MANILA - Three Japanese-Filipino siblings now in their 70s were recently reconnected to their Japanese father, who was forced to leave them during World War II to serve the Japanese army and eventually get repatriated to his home country.
Unfortunately, the "reunion," which happened Dec. 3, had to take place at their father's grave in the Okinawan city of Itoman, with the siblings regretting not actively searching for their father, Taruji Fusato, early on when he was still alive.
The Dec. 1-4 Okinawa trip of Salome Belino, 78, Jaime Fusato, 76, and Caridad Comez, 71, is part of their desire to regain their Japanese identity, being among the eight children of Fusato with Martiniana Rodriguez, a native of Palawan province in the western Philippines.
According to Norihiro Inomata of the Philippine Nikkei-jin Legal Support Center that is assisting the siblings, a formal petition seeking Japanese citizenship for the three was approved in October by the Naha Family Court in Okinawa, a month after it was filed.
Inomata's center, which is backed by the Nippon Foundation, found out that Fusato, born on March 1, 1891, is from Okinawa and had traveled to the Philippines before the war.
A government record shows that Fusato married Rodriguez in August 1925. The couple's first child was born four years later, while the youngest, Caridad, was born in October 1945.
In separate interviews after their arrival from Okinawa, Salome and Jaime told Kyodo News that before the war, their father was engaged in farming, raising enough income for the family.
"He was hardworking. We lived a good life then. But the Japanese army took our father during the war to serve as interpreter. Our lives changed after that. And he failed to come back to us," Salome said of her father.
Jaime said that around a decade later, the family received a letter from a Filipino friend who met their dad in Okinawa. The letter, addressed to their eldest sibling, Tsuyuko, and dated Feb. 6, 1956 disclosed how happy Fusato was when told about the family's condition. It also carried a recent photo then of Fusato.
Fusato, who could not write in Tagalog, did not write directly to his family, nor did he travel back to the Philippines. When the communication through their Filipino friend stopped, the siblings assumed their dad already passed away.
Jaime said the family faced various hardships after his dad left but they managed to support themselves from the farm and animals that Fusato left behind, "although the house our father built was burned down by anti-Japanese forces."
"Since my siblings and I were already grown up, we just helped each other to provide for the entire family," he said.
"The war robbed us of the happy and good life we had with our father," Salome lamented. "Growing up, we also experienced being ridiculed for being children of a Japanese national."
But, resigned to their fate, and already used to their father's absence, the siblings went on with their own lives, without hiding their Japanese surname, until they started having their own families.
Only a couple of years back, they were linked to the association of Filipinos of Japanese descent, which rekindled their desire to trace their father and also seek official recognition from the Japanese government.
The siblings said getting their "shuseki" petition approved means a lot for them because it will allow their children and grandchildren to work in Japan.
More than that, what gave them satisfaction and real joy was the news that the Philippine Nikkei-jin Legal Support Center was able to locate their father's grave and their relatives in Japan.
"It's like being whole again. And what's most important for us was knowing that our father was well taken care of until his old age, and that he was properly laid to rest," Salome said.
"I suddenly realized how sad and difficult it is to be separated from a parent, and you wonder if somebody is taking care of him when he is already old," she added.
Salome said that when she and her siblings were told shortly before their trip to Okinawa that their father died in his sleep in 1990 at the age of 99, they all felt sorry for not actively exerting efforts to find out earlier whether or not he was still alive.
"We cried about it. Had we known that he lived until 1990, we would have reunited with him earlier when he was still alive. We really regret it a lot," said Jaime, who spent three months in Tokyo in 1976 while working on a foreign vessel.
"Had I known he was alive when I was in Tokyo, I could have sought permission from my boss and traveled to Okinawa to see my father, even, let's say, for just a week," he said.
Jaime, who could still recall always sleeping beside his father when he was still a little boy, said Caridad really longed to see their father because she was still an infant when he left.
But amid their disappointment, the siblings find consolation in the fact that their father returned alive and unhurt to his home country after the war, and was well-loved there until his death.
Following their reunion with their relatives in Japan, the siblings vowed to maintain contact with each other, including the younger generation of their clan, to make up for what was lost during the last 71 years.
According to Inomata's center, which was established in 2003 to support children of pre-war Japanese migrants in the Philippines whose lives and identity were disrupted by WWII, there were around 3,000 second-generation Japanese-Filipino descendants. But due to the difficult situation during the wartime, nearly 900 of them were not officially registered with the Japanese government.
As of last month, the center have filed 265 petitions to seek recognition from the Japanese government for Japanese-Filipino descendants, of which, 187 have been approved.