Citizenship for kids still tall order

by Setsuko Kamiya and Minoru Matsutani

Many observers of the Nationality Law have welcomed the government’s proposed revision approved Tuesday by the Cabinet that will soon allow hundreds of children born out of wedlock to Japanese men and foreign women to obtain Japanese nationality if the father recognizes paternity even after birth.

Despite what seems to be a positive move, however, some also predict many challenges ahead before the children entitled to Japanese nationality can actually acquire it.

“The revision will mean a lot to the children, because (nationality) is part of their identity and will secure them a more stable status and future,” said Rieko Ito, secretary general of the Tokyo-based Citizens Network for Japanese-Filipino Children, which supports Filipino women and children in Japan who often live under permanent resident status.

The scheduled amendment is in line with the June 4 Supreme Court ruling that a provision of the law on the status of children born out of wedlock was unconstitutional.

Today, the law still reads that a child born out of wedlock between a Japanese father and a foreign mother can get Japanese nationality only if the father admits paternity during the mother’s pregnancy, or if the couple get married before the child turns 20, but not after birth.

Thus, children whose fathers acknowledge paternity after their birth are not granted Japanese nationality, which the top court declared a violation of equal rights.

The proposed revision stipulates that children born out of wedlock whose fathers recognize paternity, regardless of the timing of the acknowledgment, can obtain Japanese citizenship.

The revised bill will soon be submitted to the Diet and is expected to clear both chambers during the extraordinary session.

Since the ruling, more than 90 people who would be granted Japanese nationality once the revision is enforced have applied for it, according to Justice Ministry official Katsuyoshi Otani.

Among them, two-thirds are Filipino and the rest are mainly Chinese and South Korean, he said. Of the applicants, about 90 percent reside in Japan, he said, adding that the procedure is currently pending.

The reason behind the large number of Filipino applicants is that Japanese brokers have brought Filipino women to Japan to work as entertainers since the 1980s. In most cases, the women, who came to earn money to send back to their families, ended up working in night clubs as hostesses.

The bill grants applicants who were younger than 20 as of Jan. 1, 2003, and had been recognized as a Japanese man’s child by then, the right to obtain Japanese nationality if they apply for it within three years of the revision taking effect.

The revision draws the line at Jan. 1, 2003, because among the plaintiffs, that year marked the oldest case of paternal recognition, the ministry explained.

Nihon University law professor Akira Momochi is critical of the revision to the law, arguing this will inevitably invite fraudulent cases with people falsely claiming parental recognition.

“There are many Asian people who want to sneak into Japan. I can easily imagine they want to defraud the Japanese authorities (by using the revision),” he said.

Momochi added that the revision’s new clause penalizing people who forge documents necessary to apply for nationality with up to one year in prison or a fine of up to ¥200,000 is not severe enough to serve as a deterrent.

But Chuo University Law School professor Yasuhiro Okuda argued that forging paternity recognition was not worth the risk.

First, even if the mother succeeds in registering the child as a Japanese national at a registration office, this does not automatically secure her residential status in Japan.

And once a child is registered, the “father” must technically bear responsibility for child support or giving the child inheritance rights, unless the father files a lawsuit to fix the registry, Okuda said.

In addition, forging a family registry is a crime that can lead to a prison term of five years or a ¥500,000 fine.

Okuda, who supports the revision, is more concerned about the difficulties the mothers may face when seeking recognition for their children by the real biological fathers.

First, many fathers hesitate to recognize their paternity of children born out of wedlock. The revision to the law may encourage more mothers to file lawsuits against the father to acknowledge paternity, but lawsuits can be very expensive for the mothers.

Another problem is that local-level authorities tend to refuse to accept the parental recognition registrations, even though the mother, in accordance with the rules, has the necessary information to prove the child belongs to a Japanese father. This largely derives from lack of knowledge of the correct procedures by the authorities, Okuda noted.

Okuda estimates there are at least 10,000 children in Japan who may potentially apply for citizenship once this revision takes effect.

“If the numbers of applications to Japanese nationality don’t go up, it’s important to doubt whether the authorities are doing their job properly,” he said.

The proposed revision does not exclude children between Japanese fathers and foreign mothers living overseas from applying for Japanese nationality when the conditions are met.

Ito of the network for Japanese-Filipino children said its office in the Philippines is currently helping some 30 mothers prepare to visit the Japanese Embassy in Manila to apply for Japanese nationality for their children in early December.

But she added that mothers need to think carefully before considering applying, because their children are already growing up in the Philippines and such a profound change may affect them in many ways.

“Unfortunately, some mothers blindly believe that obtaining their children’s nationality will automatically secure them a better life in Japan, but having that kind of premise is dangerous,” she said.

Okuda of Chuo University advised that applicants must also be careful to check the regulations in the mothers’ countries, as obtaining Japanese nationality may lead to their children losing their other nationality.