Despite Japanese law prohibiting dual or multiple citizenship, it's well known that citizens are often able to quietly retain these statuses due to a lack of official revocation procedure.

One of the thousands of people that could be in this citizenship gray zone is Yuri Kondo, a lawyer who is now pursuing a lawsuit to challenge the rule, its constitutionality and its ambiguity.

Born and raised in Japan, Kondo, now 76, spent four decades in the United States. She first pursued her education and then ultimately settled in the state of Arizona, where she worked as a lawyer and raised a family with her Bangladeshi American husband.

After decades in the U.S. as a permanent resident with a green card — which hampered her longer-term stays to see family in Japan — and after becoming a member of her local Democratic Party, she decided to become an American citizen. The move would allow her to both travel more freely and to vote.

“When I became politically active, and (considering) my parents' health situation, I finally said I might as well become a U.S. citizen, because at the time I thought I would just stay on in Arizona,” she said. “I thought I’d live and die there and that would have probably been true until the coronavirus.”

But Article 11 Clause 1 of Japan’s nationality law states that a Japanese national who obtains another nationality by their own choice shall lose their Japanese citizenship. The law also requires those who have dual citizenship from childhood to choose one by the age of 20.

As of 2020, 76% of countries worldwide allow citizens to acquire multiple nationalities, according to data from the Maastricht Centre for Citizenship, Migration and Development in the Netherlands, compared to just 38% in 1960. Most are non-Asian countries, but some in Asia, like the Philippines and South Korea, allow it under certain conditions.

Germany made headlines this summer after its Cabinet approved a bill that would drop restrictions for holding dual citizenship.

Kondo became an American citizen in 2004, and, despite her naturalization, she kept her Japanese passport and traveled back and forth with it for years, just as she’d heard of many others doing.

It wasn’t until she traveled back to Japan in 2017 with a nearly-expired passport — to care for her late mother who was battling cancer at the time — that Kondo’s nationality status raised alarms.

According to Kondo, upon trying to get her Japanese passport renewed before expiration, she was flagged as potentially having dual citizenship at a passport center in Tokyo. Officials there withheld her passport and application, she said.

So, without her Japanese passport, when it came time for her to return to the United States, she attempted to leave Japan with only the American one.

Upon arriving at immigration, the official who looked through it seemed perplexed when they realized she had no entrance stamp in the American passport. They asked Kondo to explain.

She told them that her Japanese passport had been taken away and that using the U.S. passport was her only option.

The agent left for 10 minutes and returned to inform her that she could leave Japan as a Japanese citizen and then left a handwritten mark in her U.S. passport reading “dual citizen.”

Kondo’s now-expired Japanese passport has since been returned. However, she hasn’t reapplied for a new one on the assumption that she’d once again be denied and hasn’t received any follow-ups from the government requesting she pursue a formal withdrawal of nationality, as there is no rule requiring it.

Today, Kondo resides in Fukuoka. She returned to Japan in the first few weeks of 2020.

Initially, she and her husband returned for what she thought would be a short stay to be close to her daughter and grandchildren who were there for work at the time. However, with the onset of COVID-19 and associated border restrictions, she stayed out of fear that she might not be able to return, while her husband returned to America and has since gone back and forth.

Ultimately, Kondo realized that she was comfortable in Fukuoka, where her father was raised, and she plans to remain there for the foreseeable future. Having returned to Japan without a Japanese passport, though, Kondo is unsure about her current residency status in the Japanese government’s eyes.

She’s stayed beyond the time allowed for someone considered a “foreigner” without a visa, but her Japanese koseki, or family register, still exists, meaning that she is still a Japanese citizen on paper. At the moment, she refuses to submit the documents the government deems necessary to delete it.

Born and raised in Japan, Yuri Kondo spent four decades in the United States and became an American citizen in 2004.
Born and raised in Japan, Yuri Kondo spent four decades in the United States and became an American citizen in 2004. | Courtesy of Yuri Kondo

“On the one hand, (the law) says that I lost my Japanese nationality, I'm a foreigner,” Kondo said. “But then inside Japan, the proof of citizenship or nationality normally is koseki, right? To get the passport you need the koseki, among other documentation, as residential registration proof.

“I have everything because my koseki has never been deleted and the government cannot do it (themselves).”

In order for someone’s koseki to be deleted, it’s the person’s responsibility to submit the necessary documents — like a formal nationality withdrawal application or proof of naturalization in another country, according to the Justice Ministry. There are currently no consequences for failing to submit such documents and, more generally, for not giving up Japanese nationality.

So, with guidance from her own legal team, Kondo remains in her country of origin, going public with her story and taking legal action in the meantime.

While the issue is not actively tracked, the Justice Ministry estimates in its most recent data from 2018 that around 925,000 people were potentially in a position to have dual nationality.

However, this figure could include people who could have already declared or forfeited their Japanese citizenship as well as those who could have multiple nationalities through descent, and even people who may have since died.

Among all of these people potentially living in this gray area are those who get caught in the law's crosshairs and lose their Japanese citizenship, with some choosing to give it up out of fear of breaking the law and others who don’t know about the rule in the first place.

“The (government’s) argument is ‘This is the law so you have to abide by it,’ and then we say, ‘Well, this law doesn’t make any sense,’ and they say, ‘It doesn’t matter,” Kondo said.

After advising and hearing from many whom the law has touched over the years, including her own multiracial, international family, Kondo has grown frustrated. In her eyes, the Japanese government makes people with dual nationality feel as though having these connections to more than one nation is somehow a crime.

Yuri Kondo speaks at a news conference in Fukuoka Prefecture in June 2022.
Yuri Kondo speaks at a news conference in Fukuoka Prefecture in June 2022. | Kyodo

Kondo became determined to do what she could to challenge the nationality law in hopes of changing the status quo. She filed a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of the law — Article 13 that says all people shall be respected as individuals, and Article 22 deals with the freedom to divest themselves of their nationality — with the Fukuoka District Court in 2022, becoming the third such case in Japan.

Kondo's case has gained momentum. A crowdfunding campaign has already nearly raised ¥1 million.

On Oct. 2, the Supreme Court upheld a Tokyo High Court ruling in one of the cases — a case filed in Tokyo by eight individuals who acquired citizenship in Switzerland and Liechtenstein — that said the nationality law is constitutional.

In the ruling, the judge stated that the law can work to prevent “friction” that could arise from having dual nationality due to various rules established by certain countries, like those related to diplomatic protection, military service obligations and taxation. Plus, the judge said, Japan still allows the freedom to change nationality.

In Kondo’s statement to the court, she states that the nationality law lacks a concrete mechanism that will automatically delete a person’s Japanese nationality once it’s lost, adding that the law is outdated, that Japan should aim to diversify in today’s age, and that the law should be abolished or amended.

Also, the fear and concern that comes with the legal pressure to give up citizenship, which can be a large part of someone’s identity and livelihood, is “not justifiable,” Kondo said to The Japan Times. And she feels a special responsibility to do something about it.

“I think one point I want to emphasize is that this is personal, but also not personal, because I know that so many people who are in my situation don't speak up because they are so afraid.”