A Japanese friend who's lived in America and has US citizenship told me one day how she finally went to turn in her Japanese passport. It'd been almost a decade since she'd naturalized, but she hadn't gone through the rigmarole of officially renouncing her Japanese citizenship. So she went to the Consulate-General of Japan of San Francisco and, after a little paperwork, they stamped a hole in her passport like it was an expired driver's license.
"So wait - you held dual citizenship all these years, and no one ever hunted you down?" I asked.
"Nope," she said, shaking her head. "There's not much enforcement of the law."
Japan's law forbidden dual citizenship is treated much like marijuana laws: sure, it's illegal, but no one's getting arrested for it. Children born of parents of dual nationalities are legally given until age 22 to choose their nationality, at which point they are legally obligated to renounce their extra citizenship. But in an interview with the Japan Times, law Professor Okuda Yasuhiro says Japan's Ministry of Justice deems the law impossible to enforce. No one has ever been forcefully stripped of their Japanese nationality; indeed, no one has ever received so much as a formal warning. The result is that, while dual citizenship is illegal, it exists de facto due to lack of enforcement.
What does Japan's Nationality Act really mean for its dual citizens? | The Japan Times
The issue of dual citizenship doesn't receive much press unless there's a whiff of scandal to it. Politician Renho (蓮舫), the former head of the Democratic Party and a child of a Taiwanese father and a Japanese mother, found herself in just such a scandal when it was discovered in 2017 that she had failed to renounce her Taiwanese citizenship. Naturally, her political enemies pounced on this. Even though Renho took steps to renounce her Taiwanese citizenship, the damage she incurred was a factor in her eventual resignation as party leader.
(JP) Link: Was Renho's "Dual Citizenship Problem" Really a Problem?
Despite the hullaballoo, the incident didn't spark much discussion about changing Japan's citizenship laws.
But then came Naomi Osaka.
Osaka's Expensive Choice
Osaka was born in Osaka, Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father. Her dad's work saw the family move to the States when she was three years old. She has, for all intent and purposes, grown up American. But when she entered the ranks of professional tennis, she chose to embrace her Japanese heritage and play for Japan.
By and large, Osaka's rise from No. 72 to the top player in world women's tennis has been celebrated in Japan, which has never had a player seize the top spot. But some hardliners and - let's be blunt - racists online have mocked the notion that Osaka's Japanese, claiming that she doesn't "look Japanese", or that no one who has dual citizenship or speaks Japanese haltingly can be considered Japanese. Osaka herself even had to push back on a reporter recently who insisted that she "reply in Japanese" to one of his questions. (She politely replied, "I'll respond in English" in Japanese before launching into her answer.)
But, as politician and author Ido Masae discusses in a series of articles for Gendai Media, it's clear - even from a technical legal standpoint - that the child of a Japanese mother is Japanese. What's happening, writes Ido, is that Osaka's success is uprooting people's traditional conceptions about what it means to be "Japanese".
全豪オープンの際、「Is this live? おじいちゃん、お誕生日おめでとう」といった大坂選手の祖父への愛情を見ると、まさに「多文化共生」や「多様な価値観」をライブで見せてくれるのが大坂選手であり、「おじいちゃん」だと実感した。
At the Australian Open, when Osaka said "Is this live? Grandpa, happy birthday" as an expression of love for her grandfather, she demonstrated live for us the blending of cultures and her multicultural outlook. I really felt that "grandpa".
The "family" she showed us was not only foreign and diverse; it knit a pattern of relationship for Japanese families, which have a tendency to grow thin, that I think is becoming a model.
While Osaka may be a new kind of role model, there's still the lingering question of her citizenship. Osaka turns 22 in October, at which point she needs to decide if she will formally retain her Japanese nationality.
But choosing Japanese citizenship could cost Osaka dearly. Ido notes that, if Osaka follows the letter of the law and renounces her US citizenship, she'll have to fork over 20% of all of her assets under the country's Expatriation Tax. By Osaka's own estimation, she would end up forking over USD $10 million to the American government.
Another consideration that might weight on Osaka, Ido explains, it that it's harder to get permanent residence status in Japan if she gives up her citizenship rights. Ido notes that Osaka's older sister Mari, who's also a tennis player, chose to become a Japanese national. But it would be relatively straightforward for Mari to obtain permanent residency in the US if she needed it. Naomi wouldn't have the reverse luxury if she chose American citizenship, as permanent residency status in Japan normally requires between a 5 and 10 year track record of living in the country continuously.
In other words, each country's respective laws leave Naomi Osaka with two crappy options. While it's less expensive for Osaka to choose American citizenship, it's more convenient for her to choose Japanese citizenship.
The situation leaves both Osaka and the Japanese government in a strange spot. While the government doesn't usually enforce the single citizenship rule, it can't stand back and do nothing if a high-profile media personality flagrantly flouts it. And, as a media darling, it would be extremely damaging to her reputation for Osaka to even attempt to try.
The Japanese government, of course, has a choice here: it can institute some sort of reform of the citizenship or permanent residency laws. They could make it easier for Osaka and others to obtain permanent residence. Or they could take the bold step and eliminate the single citizenship law entirely. Such a change might also provide an easier path for permanent residence or citizenship to couples in international marriages, and to people who will move to Japan for work as the country continues to relax its immigration laws to deal with the labor crisis. It would also mean that the approximately one million Japanese expats who have given up their citizenship could still retain rights and privileges in their homeland. Japan isn't making Japanese people like it used to, and a policy that forces people to choose their home vs. their adopted country seems increasingly out of place in the face of a dwindling population.
Some people in Japan, such as American-born comedian Patrick Harlan, are calling for Osaka to be granted a "special exception" to hold dual citizenship. Ido opposes an exception, and argues the law should be changed replace today's de facto dual citizenship and recognize it de jure. However, despite a wave of commentary on the issue in recent months, no one in government is seriously discussing the issue - not even Renho's Constitutional Democratic Party (立憲民主党), which you'd think would have a special interest in fixing the law.
Unless someone takes action - and soon - Naomi Osaka has 8 months to decide if retaining Japanese citizenship is worth the $10 million price tag.
(JP) Link: You Want to be Japanese...? The Question Posed to Us By Naomi Osaka's "Citizenship Selection"
日本人でいてほしい…？ 大坂なおみ「国籍選択」が私たちに問うもの（井戸 まさえ）
I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.
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