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Seven years after he became the first foreign sumo wrestler to win the revered Emperor’s Cup in 1972, Jesse “Takamiyama” Kuhaulua applied for Japanese citizenship.

During his illustrious 20-year career, he reached sumo’s third-highest rank, sekiwake, and held numerous records, including a streak of 1,231 consecutive matches.

However, this was not enough for the Hawaii native to become a stable master — Nihon Sumo Kyokai (Japan Sumo Association) bans foreigners from this position.

After reviewing his case for nine months, the Justice Ministry — which is in charge of the nation’s naturalization policy — granted him citizenship in 1980.

“I love sumo and I really wanted to become a stable master, but it took me five years to decide to become a Japanese (citizen),” said the 56-year-old, who is now known by his stable master name, Azumazeki.

“While I wanted to become a Japanese, I still had attachments to my American nationality,” he added. The Nationality Law, which governs the naturalization policy, bans those who are naturalized from keeping their original nationality.

During the years of pondering, Takamiyama consulted with his sister in Hawaii and then U.S. Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield as well as Hawaii Gov. George Ariyoshi, who all recommended that he take Japanese citizenship so he could teach what he had learned about sumo to younger generations.

The pioneering wrestler joined the world of sumo in 1964 when he was 19, a late age to begin the strict training and physical punishment required of the hierarchical sport.

“But my hungry spirit enabled me to acknowledge them as indispensable disciplines to succeed in the world of sumo,” he said.

Sixteen years after Azumazeki became a citizen of Japan, protege Chad “Akebono” Rowan followed his master’s path when he applied for citizenship after becoming the

first foreigner to reach sumo’s highest rank of yokozuna.

“After reaching the top position, I started thinking about my future career as a stable master,” said 31-year-old Akebono, who acquired Japanese citizenship in February 1996.

While admitting that he felt “relieved” when he was granted citizenship, Akebono, who retired in January to become a stable master, said it was not a big deal for him.

“Changing my nationality has nothing to do with who I am, just like I am still my mother’s son even after I became a Japanese (citizen),” said Akebono, who is also a Hawaii native.

The number of naturalized Japanese has steadily increased in recent decades against the backdrop of an increasing number of international marriages involving Japanese.

In 1999, a record 16,120 people took Japanese citizenship through naturalization, while 15,812 became citizens in 2000. Corresponding figures were less than 3,000 a year in the 1950s and around 7,000 in the 1970s.

Criticism of policy

But there has been constant criticism of Japan’s naturalization policy. Because of vague criteria and secretive procedures for reviewing applicants, the Justice Ministry is said to have too much discretion over whether to accept applicants, discouraging many foreigners from applying for citizenship.

The Nationality Law, which came into effect in 1950, stipulates six requirements for applicants.

Applicants must have lived in Japan for five consecutive years before filing, be aged 20 or over and be considered responsible under Japanese laws, be able to financially support themselves as well as their family, be without nationality or ready to lose their original nationality upon obtaining Japanese citizenship, have no involvement in subversive activities and have a record of good behavior.

Currently, the ministry’s review of an application for naturalization usually takes about 11 months for “special permanent residents” and 12 months for other foreigners after they submit a large number of required documents.

Special permanent residents — mostly North and South Korean nationals — refer to those whose ancestors came or were brought here from areas formerly under Japanese colonial rule. These residents make up the majority of those who are naturalized.

Required documents include a resume, a description of one’s family and all tax-related records. Various certificates from one’s home country, including information covering nationality, birth, school graduation and family ties as well as criminal records, are also required.

Photographs of applicants’ family members, home exterior and interior and workplace, maps showing where a person has lived for the past three years, documents showing loans and housing rents are all needed.

Then applicants must write why and how seriously they want to become a citizen. Applicants are also required to have the Japanese language skill of at least a third grader.

During the review process, ministry officials visit the applicant’s neighborhood to ask neighbors questions about the applicant’s behavior.

Enthusiasm is essential

David Aldwinkle, an assistant professor at Hokkaido Information University, has lived in Japan for a decade and acquired Japanese citizenship in October. He said he believes the ministry tested how enthusiastic he was to become a citizen by requiring so many documents.

He was asked to submit the certificate of his parents’ divorce and a form to indicate whether his relatives approved of his naturalization, which “offended me and my family.”

Prior to filing his application, Aldwinkle had heard that on previous occasions, ministry officials had opened some applicants’ refrigerators to check their diet, cautioned Korean children about playing with a Korean doll and asked a Filipino candidate about her previous sex partners.

When he confirmed with ministry officials if these things could be true, they replied yes, saying that applicants should not look “too strange” as a Japanese.

“Under the label of ‘good behavior,’ they could check almost everything about applicants and their ‘Japaneseness,’ ” he said.

The Justice Ministry is also criticized for a lack of accountability — it does not give reasons for refusing a person citizenship.

The secretiveness of the naturalization process can be seen in the fact that until last year, the ministry hid the number of applications for citizenship since 1965 and the number of those who were rejected since 1969.

No reason was given for why the ministry suddenly decided to disclose the data.

Japanese monikers

Ministry officials in charge of handling applications for naturalization also have been known to recommend that applicants change their names to those that sound more Japanese.

Shin Sugok, a 41-year-old human resource consultant in Tokyo, who has written several books about Korean residents of Japan, said she was told to change her name to one that sounded more Japanese when she applied for citizenship about 20 years ago.

“When I said no, the official suddenly folded up my application forms in front of my face and said he saw no intention within me to become a ‘good Japanese,’ ” said Shin, who kept her South Korean nationality.

“I felt they were asking me to beg for Japanese nationality, which I certainly could not accept as a Korean who has suffered from various forms of discrimination for so long,” she said.

The ministry said it no longer recommends that applicants register with Japanese names.

Aldwinkle said the authorities should not be allowed the leeway they get — secrecy and excessive discretion — with the naturalization process, because it involves people’s lives.

Yasunori Fukuoka, a professor of sociology at Saitama University, said he believes the current naturalization policy is meant to be an assimilation policy, but the policy was mapped out so roughly that it has failed to achieve its goal of culturally assimilating people.

“It is obviously only harassing many foreigners and thus discourages them from becoming Japanese,” Fukuoka said. “While the true intention behind the current naturalization practice by the ministry is unknown, one thing that is clear is that it has failed to transform many foreigners into ‘good Japanese.’ “

To reduce the anxiety of applicants, Fukuoka suggested the Nationality Law be amended to clarify its qualifications for citizenship and be granted to all applicants who meet the standard.

He added that it is common in many other nations to allow foreigners born in another country to have dual nationality, a concept Japan should also accept.

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