Nationality has long been a controversial issue in Japan. For most, it is something they are born with; for others, it is something they had to fight for. For some, nationality may be a source of pride, while for others, it may be the cause of discrimination.

Meanwhile, citizenship may be something that they have to sacrifice in order to pursue their goals or dreams — like comedian and runner Neko Hiroshi, who made headlines last month after announcing he had obtained Cambodian nationality in the hope of competing in the 2012 London Olympics.

What are the conditions for obtaining Japanese nationality?

According to the Nationality Law, a foreigner seeking Japanese nationality must have permission from the justice minister. He or she can become a naturalized citizen after clearing several conditions, including being at least 20 years old, residency in Japan for at least five consecutive years, a history of “upright conduct,” and no plans to join groups interested in overthrowing the Constitution or the government.

To file for naturalization, you must submit many documents to the local legal affairs bureau detailing your relatives, your livelihood, job or business, your motive for wanting to become a Japanese citizen, your tax payments, and an oath.

The Justice Ministry says the whole process takes about six months to a year, but some naturalized Japanese have noted it took about a 18 months to get the final seal of approval.

Activist Debito Arudo, who was granted citizenship in 2000, said the process took a couple of years.

“It was rather difficult, with a huge paper chase documenting my complicated family in America, and some unnecessarily intrusive questions about my private life,” he recalled.

Are most requests approved?

Yes. About 99 percent of all applications are approved. In 2010, for example, 13,072 were recognized as naturalized citizens and 234 were rejected. Of those approved, 6,600 were North or South Korean nationals and about 5,000 were Chinese.

A Justice Ministry official said having a criminal history is often regarded as bad conduct, but that applications are examined on a comprehensive basis to take into account the seriousness of the crime, when it was committed and other details.

Those who chose to become naturalized citizens include Softbank Corp. President Masayoshi Son, author and naturalist C.W. Nicol, originally from Wales, politician Tsurunen Marutei from Finland, and TV personality Bobby Ologun from Nigeria.

Many professional athletes also chose to become Japanese citizens, including former Japan international soccer player Ruy Ramos and former sumo grand champion Akebono.

On the other hand, about 150 to 200 Japanese choose to forfeit their status each year. Among them is ice skater Yuko Kawaguchi, who became Russian.

In Neko Hiroshi’s case, it was a matter of pragmatism. His marathon times in Japan aren’t good enough to make the Olympic team, but he reportedly has a chance of winning a place on the Cambodian team if he can beat local marathoner Hem Bunting, who represented the country in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Neko Hiroshi applied for Cambodian citizenship in February and announced he had been approved last month.

Must you choose one over the other or can you have both?

Any child with dual nationality must choose between the two within two years of becoming an adult at age 20. Adults who acquire a second nationality also have two years to make a choice.

In 2008, the issue of dual nationality sparked debate after it was found that Tokyo-born Yoichiro Nambu, a professor at the University of Chicago who won the Nobel Prize in physics, was actually a naturalized U.S. citizen. He had given up his Japanese nationality to become an American in 1970.

In November 2008, Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Taro Kono submitted a proposal to allow people to have dual nationality, but the idea was harshly criticized. To this day, Japan maintains that each resident must have only one nationality.

“Dual nationality is prohibited because there could be a conflict of interest between the two countries,” said an official at the Justice Ministry.

What can you do when you “become Japanese?”

The biggest difference from being a permanent resident is that you get the right to vote, as well as the right to run for public office, including the local assembly and the Diet.

A naturalized citizen can also become a civil servant, including a judge or a prosecutor, or even join the Self-Defense Forces or the police.

“I realized I lived in Japan like every other citizen, with a family, paying taxes and gainfully employed. So I decided to actually be a citizen, with the right to vote as well,” activist Arudo said.

Why are Korean residents reluctant to become naturalized?

Given the history of Japan’s attempts to assimilate Korea, becoming Japanese can raise emotionally disturbing identity issues.

When Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910, the people there were forced to abandon their nationality, given Japanese names and prohibited from using their own language.

After World War II and when the San Francisco Peace Treaty took effect in 1952, Korean residents automatically lost their forced Japanese status. Without a choice, they became Korean again, regardless of whether they were residing in Japan or Korea.

To this day, there are tens of thousands of Koreans and their descendants living in Japan without Japanese nationality.

Shinkun Haku, a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, was born to a Japanese mother and South Korean father. At that time, the Nationality Law only recognized nationality through paternity, so Haku was given South Korean citizenship. The law was revised in 1985 to give Japanese nationality to children born to either a Japanese mother or father, as long as either was married at the time.

In 2003, Haku’s naturalization application was approved, and he successfully ran for the House of Councilors the following year.

In an interview in the book “Nihon Kokuseki Torimasuka?” (“Will you acquire Japanese nationality?”), published by Books Publication Shinkansha, he explained that he had spent the first part of his life in Japan as a South Korean and wanted to see what it would be like after becoming Japanese.

“As a Korean resident who was born and raised here, I’ve experienced many things, including discrimination,” Haku is quoted as saying. “Honestly, living as a South Korean national was a lot harder than living as a Japanese — this is how I spent the first 40 years of my life.”

While some people choose a Japanese name, Haku said that he kept his Korean name on purpose.

“I may be Japanese now, but I do have relations with South Korea and I dared to keep my name,” Haku said. “I changed my nationality but it is not like I changed who I am.”

Are there people with no nationality in Japan?

Yes. According to data from the Immigration Bureau, there were 1,234 stateless people in Japan in 2010. The Justice Ministry said that foreign children here can sometimes become stateless, depending on the law of their parents’ home country. Other cases include, for example, children of foreigners lacking legal status who are born in Japan.

Furthermore, until the Nationality Law was revised in 2008, children born out of wedlock to foreign mothers were not given Japanese nationality and ended up stateless. But the Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional. Now a child can be given nationality if the Japanese father or mother recognizes paternity regardless of marital status.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

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