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Tough times for Ugandan kyeyos in Japan

By Vision Reporter

Added 29th January 2010 03:00 AM

KYEYO in Japan has lost its twinkle, according to Ugandans working illegally in the Japanese capital Tokyo and the third biggest city, Nagoya. Many migrant workers say jobs have become scarce, working hours less, the police has toughened on illegal immigrants, and employers are increasingly scared o

KYEYO in Japan has lost its twinkle, according to Ugandans working illegally in the Japanese capital Tokyo and the third biggest city, Nagoya. Many migrant workers say jobs have become scarce, working hours less, the police has toughened on illegal immigrants, and employers are increasingly scared o

By Hilary Bainemigisha

KYEYO in Japan has lost its twinkle, according to Ugandans working illegally in the Japanese capital Tokyo and the third biggest city, Nagoya. Many migrant workers say jobs have become scarce, working hours less, the police has toughened on illegal immigrants, and employers are increasingly scared of using illegal labour, especially as conspicuous as black Africans.

Bosco, who does not want his identity disclosed, lives in Tsudanuma, a Tokyo suburb. He fears to leave his apartment or go to a train station.
His fears got worse after the police picked a Ugandan woman from a supermarket and handed her over to the immigration authorities.

Such news spread like fire in the dwindling black population of illegal immigrants, mainly Ugandans, Nigerians and Ghanaians.

It was quiet at Bosco’s apartment. He and his housemates lock up and hide whenever a stranger approaches, until they are certain he is not a government official looking for illegal immigrants. “We are like rats living in a house where there is an experienced cat,” he said.
It was different a decade ago. “Back then, authorities knew we were around, working illegally, but as long as we behaved, they had no problems with us,” said Seeka, who has been in Tokyo for 14 years.

“You cannot be sure you will be in Japan next month or next week or even tomorrow. We try our best to stay out of sight but tremble at every ring of the door bell”, Bosco added.
They now ask their Japanese friends to do shopping for them. Bosco said he last stepped into a train station in August. His apartment is on the second floor of the factory building where he works.

Faisal from Nagoya has a similar story. “Many companies have closed down and Shachos are reluctant to employ blacks because we are conspicuous,” he said.

Why not return home? Faisal said when his son finishes campus next year, he will be the first on the plane back to Africa.

Seeka said he has not yet achieved his target sum while Bosco said he is illiterate and there is no future for him in Uganda. “I will still do similar jobs there for peanuts. I will stay in the hide-and-seek game for the money, however dwindling. It is still better.”

The problem

According to Masahuko Ishuzuka, a lecturer at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan was badly hit by the global credit crunch because the economy depended a lot on foreign markets in a limited number of products; vehicles and electronics.
When the credit crunch hit the world, the market for these products dwindled. “Exports collapsed to 50% of what it was a year earlier. Jobs were lost, and for the first time in a long time, we are seeing Japanese willing to do the five D-jobs.”
Five D-jobs are said to be dangerous, demanding, degrading, dirty and long duration. These were traditionally the jobs of illegal immigrants.

The labour laws in Japan also make production costs high. Many Japanese manufacturers discovered that it was cheaper to shift their factories to China, which has abundant resources and cheaper labour.
Manufacturing in China and exporting to Japan enables them to cut costs and sell cheaper. But it also means loss of jobs in the Japanese market. With the Japanese now willing to compete for the five D-jobs with immigrants, the government had to come in to protect the citizens. Bosco said most of his friends were deported in the last year.


According to statistics obtained from the Japanese immigration department, there were 459 Ugandans legally staying in Japan as of December 2009. But according to the local press, there are an estimated 30,000 Africans living illegally in Japan, 10% of them being Ugandans. Around 6,000 to 8,000 are Nigerians, 5,000 to 7,000 are Ghanaians and 2,000 Guineans. Africans from other countries such as Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Ethiopia are represented in smaller numbers.
The majority of Ugandans working illegally in Japan are now staying away from community groups and events for fear of arrest and deportation.

Immigration department statistics show that the number of deported Ugandans is increasing every year.
In 2006, a total of 47 Ugandans were deported; 46 for overstaying their visa and one for illegal entry.
In 2007, the number rose to 74 of whom 65 for overstaying their visa, seven for illegal entry and two for being found working without permits. In 2008, 79 were deported of whom 74 for overstaying their visas and five for illegal entry.

The immigration department explained that anybody can be arrested for overstaying their visas or for working without a permit, even when they have a valid visa.

Japan’s attraction

Since the 1980s, Japan has been the ladder to wealth for many Ugandans without qualifications or technical know-how. Notable successful names that used Japan Kyeyo to financial height include Haj Brahimu Muwanga Kibirige (BMK), the proprietor of Hotel Africana; Haruna Ssemakula of the defunct General Parts Uganda and many Ndeeba tycoons.

The trading centre of Ndeeba, Kisekka market and Katwe auto parts shops were developed by the Ugandan sweat on Japanese kyeyo.
In the 1990s, Japan was talked about so much that people sold land, houses and property to venture on the Japan kyeyo mission. Those who went there got money but not in the amounts of the BMKs of 1980s.
Since 2000, Japan began losing its attraction as many Ugandans flooded the place and the Japanese started making it difficult to access a visa.

Some of those who were already there began illegal activities, like stealing vehicles from unsuspecting Japanese and exporting them to Uganda. The Japanese government reacted by becoming extra stringent on visas. Kyeyo in Japan is very different from Western countries. Simpler jobs, like cleaning, are done by robots and automated technology. English-based qualifications are irrelevant for professional jobs and so what matters is strength and resilience to do difficult jobs that don’t require papers.

The money is good. The pay is per hour and so the number of hours worked are very important. However, with Japan becoming increasingly difficult and working hours dwindling, many people are now seeking alternative Asian destinations like Dubai, Korea and China.


In 2004, the Government declared nkuba kyeyo a noble trade. Revenues from Ugandans working abroad were recognized as the leading foreign exchange earner.
The Government therefore promised diplomatic assistance where possible. Dr. Augustus Nuwagaba, a Makerere University lecturer and poverty alleviation consultant, actually declared nkuba kyeyos national heroes.

Since then, efforts by the President’s office to coordinate kyeyo under the auspices of presidential legal assistant Naava Nabagesera ended in fraud allegations and a failed court case.

Nevertheless, remittances from Ugandans abroad remain one of the leading foreign exchange earners. In the 2007/2008 financial year, they reached a record level of $1.4b (sh2.3 trillion).

However, since the global credit crunch, this amount has been dwindling. Hashim Kirungi of the Bank of Uganda said foreign exchange remittances usually peak during festive seasons or the opening of school terms. But last December, the money sent reduced drastically.
Bank of Uganda director Henry Opondo told the press last year that the remittances dropped by more than 56%, from $800m (sh1.6 trillion) to $350m (sh735b) in the first quarter of the year.

The remittances represent direct dollar inflows into the economy, different from foreign direct investment, which has also fallen from $778m to 735m, indicating a 5.5% drop in last financial year.

In the last decade, remittances have been central to the economy, having surpassed coffee, which only fetched $348m last year, as a foreign exchange earner.

Helping those at home

The Japanese government prefers to improve the conditions for Africans in Africa rather than having Africans breaking the law by working illegally in Japan.

The government has acknowledged the economic difficulties of some countries in Africa. That is why it has decided to increase its development assistance to Africa.
Yoshihiro Higuchi, director of the first African division at Japan’s ministry of foreign affairs, said Africa is important for Japan because of its rapidly growing markets, abundant resources and importance globally.

“The issues faced by Africa affect all of us. There can never be stability and prosperity in the world unless the problems of Africa are resolved”
About the Japanese credit crunch, Higuchi said the worst is over and in spite of everything, Japan is still in a strong position to meet its overseas obligations.

He added that the new Japanese prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has pledged to increase assistance to Africa to achieve the millennium development goals.

The programme coordinator for Japanese assistance to Benin and Burkina Faso, Toko Tomita, summed it up well: “The response of the government is not based on how well-off we are but on being part of the global responsibility to poor brothers and sisters as partners in the international community.”

Harrowing tales of chasing visas and of deportation


After about two years chasing a UK visa, Semanda finally got it in 2001. During that time, he spent millions falsifying documents to meet the visa application standards.

He got his boss and friend to allow him append his name to copies of company ownership documents, since he needed to show that he had strong reason to come back after his stay in the UK. He paid Luwum street dealers to falsify bank statements showing that he had enough money to study and live in the UK for two years.

Then he got himself admitted into a catering and hotel management course in a UK college. He stood in the line of visa applicants, all day and much of the night for many days. Once, when he was close to the top of the line but needed to sleep, he paid a body builder to stand in his place till he woke up. On one occasion, he failed to get a visa even after a face to face interview.

Then one day, as he was standing in line with a volume of new documents, a heavily-built man came to him and without batting an eyelid, asked him for sh400,000. In return, the guy said he would get him a visa in two days. Semanda paid the money and handed his papers and passport to the guy. That evening, the man returned his stamped passport. He had got him a two-year student visa to the UK!

With relatives already settled in Holland, Fenny Nanziri could easily have got a visa to visit and thereafter disappeared into the underground there. But, she did not want to live in Holland or go through the period of being a vagabond until she got legal residence. So she masquareded as a Rwandan refugee who had been living in Uganda since the genocide.

It was a guise which suited her well because her mother was a Ugandan of Rwandan descent and Fenny had inherited the classical Rwandan features. With a few papers, the young woman breezed right through the visa application process and got political asylum in the UK shortly after her arrival. Other Ugandans have been reported to claim that they are homosexuals being persecuted back here.

For Paul, relatives living in South Africa were his only route there. They invited him for a short visit, the south African embassy gave him a five-month visa and now paul is living and working night jobs in Johannesburg. He gets around carrying photocopies of residence documents of one of his cousins. He hopes that later on, he will find his way to legal residence. Commuting daily from his residence way out of Johannesburg to work does not faze him.



Badru was arrested during the Christmas season in 2007 and was deported in January 2008. This is his story:
I was riding my bike around Yahiro one Saturday afternoon, when a police car stopped me. A policeman got out and asked me for my papers.

I was not afraid because it had happened before and I knew that for Japanese police, as long as you spoke the truth, they would let you go. I told him I did not have a visa. He told me to enter the car.

Even then, I was not scared. It had happened before to my friend and he was released after questioning. We had a chat about Africa and laughed together as he delivered me for detention.

When we reached the station, it became clear that they were not going to release me. My overstay of 12 years, they said, was too much. I was not even allowed to return home. They detained me at the station until Monday, when they took me to court.

I could not afford a lawyer. I had used all my savings to load a container which we had dispatched from Yokohama a week earlier. I represented myself and pleaded that I be allowed to stay and work for my children, in vain. I was taken to the detention centre at Shinagawa. I could not be deported immediately, because my passport had expired. Our embassy was to issue me a travel document but I had to wait till the second week of January, because they had closed for Christmas.

Life at the detention centre was gloom. Every face was disappointed and some newcomers often cried. Most people were from Asia: China, Korea, Phillipines, Vietnam and Indonesian. Many had appealed against their deportation on grounds of political persecution and failed. I did not see anyone being tortured.

I was told four days earlier about my imminent deportation. I was allowed to take only the luggage I could carry. We were handcuffed and driven to the airport in a caged bus. Police did all the airport clearance for us and led us, chained to each other, to the door of the plane.
As people at the airport turned to look at us, I wondered who they thought we were. Criminals?

I had hoped to work through Christmas for money to clear my container, which my colleagues and I had loaded. It arrived in Mombasa the same day I arrived at Entebbe. I did not have money to contribute to its transport to Uganda or taxes. My friends could not tolerate my inadequacies because of damrage costs. In the end, I let them take most of my cargo. I lost everything.

I am now lost in Uganda, without resources to integrate myself in the society I left 12 years ago. People lose interest in me as soon as they discover I have no money. I am stranded.

Compiled by H. Bainemigisha

Tough times for Ugandan kyeyos in Japan

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