Jun was standing at the corner of the Tokyo Child Welfare Office when Mila arrived.
Shy and frail by Japanese standards for a seven-year old boy, Jun meekly looked up to Mila to ask in broken Nihonggo: “Ote-araiwa do-ko de-suka (Where is the toilet)?”
Jun might have thought Mila was one of the Japanese social workers, what with her demeanor and gait adopted from working as a professional interpreter for 20 years in Japan.
“Hindi ako Hapon, anak. Halika (I am not Japanese, my son. Come with me),” Mila told Jun, holding him by the hand to the toilet at the far end of the corridor.
Mila is a Filipina in her late 40s, a topnotch interpreter from English to Nihonggo who is known throughout Tokyo as one of the best—if not the best—“if only for the way I am able to speak better Nihonggo than most Japanese,” she said.
But all that aside, Mila was a volunteer of the Philippine Embassy when she came to meet Jun at the Child Welfare Office, a task she regularly did for less fortunate Filipinos who ran afoul with Japanese laws, and ended up being helpless and isolated in a land where Nihonggo is extensively used in writing and speaking.
She noticed that Jun had just barely gotten into the toilet when he quickly came out, and hugged her by the waist.
“Nasaan na po ang Tatay ko (Where is my father)?” Jun cried as he tried to bury his face into Mila’s abdomen.
“Naku, anak, ewan ko (My son, I’m sorry, I don’t know),” she could only answer as she blamed herself for not taking a closer look at the case file given her by the Embassy on the boy.
Settling him down on a chair in the room she found him, Mila asked the boy why he was just standing in the corner and never bothered to take a seat. Jun could only mutter: “Nahihiya po ako, kasi hindi po ako marunong mag-Hapon eh. Ang alam ko lang, paano itanong kung saan ang CR (I’m shy because I don’t know how to speak Nihonggo. The only Nihonggo I know is how to ask where the toilet is).”
Case file in hand, Mila went through the circumstances why Jun—obviously a Filipino boy you would seem to find in a school in Manila than in a Child Welfare Office in Tokyo—was at a loss.
It turned out that Jun’s father, Manuel, was a “Bilog,” a term among Filipinos in Japan for compatriots who are in the country as illegal workers. Manuel was an all-around laborer. He started by working the sewers of Tokyo, before finding menial work in construction projects.
Jun’s mother was Cherry. A Japayuki, or a Filipina working in the entertainment joints.
As it turned out, Manuel had met Cherry while on a break from cleaning a sewer near the Ginza Icchome Station when a burst of shrieking Ilocano expletives attracted his attention.
Though covered in sludge, Manuel dared approach the dazzling Cherry and greeted her in Ilocano, introducing himself as a Filipino from Pangasinan. Though Cherry couldn’t see all of Manuel (with mud covering his face and the rest of his body smeared in black sludge), the Ilocano and the message from his eyes were enough. They fell in love.
The couple went on to live with a group of Filipinos in Ueno and, in a year, they had Jun.
But they had a problem. Manuel was a “Bilog” and couldn’t just surface at the Philippine Embassy or risk being reported as an illegal migrant or, much worse, being deported under Japanese laws.
Cherry was no less sold to the idea of recording Jun’s birth because it would surely jeopardize her status as an entertainment worker.
So Jun went unregistered, without a birth certificate as per the Philippine Embassy, without a record of his birth as per the Japanese government. (According to the case study Mila got, Jun was delivered after months of concealment by the small group of Filipinos with whom they lived, and his birth made possible by one of the Filipinas in the group, who was a midwife).
State-less, without a country.
Cherry was able to hide her pregnancy, and explain her absence to her employer when she finally gave birth, saying that she had to go back to the Philippines to attend to an ailing relative, while Manuel toiled through construction work during the day, labored through Tokyo’s sewers at night when most public works were undertaken, and even taking arubaito, or side line jobs, on weekends cleaning up households when most residents were out on vacation.
The arrangement worked for some years as the couple tried hard to conjure some sort of a life for Jun while cooped up in their one bedroom apartment. Cherry breastfed Jun, Manuel tried to teach him English as he was not completely versed in Nihonggo. All the while, the couple—as a matter of daily conversation—talked to Jun in Ilocano and Tagalog.
Then came the worst days of their lives.
It started with Cherry, badgered for so long a time by her relatives back home why she couldn’t send as much money anymore, caught the eye of a player from the visiting Hiroshima Toyo Carp professional baseball team.
The Hiroshima outfielder was so smitten by Cherry’s dusky Ilocana looks that he offered her marriage, something that the Filipina thought that Manuel never really offered her in the past, despite Jun.
So, like a maiden swept off her feet, on a hot August night, Mila was gone. Manuel couldn’t understand what hit his family as he came back from a weekend tending a Japanese family’s vacation house in Yugawara.
When he arrived back at their apartment, Cherry’s things were gone. Not even a letter was left to explain her departure.
But Manuel still managed to keep his composure, telling Jun that his mother had just gone back to the Philippines to be with her entertainment group, while asking their neighbors to tend to the boy as he went through the arduous task of providing for himself and Jun.
It was in one of those construction jobs that he squeezed in another arubaito in a diplomat’s residence in Shibuya-ku, that everything caved in.
Another Filipino, a Visayan, badgered him the whole morning how it was humiliating for him to have been left behind by his common-law-life—and the mother of his son—for a Japanese baseball player, to whom he could not hold a candle any time.
Blinded by rage, Manuel stabbed the Visayan repeatedly, losing himself in the abyss of misfortunes that life had gotten him into, blinded and maddened that Cherry had left him. In all that, he forgot about Jun.
Mila had to shake her head and wipe the tears from her eyeglasses, as she looked at Jun. A child, whose life is in tatters, wearing a Transformer t-shirt over a pair of shorts that looked like they were bought in Divisoria rather than in the posh stores of Tokyo. His slippers weren’t even made in Japan.
“Uuwi na po ba tayo (Are we going home)?” Jun asked the interpreter. At that point, it was Mila who tried to bury her head into Jun’s belly as she cried and said:
“Anak, iuuwi kita. Wag kang mag-alala (Son, I will bring you home. Don’t worry).”
Mila’s recollection came to the attention of a Philippine senator years back. He personally went to Tokyo to the aid of Jun and brought him back to Pangasinan where he was reunited with his grandmother.