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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Overcoming the undocumented past

Apr. 5, 2017

Every child has the right to be registered at birth.

This is a right that is enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child that was adopted at the United Nations General Assembly in 1989 and ratified by basically all countries in the world.

However, the births of nearly one fourth of children under the age of 5 worldwide have never been recorded.

The lack of formal recognition by the State is not a problem for the developing countries or war zones alone.

The Japanese government recently found that there are at least 700 people around the country known to have never been registered.

NHK World's Social News Correspondent Mariko Ueda joins Newsroom Tokyo anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio. She's been covering children rights issues for 10 years.

Beppu: Many viewers might wonder why there are babies that go unregistered in an economically developed country like Japan. This is a country known for its well-developed institutions.

Ueda: Japanese law states that people must register a child within 2 weeks of the birth, and many people do that. But, some people don't or, I would say, can't. Some parents fail to register their children for economic reasons. Others don't register their children because they may be in hiding from someone -- an abusive husband, for example. Or, they may want to conceal a birth because the child is the result of an unwanted pregnancy. The government began conducting surveys 3 years ago.

Currently, it says there are about 700 such children, but the estimate is considered to be the tip of the iceberg. I interviewed one of them who suffered from the issue.

Emi (pseudonym) is 35 years old. She lives in a city near Tokyo.

She had never gone to school in her life. But that changed last September when she enrolled in this junior high school as a 3rd-year student.

Her classes follow a specialized curriculum. Emi was unable to receive an education because of her family situation.

She was the sixth child in her family. Her father was a construction worker. He did not make a sufficient income to support the household.

Emi's parents could not afford to pay the bill at the hospital where she was delivered. The hospital refused to provide a birth certificate -- and without one, a child cannot be listed in the family register. So she grew up unregistered.

Even though Emi reached school age, her parents did not send her to school. They feared that if they began the enrollment process, they would be reported to the police for shirking payment of the hospital bill.

While her siblings and neighborhood children were at school, Emi stayed home and was forced to study with the few learning tools she had.

"I often wondered why I was the only one who couldn't go to school. I was sad and frustrated. I tried to make myself believe that the neighborhood kids had to attend, but I didn't. My mother would look sad every time I mentioned it, so I tried not to say anything," Emi says.

In Japan, every child has a right to attend elementary and junior high school. Children who aren't registered are no exception. But Emi grew up not knowing that. Her dreams and goals are buried deep in her heart.

Without formal educational certificates, she could only do part time jobs, such as unloading goods and washing dishes.

"There were times when I wished I could do clerical work. I would say 'something good might happen someday,' but I gave up and did what I had to do to get by," Emi says.

Emi got married when she was 33. Through the process, she consulted a support group and went through court procedures. Later, she was finally listed in a family registry.

Another turning point came last year. The government unveiled a plan that would allow people in special situations to attend junior high without graduating from elementary school.

At the time, Emi had just given birth. That made her even more eager to go to junior high school.

"I would have been ashamed if I could not help my child with homework when he grew older," Emi says.

When Emi finally enrolled in junior high, she was in her mid-30s.

She struggles most at maths. She's learning how to calculate percentages -- something she should have been taught around the age of 10.

When Emi first started out, she had to memorize the multiplication tables. She's learning new things one by one. She says her world has expanded.

"I never imagined that I would ever go to school. I'm overwhelmed and grateful that I can study. I enjoy myself every day," says Emi.

"Emi appears to be enjoying her lessons and appreciates them more than others who grew up with an education. She takes pleasure in the fact that she finally has an opportunity to learn," says her teacher.

As her studies progressed, Emi began thinking about new paths.

She came up with a goal -- to become a judicial scrivener and provide legal services. She has decided to attend a vocational school after graduation.

"I've experienced hardships and many things that other people would never face. So I want to help people who have a tough time," she says.

On her graduation day, she receives her first diploma.

"In the past, I couldn't go to elementary or junior high school, and I had to give up so many things. But I'm happy that I've graduated from this school with support from many people and now I have a new goal. I'll work hard to achieve that goal. Thank you," says Emi.

Receiving an education has allowed Emi to dream for the first time. This spring, she will take a new step in her life.

Shibuya: How can unregistered people improve their situation, and what can be done to reduce the number of unregistered people in Japan?

Ueda: Unregistered people have several options, but each one is difficult. For example, a lawsuit can be filed in an effort to register an undocumented person. But filing lawsuits is very difficult because unregistered people have no documents to prove their identities. Experts say it's necessary to examine the system and amend the laws in order to fundamentally resolve the issue.

In the meantime, at some municipalities, the welfare and family registry departments are working together to assist the mothers even before they give birth, in order to deal with the issue beforehand.

When municipal officials find unregistered children, they tell the mothers about available services. It's important for similar initiatives to spread across the nation.

Beppu: As I said at the beginning, this is a problem relatively common in developing countries, but Japan is known for its developed administration. What struck you most while covering this issue?

Ueda: I often heard from my interviewees that the problem is not only about the inconveniences in their everyday life but, something bigger. They say that the biggest problem is they feel that they have no identity.

I was touched when I heard them saying that all they want is to live an ordinary life like everyone else. I think that their pain gets strong because Japan is a country where the great majority is registered and the unregistered people are not even considered as members of society.

We often hear people saying, "This problem happens because the parents are irresponsible. It's because the parents didn't take the necessary steps."

But I would like to point out the simple fact that children can't choose their parents. Blaming the parents is not the solution, and I hope society tackles this problem by putting the children's interest first.