As welcoming as Japan is to foreign visitors, it remains a very conservative country, in many ways suffering the hangover from its ultra-nationalistic past. This means the idea of what it means to be Japanese is as much wrapped up in patriotic mythology as historical fact. The problem with this attitude becomes apparent when considering the question of nationality and citizenship for children of mixed Japanese and foreign couples. You might be wondering: is it even possible for a child of a mixed couple to hold onto both their Japanese and foreign citizenship?
Essentially, no: on paper Japan totally forbids dual citizenship. Old isolationist habits die hard, it seems — especially in a place with such an aging population. However, the reality isn’t so clear-cut, because the country is being forced to resolve the tension between its culturally conservative identity and the economic realities of surviving in a globalized world.
When I first found out about the archaic restrictions Japan places on dual nationality, I was pretty shocked. However, my London-born, half-Japanese friend soon filled me in on the reality. The situation he described was much more complex than the law suggests and tells the story of the clashing of past and future in Japan. Let’s take look at the key points of what he, the government, and the critics of the laws have to say about on the mater.
What is Dual Citizenship?
Basically, dual citizenship is when an individual is registered as an official citizen of more than one country. The vast majority of countries worldwide allow this— over 70% in fact. However, Japan is way behind the curve on these issues.
Babies can be automatically eligible in a number of ways. A Canadian person born to parents working in Mexico City would hold it, as would a child born to a mixed Icelandic and Israeli couple (no matter where they were born). That’s because different countries have different restrictions on how exactly they grant citizenship to babies upon their birth. While some countries offer it to anybody born within their borders, others take the nationality of the parents are the determining factor.
Alternatively, one could just acquire their second citizenship later in life by fulfilling the necessary prerequisites and putting in an application.
What Are the Criteria for Automatic Japanese Citizenship?
There has long been a large amount of bureaucracy and regulation surrounding nationality in Japan, and some of it really betrays the conservative leanings of the nation. For example, before 1985 one could only register for Japanese citizenship by birth if their father was Japanese! That meant that those born to a Japanese mother and foreign father weren’t eligible, adding further stigma to mixed babies back in the old days. Japan was, and still is, a very patriarchal society.
What’s more, it wasn’t until a 2008 supreme court ruling that the law adapted to include children born out of wedlock! Previously, if a Japanese man fathered a child with a foreign woman to whom he wasn’t married, their child had no hope of becoming a Japanese citizen unless his father married the mother and formally recognized his child.
Even though the contemporary rules have shed much of these archaic values of old, they still rely heavily on somewhat medieval ideas. That’s because Japan’s criteria for granting nationality by birth is strictly based on blood rather than geography. Even if you were born to expat parents and raised on Japanese soil, you won’t be eligible for automatic Japanese citizenship. The only other avenue is naturalization, meaning applying for citizenship as a foreigner after the age of 20 (rather than gaining it automatically).
The Dual Citizenship Law
The 1950 Nationality Act is the document in question here, with the 1985 amendments to the law alongside it. The law strictly states that anyone holding Japanese nationality cannot hold another. The logic behind this was based on distrust and fear — the idea that dual nationals might not be loyal to Japan, and could be able to engage in activities like spying with impunity.
This view may have held some credibility during the Cold War, but it’s a tough sell for modern minds. In fact, there are only 4 developed nations on earth that still reject dual citizenship! That’s mainly because, cultural questions aside, it’s just bad for business.
The Japanese procedure goes like this: anyone who holds two citizenships by the age of 20 must choose between Japan or the other. This would include, for example, a UK passport holder with a Japanese dad and English mom. It would also include a fully Japanese person born to expats in a country like Canada which offers automatic citizenship to anyone born on its soil.
The Japanese government allows them to ride the double passport gravy train for over two decades, but soon before their 22nd birthday, they can expect to receive a letter instructing them to make their decision. This ultimatum makes the Japanese government sound like a jealous lover rather than a modern state — it’s me or her! Make your choice!
The most famous recent case of this was that of tennis player Naomi Osaka. After winning her first big tournament at the age of 20, she chose Japanese citizenship over the American citizenship she was entitled to through her father. It’s thought that she did so in order to compete for Japan in the now-postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Oh, and if you liked the sound of naturalization when I mentioned it earlier on, you should be aware that it means giving up your existing nationality too. If you decide you want Japanese citizenship, you’ll have to be ready to rip up your passport. Just how much do you love Japan?
The Dual Citizenship Reality
Now, all that being said, the reality on the ground is a world away from the strict-sounding legal documents. When holders of two passports receive that ultimatum in the post, their solution to the problem of choosing between the two nationalities is hilariously simple: just ignore it.
Seriously, it’s that easy! In fact, around 90% of Japanese dual nationals willingly throw themselves into this legal gray area, and there are zero consequences for doing so. They keep both their passports, and life goes on as before.
In fact, one of the most influential politicians in the country has managed to go much of her life like this. Renhō Murata is the leader of Japan’s opposition party, whose mother was Japanese and father Taiwanese. She claimed Japanese nationality after 1985, when the aforementioned patrilineal stipulation was rescinded and she became entitled to it through her mother. Due to some miscommunications with Taiwanese embassy staff, she ended up hanging on to her original citizenship to this day (much to the chagrin of her conservative political opponents).
So why the strong words and soft touch? If it seems to you like the Japanese dual nationality laws are all bark and no bite, then you my friend are 100% right.
How Come the Law isn’t Enforced?
There are several reasons as to why things go on this way. The first is simply cost. It’s estimated that just short of 1 million people living in Japan hold two passports. The legal threat is largely symbolic, because to enforce it for each of these people would take an immense effort and likely cost a huge amount in bureaucratic expenses.
Another reason is that, in a country that is still largely conservative, the ruling party of Shinzo Abe must maintain an image that pleases its aging base. Left-leaning opponents rightly point out that the government’s silence on the issue may reinforce some of the leftover stigma around Japanese people of foreign ethnicities. In response, government pragmatists might argue that they’re forced to tiptoe around these leftover conservative attitudes as an unavoidable part of governing a country which basically made xenophobia official policy for vast stretches of its history.
However, this stigma surely can’t last much longer. Japan is having to open up to foreign residents — especially from Brazil and Southeast Asia — to combat their own aging population. Now is likely not the time to be laying down the law on matters of immigration and nationality. The government’s silence on the issue is better than projecting an anti-internationalist image at such a pivotal moment.
There’s also the problem that only about half the people who respond to the ultimatum actually choose Japan! If they force the hands of the other 90%, they could risk losing (and irritating) a significant internationalist workforce. With the effects of globalization, the size of this valuable workforce is only likely to grow as more Japanese-foreign couples settle down together.
What’s Next for Dual Citizens in Japan?
To throw open the doors to dual citizenship would be too big a political shock for many older Japanese voters, but to properly force dual citizens to choose would be a total economic blunder. And so, like the citizens it sends its ultimatums to, the Japanese government simple declines to choose. Silence and the status quo prevail.
However, that doesn’t mean that change isn’t coming! It’s likely that the conversation around the matter will continue to gain traction, and we’ll see some meaningful reforms in the coming decades. In a 2019 poll by Aoyama Public University, it was found that nowadays about 60% of Japanese people support the idea of allowing dual citizenship. At the end of the day, for all intents and purposes, it’s basically allowed already!