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Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2003

THE ZEIT GIST

Kawaii sea lion back in spotlight

Foreigners flip over Tama-chan's new status


Celebrity sea lion Tama-chan is causing a flap yet again.

News photo
How Tama-chan's gaijin card may appear.

But this time it's not the hordes gathered on the concrete banks of his resting places in various Kanagawa rivers, but Japan's foreign population who are keenly following the big city adventures of the bearded sea lion.

On Friday, the Nishi Ward office of the Yokohama city government announced that Tama-chan is to be issued with a certificate of residence ("juminhyo") by the city.

The juminhyo is a resident registration form that officially lists the members of all Japanese families.

Foreign nationals and ethnic groups within Japan are forbidden by law from appearing on the certificate, which gives the family unit official status.

Hence, mixed-race family units lack full official recognition in Japan.

Members of the international community, who find it odd that a sea lion should get the certificate and not them, are slightly dismayed at what they say is an example of bureaucratic insensitivity.

"While it's intended to be a lighthearted stunt, the move does carry a certain amount of hypocrisy," says Dave Gutteridge, of the foreign rights campaign group, The Community.

"There are many second- and third-generation Chinese and Korean who cannot get a residence permit. Also, there are many tax-paying foreign residents who cannot get a juminhyo, and thus have no say in the government they pay tax to."

"I think the city government were acting lightheartedly, but were unable to connect the issues (of residency for a sea lion and no residency for the foreign community)."

The Nishi Ward office revealed that the decision to formally register Tama-chan as a resident came in response to a flurry of calls from locals insisting the sea lion is "more or less like a fellow resident."

Members of foreign rights groups in Japan have expressed surprise that this one foreign mammal (Tama is from Alaska, apparently) should receive a juminhyo when others cannot.

"I think this action was prompted more by misunderstanding than anything," says Fumio Takano, of Tokyo Alien Eyes, an advocacy group for foreigner rights in Japan.

"Most Japanese don't know much about residency or what it means to foreigners who don't have it. They think giving a sea lion a juminhyo is happy news."

But ethnic Chinese and Koreans, or "Zainichi," whose families have lived in Japan for generations but who remain legally barred from appearing on a juminhyo, are less than pleased with the city government's diplomatic blunder.

"Members of the Korean and Chinese communities are very upset," at Nishi Ward's tactless action, says Takano.

His group, which has received numerous messages from nongovernmental and nonpolitical organizations in Japan shocked at the award, is planning some form of low-key action to register their disgust with the city.

Though in practical terms, foreigners have ample proof that they actually reside in Japan, their inability to appear on the official residency certificate can, and has caused problems, sometimes serious, particularly for those with Japanese spouses and children.

Since foreigners cannot appear on the certificate even when married to a Japanese spouse, they technically appear on the juminhyo as "missing."

Thus a Japanese spouse is officially a single-parent, and children of international marriages are illegitimate.

In the event of the death of a Japanese spouse, their children become listed as orphans.

Those in international marriages have often been visited by the welfare section of the city office offering child support to a "single parent," while Japanese husbands have been peppered with mailshots from matchmaking companies.

More seriously, foreign nationals involved in divorce proceedings have been faced with problems in arguing fairly for custody of children.

However, few begrudge Tama-chan his new status.

"If people feel that attached to Tama-chan then by all means give him residency," says one rights campaigner.

"But they need to make sure that they give other mammals the same thing. At the moment they seem to be saying that foreigners aren't even mammals."

However, the Nishi ward office has declared that it will only be granting the privilege to river-based, bearded mammals, and not land-dwelling, tax-paying ones.

Some foreign residents are less alarmed by the news, with many flooding Internet chat rooms and mailing lists with inquiries about Tama-chan's capacity to act as guarantor for their apartments and bank loans.

More desperate contributors are considering proposals of marriage in a bid to hold onto their visas.



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