifts” to our neighbors which is a local tradition, minimizing noise emancipating from our apartment and sorting our garbage properly and placing them at pick up points during pick up days. Japan is clean hence we don’t want to be the person making it dirty

Respecting their religious beliefs and their political point of views

Cultural exchange by making friends with Japanese people

Learning to cook Japanese dishes

Experiencing first hand and practicing local traditions like “Hanami” (Cherry blossom viewing), “Hina-Matsuri” (Girls’ day), “Tanabata” (Star Festival), “Natsu-Matsuri” (Summer Festival) to name a few

Most importantly, paying the correct taxes and abiding by their laws.

Did we experience Xenophobia?

So far, our daughter was the only one who experienced it during her primary school years. She was called names, didn’t have any friends and at some point was even told to go back to the Philippines because she is not Japanese. This can be attributed due to the language barrier, difference in culture and the immaturity of her classmates being children to understand the good effects of cultural exchange and the bad effects of xenophobia. She bravely faced each school day and hoped for the best. I am happy to tell that, she no longer experiences xenophobia from her schoolmates.

Did we experience discrimination in employment, education and government benefits?

Employment discrimination by companies exists however it is not based on being a foreigner per se rather based on the employment type. I partly experience it due to my contract worker employment status. Setting that aside, I also receive any government mandated employment benefits even though I am a foreigner.

In education, the government of Japan provides free education up to Junior High School. This has also been extended to our daughter thus we only paid for her school lunch.

In government provided benefits, whatever benefits Japanese citizens have, we also receive it like the tri-annual child support allowance, subsidized medical check-up and free medicine for each children aged up to 15 years old to cite examples.

Did we feel our security threatened for being foreigners in Japan?

Japan is one of the safest countries in the world and on a personal opinion a good place to raise a family. So far we haven’t felt our security being threatened just for simply being a foreigner. There is a Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out will be hammered down” and I think it is important to understand it form a Japanese cultural point of view. Japan is a homogeneous society and assimilating into it means living harmoniously with their culture and way of life rather than them adapting to your way of life.

Is Japan ready to welcome immigrants?

Japan is an aging society with low birth rate resulting in low to negative economic growth. Mass immigration would have been the normal recourse to solve the declining population however Japanese people fears their homogeneous identity will erode and conservative politicians thinks social and economic tension may arise with the introduction of different culture and ethnicity. The government is currently observing the events unfolding in Europe and learning from the possible consequences it will bring to Europe.

In a Japan Times article dated 2015/11/25, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga indicated that current immigration policy is not being re-reviewed and that the first focus is on accepting short term unskilled foreign workers in some sectors which is needed to prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

What Japan is focusing right now is to encourage Japanese housewives to join the work force (dubbed “Womenomics”) to fill-in the gap and attracting highly skilled foreign workers by offering a short path to Permanent Residency. This is the government’s recourse instead of mass immigration.
Is Japan ready to welcome immigrants? My personal answer is No. Japan is not ready and does not want to accept immigrants but would only accept guest workers who will serve their purpose.

As a conclusion, all I want is to settle and live happily and prosperously in my country, but why can’t I?

There are 4 of us in our family with each one of us being born in different countries (Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Philippines and Japan) hence we are all “immigrants” in our own way.

Reflecting back to my question, Is “my country” the country I was born? Is it the country I grew up and am a citizen of? Is it the country I am currently residing for several years? Whichever it is, there is one thing I am sure of, Immigration is way of life for our family as long as there is a “hope” for a better life from what we have right now and as long as there is the courage to try and faith to believe.

Why can’t I? It’s because of economic realities and my personal choice of continually hoping for a better life for my family.

Will living in Japan end our nomadic life? Probably it will not because Japan is not yet ready to accept immigrants in general. For now, we will continue to enjoy our life here, learn more about the culture and in our little way contribute to the growth of their society until our next big leap.

Baltazar is a half Filipino - half Burmese in his 40s born in Myanmar, grew up/studied/got married and worked in the Philippines before moving to Japan.  He has been living in Japan for the past 9 years (cumulatively) together with his "Nomad" family as he jokingly calls as all four of them were born in different countries (the author in Myanmar, his wife in Papua New Guinea, his eldest daughter in the Philippines and his youngest in Japan) and had a chance to live in different countries as well. 

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