Friday, June 11, 2010


[Note to the reader: Subaru (an alias) requested that I publish his story so that others may learn from his life as an irregular migrant worker in Japan.]

Born in 1966 in Bulacan, a province just a few miles North of Manila, Philippines, Subaru was not able to complete a university degree, reaching only up to the second year, but he was employed at his mother’s meat store at a local wet market.

Subaru with his wife and three daughters in 1991

In 1986, at 20 years old, Subaru married his 17-year old childhood sweetheart and they had three children in quick succession. By the time Subaru was 24, family expenses were alarmingly high, pushing him to seek work overseas.

Subaru entered Japan in 1992 thru a 72-hour shore pass, the last stop in a three-country shopping trip covering Hong Kong and Macao.

Subaru’s Shore Pass in 1992

He was 25 years old. It was his first time outside of Philippine shores, and he could not speak a single Japanese word. Now at year 2010, Subaru is an 18-year, veteran worker fluent in Japanese. Almost two decades of grueling, manual labor has taken its toll on Subaru’s physical condition. He has developed arthritis and diabetes, and when the seasons change, and temperatures fluctuate wildly, his foot becomes swollen and the debilitating pain keeps him bedridden for weeks during which time he is without any income.

Not all is well in his family. Subaru has cohabitated with 3 women in Japan, the longest lasting 6 years and the shortest, 1 year. At present Subaru is living alone and longs for his family but he painfully admits that his wife, also herself now cohabitating with another man, and their three children are hopelessly alienated from him.  He is very quick to point out that he blames himself for not taking care of his wife and three daughters and allowing them to fall through his grip, his attention as their father.  He sincerely wishes that his wife and "three angels" - as he so lovingly calls his three daughters -- will find the happiness that they deserve so much.
Subaru in 1992
Subaru in 2010

Subaru mentioned the Filipino word “buryo” to describe his current predicament. “Buryo” is a variant of the Filipino word “buro” which is the act of preserving meat or fish. The formerly vibrant, living thing, now dead, now preserved, stays inert, immobile, imprisoned.

What did Subaru gain in his 18 years as an illegal migrant worker in Japan? More importantly, what did he lose? What price is one willing to pay for that one chance to secure your family’s economic future? And was that economic security reached, if at all? If, at some point, it became clear to Subaru that his original objective in working overseas was not being realized, why did he not just go back home and fight to regain the trust and love of his wife and daughters?

There are no easy answers. A closer look at the life cycle of Subaru (see below; click to enlarge) as an irregular migrant worker may provide some clues.

Subaru Life Cycle as an Irregular Migrant

The life cycle diagram above plots five areas of Subaru’s life as an irregular migrant in Japan, namely: work, remittances, family communication, extra-marital relationships and, lastly, gambling. I present it as a cycle because Subaru stated that he plans to go home by the end of 2010.

The starting point of the life cycle diagram is the symbol in the upper right hand corner of Subaru (man in blue color with square-shaped, green background, green signifying his legal status) and his family (wife and 3 babies) based in the Philippines, the country of origin.

Subaru enters Japan in 1992, and his loss of legal status in Japan is represented by the square background changing in color from green to red. This clarifies an issue pertaining to the term “illegal migrant,” that is, who or what is illegal: is the person illegal or is the situation he is in (or his status) which is illegal? This is to be explored in further detail in succeeding posts.

Work. Work is represented in the life cycle diagram by arrows of various colors, each representing a different type of job. The length of the arrow measures the duration that Subaru stayed in each job, though not necessarily with the same employer.

After his entry into Japan in 1992, Subaru hid out at a cousin’s house in Gifu for one month. He then contacted a close friend of his in Manila who he knew had a brother in Japan. It was through the recommendation of that brother of his friend that he got his first job at a local bakery. He worked in that bakery for a total of roughly 12 years, leaving three times to try out other work, making sure that each time he left he did so properly and with the blessing of the Japanese bakery owner.

His work tasks at the bakery included, among others, preparing all kinds of bread mixtures, cooking the bread and managing the assignments and tasks of other workers. His salary began at ¥160,000 per month, increasing by ¥10,000 per year, and eventually topping at ¥250,000 per month in 2005 when he left the bakery for the last time.

Various reasons prompted Subaru to leave his otherwise secure bakery job four times. Subaru decided to ride on the construction boom after the Kobe earthquake of 1995, joining work teams rebuilding the city. He was paid ¥14,000 per day – double his current rate – but because housing costs were expensive and work was not continuous, he was back in his bakery job after just two months. Subaru tried construction work again, this time lasting a longer period of two years. Quick work attempts at a factory making belts and as a cook also did not last long. Since 2005, however, till the present (2010), Subaru has stuck to construction work consistently.

While the arrows in the life cycle show the duration that Subaru did a particular kind of job, it does not show the days or weeks randomly interspersed within that duration that Subaru was out of work. Like any temporary laborer, an irregular migrant has no pay if there is no work. If Subaru gets sick or if the weather prevents on-site work teams from assembling, then he has no work.

Remittances. Subaru remittances to his family back in the Philippines started at ¥50,000-¥100,000 per month during his first three years (1992-1995) working in the bakery. As his monthly salary was increased by ¥10,000 for every year of work, Subaru was able to increase his remittances by roughly 20%, topping at ¥80,000-¥120,000 monthly from his 4th to the 6th year (1996-1999) in Japan.

By around year 2000 Subaru’s remittances started to decrease not only in amount but also in frequency. From a high of ¥120,000 a month, Subaru’s remittances went down to a low of ¥50,000 per quarter, and then worsened into a “send when able” basis.

Family Communication. Family communication is represented in the life cycle diagram by the paper and mobile phone symbols. There are two directions to family communication – Subaru towards his family, and his family towards Subaru. For Subaru’s family, “communication” consisted of written letters, voice recordings on cassette tapes, video footages on VHSs, CDs and DVDs sent via postal service to Japan. Subaru’s only method of communication was through international long-distance voice calls made through his mobile phone.

In his early years in Japan Subaru made regular calls to his family at least once a week, each call lasting not lower than 20-30 minutes. This frequency and duration of family communication was not sustained by Subaru, however. By the year 2000, 8th years into Japan, communication became only one way. His family continued to send messages and packages but Subaru was not able to communicate back through calls. His last voice call to his family was in 2005. The last package Subaru received from his family (sent by his mother) was in 2008 containing a DVD showing the 18th birthday of his second daughter.

In 2010 April, while I was interviewing Subaru and I learned that he had not been able to talk with his daughters for years, I told him about Facebook. Using my laptop and wireless internet connection, we searched for his three daughters, now aged 22, 21 and 19yrs, and, as expected, all three were in Facebook. To our great surprise, his second daughter was online and responded to a message we sent. With me typing and Subaru talking, we chatted with his daughter for hours. Unknown to his daughter, Subaru was in tears throughout the entire duration of our chat.

Extra-Marital Relationships. Extra-marital relationships are represented in the life cycle diagram by the symbol of a woman beside Subaru. Subaru has cohabitated with three women, all Filipinas, all with legal basis to be in Japan. His cohabitation with these three women bore no children. His longest cohabitation lasted 6 years and the shortest, 1 year.

Subaru explained that during these three cohabitation periods he was very much aware that one way for him to acquire legal status was to enter into a marriage with one of his cohabitation partners. Subaru, however, wanted to keep himself unencumbered from any issues that would prevent him from reuniting with his wife and daughters. He accepts his human frailties and, while he recognizes that this cannot justify his cohabitation, he nevertheless cites his extreme loneliness and longing for intimacy (emotional, psychological and physical) as the probable culprit for his mistakes.

Subaru’s wife had also cohabitated with another man in the Philippines and this took place somewhere along the last quarter of Subaru’s life cycle. (It must be noted here that, at this point, my sole source of information is an interview with Subaru, and thus events or situations back in the Philippines mentioned by Subaru have yet to be triangulated).

Gambling. Gambling is represented in the life cycle diagram by the red, exploding cloud. Subaru got hooked to gambling around the year 2000. He has tried all sorts of gambling events ranging from horse racing to slot machines (pachinko), settling for the latter as his personal favorite.

He realizes that one of the reasons why he is unable to send any money back home is because when he receives his salary in cash he goes straight to the pachinko parlors.

Life Cycle Patterns: Some preliminary patterns in Subaru’s life cycle diagram are discernible, as follows:

1. Subaru had two main job experiences: bakery work (10.5 years) and gemba work(7 years as of 2010). From these two main jobs, he has thus developed the following functional skills: baking bread, demolition (sequencing of dismantling, separation, segregation and classifying of extracted building materials) and carpentry.

2. Remittances sent by Subaru initially increased during his early years (relative to his total years in Japan) but then eventually decreased in the latter half of his life cycle.

3. The communication from Subaru’s family toward him was sustained more consistently than his communication towards his family. The communication media remained mostly analogue and written despite the availability of alternative, and cheaper digital or electronic means (by 1995 in the Philippines and 1990, or earlier, in Japan).

4. Subaru’s cohabitation episodes happened somewhere along the latter half of his life cycle.

5. Subaru’s gambling habit started also somewhere along the latter half of his life cycle.

Understanding the detailed events in the life cycle of Subaru seems to raise more questions than answers.

What did Subaru gain in his 18 years as an illegal migrant worker in Japan?

- Can Subaru’s main work skills be useful if he returns home?

- Does Subaru’s long tenure in Japan as a law-abiding and economically-productive individual  constitute any an advantage towards a chance at regularization?

More importantly, what did he lose?

- Is family alienation the inevitable result of a migrant parent?
o At what point(s) in a family’s life is(are) presence (physical or virtual/effective) and active involvement of a migrant parent critical in keeping a family intact?

- What conditions facilitate and/or hinder the sustainability of remittances?
 o Did Subaru’s cohabitation and gambling activities play a role in the weakening of his remittances?
 o Did any conditions on the side of Subaru’s family play a role in the decline of his remittances?
 o What role does a country’s financial infrastructure play in volume and regularity of remittances?

- Are social media (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc.) and internet telephony (Yahoo  Messenger, Google Chat, etc.) accessible to illegal migrants, and can these new technologies  help keep family communication lines open regardless of length of tenure?

What price is one willing to pay for that one chance to secure your family’s economic future? And was that economic security even reached, if at all?

- Are migrant remittances a short-term tactic or a life-long strategy in the over-all objective of a family’s economic security?

If, at some point, it became clear to Subaru that his original objective in working overseas was not being realized, why did he not just go back home and fight to regain the trust and love of his wife and daughters?

- Can an illegal migrant apply any benchmarks or best practices that may help him evaluate the effectiveness and/or efficiency of his continued stay in a county without legal status?

Subaru wanted to send the following message (translated from Tagalog) to his wife: “I hope you will forgive me. I have had so many shortcomings to you and our kids – the primary one of which is going without contact for very long periods, and, secondarily, not being able to send consistent financial support to you. But please know that I have never forgotten you or the kids. I accept all of this as my fault, brought about in no small measure by not having a clear direction and future here in Japan due to my lack of legal status. My life here has regressed into a day-to-day struggle to find work, and I live in constant fear of being arrested anyday. Without realizing it, I now realize that it has been nearly two decades.“

Subaru’s wanted to send the following message to his three daughters: “I have never ever forgotten any of you. I love you all so very much. You are all always in my mind.”

What do you think about Subaru's case?  Kindly email me or post a comment below.

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