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Japan’s dual citizens get a tacit nod but keep their status in the shadows

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Special To The Japan Times

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Democratic Party lawmaker Renho has found herself in the unenviable position of having to defend her Japaneseness. On Tuesday it was finally confirmed that the runaway favorite to lead Japan’s top opposition party still has Taiwanese citizenship through her father, a national of that country.

Renho has a Japanese mother but did not gain Japanese citizenship until 1985, when she was 17 and a change in the Nationality Law allowed children born of a Japanese mother and foreign father to be registered as citizens. Before that, citizenship for those with a foreign parent was determined by the father’s nationality alone.

The 1985 change in the law also required all dual citizens to make a “declaration of choice” renouncing either their Japanese or any other citizenship they may have before reaching the age of 22.

Renho says she thought she had renounced her Taiwanese citizenship in 1985 during a visit to Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Tokyo, although she admits she couldn’t follow the conversations with officials in Chinese. On Tuesday, however, she broke the news that she does have dual citizenship after all, an admission that could have serious consequences for her aspirations to lead her party and, potentially, even the country.

Perhaps fortunately for dual citizens here — those who are not seeking Japan’s highest office, that is — having more than one nationality in Japan is a gray area. Although the Nationality Law says all dual nationals must choose to be either Japanese or foreign at 22, and that those who continue to hold dual nationality risk losing their Japanese citizenship, that threat has never been carried out: No dual national has ever been stripped of their Japanese citizenship for not renouncing another status before the age of 22.

What this means is that there are hundreds of thousands — estimates go as high as 700,000 — of dual citizens in Japan, many of whom are 22 and older and are therefore flouting the law. So why does Japan put up with this “don’t ask, don’t tell” state of affairs?

One answer may be that the alternative could be a bureaucratic nightmare.

“Giving up citizenship is not always easy and can take time, so strict enforcement is not really practical,” says Chris Burgess, a professor of Japanese studies at Tsuda College in Tokyo.

As it becomes ever easier in this era of globalization for Japanese to travel, work and live abroad, and as the number of foreign residents continues to increase, so, inevitably, does the number of dual citizens by virtue of parentage, marriage or place of birth. All of this makes the job of grappling with this issue for bureaucrats and the justice system ever more potentially complicated and time-consuming.

So is the status quo the ideal situation for a country that tends to be reflexively conservative on issues of race and nationality yet benefits from the dual-citizen population? In Japan’s rapidly aging society, many of its dual nationals are young taxpayers. Dual citizens are much more likely to speak a second language fluently, a valuable skill in a country with notorious poor foreign language skills. Japan ranked 40th out of 48 countries surveyed in average TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) scores in 2013. Dual citizens who were educated outside of Japan’s rigid education system can think outside of the box, bringing much-needed entrepreneurial skills and a fresh outlook to a country that has suffered decades of economic malaise.


One foreign parent in Japan who appreciates the status quo is American Frank Langley.

“My 29-year-old son recently left Japan to work in my home country,” he says. “He’s glad he kept his other passport in addition to his Japanese one so he would have this opportunity. It’s also reassuring to me as a father to know that if things don’t work out for him there he can come back here.”

Miguel Silva, a Portuguese father of two dual citizens here, is content with the current state of affairs.

“I try not to talk too much about dual citizenship with my children for various reasons,” he says. “Primarily because I feel that most Japanese children live in a kind of peaceful state and don’t fully understand the meaning of dual citizenship. I believe that dual citizenship decisions in Japan are made by the parents, and children don’t know and don’t care much about what is going on.”

If the Japanese government continues its policy of not forcing people to make a declaration of choice before the age of 22 as stipulated in the Nationality Law, young people such as Silva’s children will be able to grow up and decide for themselves what to do about the issue of citizenship whenever they are ready.

Any moves to force young people to choose between countries could work against Japan’s best interests by driving talented dual nationals away. In a submission to the Diet in 2012 on the issue of dual citizenship, the Justice Ministry stated that of the estimated 10 percent of Japanese dual nationals who do make the declaration of choice before age 22, half chose to give up their Japanese citizenship. This issue makes headlines periodically when Japanese-born figures who have naturalized in the U.S., for example, win major accolades, such as Nobel laureate Yoichiro Nambu in 2008.

Kanako Ishigura, the mother of a boy with Japanese citizenship who is applying for a passport from the U.S., his father’s country, says she would prefer to see the whole issue taken out of the closet and dual nationality encouraged.

“While I am content with the status quo, I do think that if they did officially allow dual citizenship then dual citizens would have to vote and pay taxes in two countries and they would care about both countries more,” she says.

Mixed-race Japanese, usually referred to here as hāfu (half), can often struggle with identity issues, and some parents believe that if Japan officially granted their children dual citizenship, it might help them better deal with the fact that they have roots in two countries, and see that reality as acceptable to society rather than something to be kept in the dark.

Choosing between their parents’ countries can be a tough call for many young dual citizens.

“I’ve lived my whole life in Japan and have only been to America twice, so I don’t know enough about it to even start thinking about which one I would want to live in if I had to make a choice,” says Yoshihiro Collins, a 16-year-old dual citizen whose father hails from the U.S. “I guess if I was forced to make a choice between my mother and my father’s countries, I would choose the one that had the best job opportunities for me.”

Megumi Nishikura is a filmmaker who co-directed the documentary “Hafu” about mixed-race Japanese.

“In my experience of speaking with many hāfu, I have found that the majority of them would appreciate being able to legally hold both — or more, as the case may be — passports of their parents’ nationalities,” she says.


While the issue of dual citizenship usually simmers in the background, it had a brief spell in the political limelight in 2008, when ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Taro Kono attempted to introduce legislation that would spell out conditions where dual nationality was acceptable or not. Kono’s bid came after the revelation that 2008 Nobel Prize for physics laureate Nambu had naturalized in the U.S. and had renounced his Japanese citizenship in 1970.

Fears that Kono’s proposal would deepen splits within the scandal-rocked LDP helped doom the initiative, as did the timing: Kono’s bid coincided with speculation that then-Prime Minister Taro Aso would call an election, something he finally did the following year. The LDP lost that poll, burying all chances of the Kono proposal being resurrected.

Not surprisingly, there is plenty of opposition to flinging open the doors to dual citizenship in Japan. In an article in the right-wing tabloid Yukan Fuji on Sept. 6, immigration lawyer and author Koji Yamawaki argued that dual nationality was undesirable because dual citizens may not be loyal to Japan. He also suggested that if dual citizens were involved in crime or terrorism abroad, it wouldn’t be clear which country should help them, and that people holding multiple passports could use them to commit crimes, act as spies or escape taxes. Finally, he raised the specter of dual citizens casting votes in Japanese elections that would benefit their other country to the detriment of Japan.

With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe preoccupied with fixing the economy and amending the Constitution, the issue of dual citizenship again seems to be on the back burner. There are likely many who favor dual citizenship that are content to see it stay a nonissue during the nationalist-dominated Abe administration, which is unlikely to view the issue as favorably as Kono did in 2008.

“Japan needs workers, especially manual laborers,” says professor Burgess. “But accepting them officially is politically very difficult, if not impossible. So the government fudges the issue by utilizing backdoor labor, such as the trainee system and giving special dispensation to Nikkei-jin (South Americans of Japanese descent). The same is true for dual nationality. Accepting it officially would be very difficult politically, as Kono found out in 2008, and touch on lots of sensitive issues related to nationality identity. It is pretty much politically taboo at this time.”

While Japan sticks to its “gray area” guns on this issue, the global trend is toward greater acceptance of dual citizenship. Since 1960, the number of countries where citizenship is automatically lost after an individual chooses to acquire another nationality has halved to around 60 — or 30 percent of the nations on Earth — according to a recent Mexican study. At the same time, the number of dual citizens has risen dramatically in countries that collect data on this issue, on average doubling in the decade or so between censuses.

Globalization is here to stay, and as the mobility of money, goods and people continues to increase and more countries willingly giving up more of their sovereignty to the free market and its institutions, the number of dual citizens can only increase.

But while many advanced countries now accept or even welcome those with dual nationalities with open arms, Japan’s hundreds of thousands of dual citizens are likely to have to settle for a quiet word or tacit nod from officialdom for the foreseeable future in lieu of full acceptance.

The shady status of dual citizenship in Japan certainly hasn’t put Ishigura off the idea. Her son only has Japanese citizenship right now, but getting her son a U.S. passport shouldn’t be a problem.

“I want my child to have dual nationality because I think it will give him more opportunities in the future,” she says. “It doesn’t bother me too much that they don’t enforce the law. If things stay the way they are now when my son approaches his 22nd birthday, I’m planning on telling him to just keep his mouth shut.”

Dual citizens and their parents quoted in this article asked to use pseudonyms due to privacy and legal concerns. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp