Japan loses, rest of the world gains from ‘one citizenship fits all’ policy

Dear Diet Member Keiichiro Asao:

My three daughters love Japan. Though now living in the United States, they spent their formative years in Tokyo and Yokohama. They travel to Japan regularly, though not as often as they’d like. They speak Japanese enthusiastically, though not fluently. Their mother is Japanese. Their grandparents live in Osaka. They all dream of living in Japan again as adults and becoming a part of the social and economic fabric of the country.

And my daughters are citizens of Japan.

But not for much longer.

At a time when Japan’s population is aging and declining, its economy is stagnant and its people are increasingly inward-looking (even as many of its neighbors and competitors are rapidly internationalizing), the Japanese government continues to insist that dual citizens like my daughters choose only one nationality. They must make this selection by their 22nd birthdays.

Although my daughters feel a profound connection to Japan, their family and educational ties to the United States also run deep. I expect that, if forced to choose, they will opt for U.S. citizenship. Many other dual citizens are in the same predicament and will make the same choice.

What does Japan gain by, in effect, rejecting my children and thousands of other young dual citizens living in Japan and around the world, at the very moment when they come of age and are at last able to become productive members of society?

Best as I can figure, the only virtue of the “one citizenship fits all” rule is simplicity.

What does Japan lose by rejecting dual citizenship?

My daughters, for one thing (and that’s a big loss; I know, I know: oyabaka), along with many other repudiated young people whose capacity and willingness to contribute their talents, creativity, fluency in English and other languages, international experience, energy and human and financial capital to Japan as full-fledged members of society are suppressed, or snuffed out altogether, by continuing a short-sighted, anachronistic policy.

In an era of increasing global competition, a shrinking, aging and insular Japan needs all hands on deck. Japan should be actively recruiting these talented young people to come to Japan and lay down roots, not turning them away.

Some may contend that my daughters and others like them are still free to come to Japan as foreigners, procure visas and remain for as long as they like (or at least as long as they have a visa-qualifying job). But that’s a far cry from “being Japanese.”

It’s not just about avoiding the legal limits on what foreigners may do and how long they may stay in Japan. Citizens are more likely to be motivated to make the sacrifices, and take the risks necessary to improve society, such as through public service and entrepreneurial activity. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has often said, in a different context, that “no one in the history of the world has ever washed a rented car.” The same holds true here. Japan cannot repossess the title to the car — citizenship — from some of its people and fairly expect that those same people will still care enough to do what it takes to keep the car — Japan — in good working order or, better yet, to add some chrome and polish.

It is a well-known secret that the Japanese government does not actively enforce the citizenship selection rule. I was even told once — by a Japanese government official no less — that my kids should simply hold on to their Japanese passports after they reach 22 and renew them when they expire, without ever making an affirmative citizenship selection. Many people do just this. It’s the dual citizenship equivalent of the U.S. armed forces’ fading “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

This is a very Japanese approach, but it’s not a solution. It places all “shadow” dual citizens at risk of losing their Japanese nationality any time the Japanese government decides to change its current policy of benign neglect, or if a dual citizen trips up by presenting the wrong passport to the wrong immigration official at the wrong time. Long-term planning and commitment are impossible under these circumstances.

But, more importantly, this “winks and nods” policy of lax or non-enforcement sends precisely the wrong message. Instead of laying out the welcome mat, these young people are told to sneak in through the back door (and hope it’s not locked). Many won’t even try.

One wonders if the existing policy of denying permanent dual citizenship to people who possessed the status as children is motivated by a concern that altering it would lead to dual citizenship demands by others, such as ethnic Korean residents of Japan or Brazilians of Japanese descent. Rather than risk facing such demands, government officials might have concluded that it is “better to leave well enough alone.” However, allowing people who already have Japanese citizenship to keep it will not inevitably lead to more far-reaching changes to Japan’s Nationality Law.

Given its dire demographic outlook, perhaps Japan should open a dialogue on radical changes to its Nationality Law, such as a U.S.-style “birthright” giving citizenship to all people born on Japanese soil, an Israeli-style “Law of Return” allowing the ingathering of all ethnic Japanese everywhere in their ancestral homeland, or an Irish-style “Grandparent Rule” granting citizenship to anyone who can document having one Japanese grandparent. But even if Japan is not willing to open its door that widely, it should at least stop slamming the door on some of its own citizens shortly after they reach adulthood.

In order to help promote the rejuvenation and internationalization of Japan, I respectfully encourage you, Mr. Asao, as a reformist Diet member and advocate of innovative solutions to expand Japan’s workforce, to work with your progressive colleagues on a bill to allow all people under 22 who presently have dual citizenship to retain it and to enable all older people who had dual citizenship as children to regain it. I further propose a target enactment date of March 7, 2013 (coincidentally, my eldest daughter’s 22nd birthday).

San Jose, California

Glenn Newman is an American attorney and former long-term resident of Japan. He is also an adjunct professor of law at the University of Illinois College of Law, where he teaches a course on Doing Business in Japan. Send submissions of between 500 and 600 words to community@japantimes.co.jp