Bread & Roses: Tragedy and Prison for a Pregnant Foreign Intern

In August 2018 at the age of 19, Le Thi Thuy Linh arrived in Japan to work as a jisshusei intern. Each day, she handled agricultural wastewater at a tangerine orchard in Kumamoto Prefecture. Japan’s rapidly ageing population has created a dearth of agricultural workers, forcing farmers to turn to young foreign interns like Linh to maintain their farms.

One day in summer 2020, aged 21, Linh discovered she was pregnant. The father was an intern working at a different employer. This news brough Linh no joy. More than anything, she feared that her pregnancy would lead to a forced repatriation back to Vietnam.

When I say forced repatriation, I don’t mean by police or immigration authorities. What often happens is that the employer and a few companions physically force the worker into a car, drive them to the airport, and force them on to a flight, right in front of airport personnel. I consider this kidnapping or illegal detention, but the police do not investigate it as such.

Thus, Linh told no one – neither her tangerine orchard boss; nor the father; nor the intern system’s supervisory agency; nor even her Vietnamese coworkers. She didn’t go to any hospital or clinic and received zero medical care.

Linh had seen with her own eyes how it had become common practice in Japan to ship pregnant Vietnamese interns back home. Since coming to Japan alone, her backbreaking labor had supported her entire family, including her mother, toddler brother, and gravely ill father back home. She determined to do anything to avoid her pregnancy getting found out.

On Nov.15, unendurable abdominal pain forced Linh to take off work. She agonized throughout the night then, alone in her bedroom, gave birth to dead twins.
She later recounted the experience at a press conference.

The twins didn’t cry or breathe or respond at all when I touched them. I too was in awful physical shape – uneasy, frightened, horrified to see the dead bodies of my own children right next to me. As their mother, I wrapped them in a white towel, placed them carefully in a cardboard box, then placed a blue towel on top. I gave them Vietnamese names and placed in the box a letter saying rest in peace. I placed the box on my cabinet counter and left it there.

She was arrested on suspicion of unlawful abandonment of corpses, a violation of Article 190 of the Penal Code. Fukuoka High Court found her guilty and sentenced her to three months of prison with hard labor followed by two years of a suspended sentence. The lower Kumamoto District Court had sentenced her to eight months prison with hard labor, but the appellate court reduced it to only three months, reasoning:

Although she had ample opportunity to consult with those around her, she feared forced repatriation because she could no longer fulfill her intern duties or pay rent. This leaves room to consider extenuating circumstances behind her concealment of the pregnancy and childbirth, leading to the commission of the crime.

The judge didn’t overturn her criminal conviction. Is she a criminal? Do her actions constitute illegal abandonment of corpses? What about the situation in which pregnancy means forced repatriation, in which she felt compelled to forgo any prenatal care and give birth alone in her apartment?

Every corner of our society and economy depends on the labor of foreign “technical interns.” Yet, they are effectively stripped even of the most basic of human rights – to get pregnant and give birth in peace; deprived of the freedom to change jobs or complain in any form about their working conditions. Quasi-slavery conditions run rampant in Japan.

Some Japanese women, too, hide their pregnancies. In January 2022, Jikei Hospital (coincidentally, also in Kumamoto Prefecture) delivered the first ever anonymous birth from a mother who could not raise the child. Only hospital officials know the identity of the mother and will reveal it only if the child asks after reaching adulthood. There is some controversy over these issues, but it seems to me that, regardless of the circumstances, doing everything possible to protect the lives of mother and child and ensuring they grow up healthy is a crucial mission of society.

Let me finish with a quote from the attorney who has spent his career fighting to reform the technical intern system: Shoichi Ibuski.

The Linh case is messed up – the technical intern system that ignores workers’ rights, deprives them of freedom, and exploits their labor ended up turning this victim into a criminal.

This article was written by Hifumi Okunuki, and originally published by the Shingetsu News Agency (SNA).