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Is it time for Japan to legally recognize dual citizenship?

DP leader Renho explains her confirmation that her Taiwanese citizenship had not been renounced at a news conference on Sept. 13, 2016. (Mainichi)

The issue of dual citizenship captured nationwide attention when it emerged that Democratic Party (DP) chief Renho held dual Japanese and Taiwanese citizenship when she ran for the party's leadership election. While dual citizenship is not permitted under Japanese law, there has been a trend toward allowing dual citizenship, especially in the West, rendering the Japanese system an international minority.

    The law created more than a few inconveniences in the case of one married couple, in which both husband and wife are Japanese. The wife, now a forty-something woman living in Tokyo, rushed to move back temporarily to Japan 12 years ago when she discovered that if she gave birth to a baby in Guatemala, where she was living at the time because her husband was stationed there for work, her baby would automatically be given dual citizenship.

    "Flying for over 10 hours on a plane with a huge belly was not easy," she says.

    Japan is a jus sanguinis state, granting Japanese nationality to those with at least one parent who has Japanese citizenship, whereas Guatemala is a jus soli state, granting Guatemalan citizenship to anyone born there, regardless of the parents' nationalities. Because of this, children born to Japanese nationals in Guatemala automatically hold dual citizenship.

    Article 14 of Japan's Nationality Act stipulates that "a Japanese national having foreign nationality shall choose either of the nationalities before he or she reaches 22 years of age." Upon hearing that Guatemalan citizenship was difficult to renounce, the aforementioned woman and her husband became worried that such an arrangement would interfere with their soon-to-be-born child's future prospects of finding employment in Japan. For the couple, who had thought that the issue of dual citizenship was one that only applied to couples in international marriages, it was a fear that suddenly concerned them.

    There are two ways in which a Japanese national with citizenship in another country can select Japanese citizenship. One is to take the necessary measures to renounce foreign citizenship, and if proof of renunciation can be obtained from the other country, to submit that along with a declaration of loss of foreign nationality to the appropriate administrative office. In the case that proof of renunciation cannot be obtained, one's submission of a declaration in which they say they choose to be a Japanese national and renounce the foreign nationality is considered fulfillment of one's obligation to select one nationality, but the person in question is still obligated to make efforts to officially eliminate their other nationality.

    And if such measures are not carried out by a Japanese national with foreign nationality by age 22, according to Article 15 of the Nationality Law, the Minister of Justice may issue a written notice demanding that they select a nationality. Such a law states that, "The person to whom the notice has been sent shall lose Japanese nationality at the expiration of one month after the day he or she receives the notice, unless he or she chooses Japanese nationality within such a period." There have been no cases, however, in which this has happened.

    Ruling and opposition legislators belonging to the House of Representatives Judicial Affairs Committee talk with Japanese nationals in Paris during their inspection tour of Europe on July 25, 2004. (Photo courtesy of Noriyuki Takagawa)

    The response an official with a civil affairs division at the Ministry of Justice gave to the question of why there has never been a case of justice ministers issuing such a notice was vague. They said, "The arrangement in which people choose their nationality has its basis in voluntary motivation..." It appears to be tied to the fact that because citizenship is handled on a self-reported basis, the government does not have a clear idea of how many people have dual citizenship. Asked during questioning by the House of Representatives Judicial Affairs Committee in June 2004 about the number of Japanese nationals with dual citizenship, the then director-general of the Justice Ministry's Civil Affairs Bureau said there were "an estimated 400,000 people" but noted that because the ministry could not track such people, it had no clear idea of the actual numbers.

    "Under circumstances in which accurate numbers cannot be determined, imposing penalties or forcing only those people they know to have dual citizenship to select one would be unfair. That's why the implementation of the Nationality Act is flexible," explains Atsushi Kondo, a professor at Meijo University who is well-versed in the Nationality Law. "There are countries such as Brazil, which do not allow its citizens to renounce citizenship easily, and there is no precise way to confirm whether a Japanese national also has a foreign nationality."

    In other words, the general rule that one must claim only one nationality has become a mere facade in Japan, and depending on one's second nationality, is a system that may not even be possible.

    On Sept. 15, the BBC ran an article with the headline "Japan's opposition chooses female, half-Taiwanese leader Renho," in which the British public broadcaster explored the insularity of Japanese society, in which mixed-nationality -- or "hafu" -- children of international marriages can be subject to discrimination. It is not rare for politicians in the U.K. to have dual citizenship; Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is known to have had U.S. citizenship in the past. It appears that the fuss over an opposition leader's nationality seemed peculiar from the BBC's point of view.

    How about the rest of the world? In the early 20th century, most countries permitted only one nationality per person, out of efforts to prevent statelessness and the issues surrounding dual citizenship. But with the spread of immigration and international marriages, recognition of dual citizenship also spread. When the European Convention on Nationality was signed in 1997, even Germany, which had been reluctant to allow dual citizenship, relaxed its regulations. In 2010, South Korea carried out legal amendments that would allow dual citizenship with some conditions.

    Kondo points out that there are benefits to allowing dual citizenship. "In many leading industrialized nations, foreign-born residents make up around 10 percent of the population, and such countries came to think that relegating such populations to the category of 'foreigners' goes against the principles of democracy and respect for human rights. Allowing for dual citizenship stabilizes society and is useful in unifying a nation."

    As for Japan's Nationality Act, Kondo proposes a gradual shift, saying, "If it's too difficult to suddenly allow all cases of dual citizenship, Japan can at least begin with stopping its practice of forcing those born into dual citizenship to choose one by the time they are 22." Taking this first step will mean that children born with dual citizenship will not be forced to choose one home country over another.

    In fact, in the early 2000s, momentum to allow dual citizenship in Japan had built up. A series of petitions seeking the elimination of the current system, which forces those with dual citizenship to choose one over the other, were submitted to the Diet by civic organizations. The demands were not adopted, but in 2004, when ruling and opposition party members of the House of Representatives Judicial Affairs Committee took an official visit to Paris, they met with 11 Japanese nationals living in Europe who had signed the petitions seeking legal permission of dual citizenship. Looking back, Noriyuki Takagawa, 55, who at the time was living in Switzerland and took part in the meeting, says, "I felt this surge of momentum behind the push to approve multiple nationalities."

    When the Nationality Law was partially revised in December 2008, the House of Councillors Judicial Affairs Committee passed a resolution accompanying the amendments seeking that attention be paid to other countries' moves regarding dual citizenship in considering what kind of nation Japan should aspire to become. Just two months prior, physicist Yoichiro Nambu had won the Nobel Prize in physics, and the fact that he had obtained U.S. citizenship, thereby losing his Japanese citizenship, had attracted widespread attention in Japan. The fact that some in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), such as lower house legislator Taro Kono, who characterized the Japanese nationality system as one in which "the most honest ones lose out," were calling for a change in the Nationality Law is also believed to have led to the re-emergence of the debate on dual citizenship. That November, Kono, as head of a LDP judicial affairs project team, released a personal proposal to recognize dual citizenship.

    In 2009, when the then-Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took over the reins of government, it had included the recognition of dual citizenship in its election platform. However, the confusion following the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster made the issue a lower priority. The debate failed to regain momentum when the second administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was launched in late 2012, and the Kono proposal has remained on the back burner.

    "If we'd been able to reflect the demands of those who sought recognition of dual citizenship several years back, the situation today may have been different," laments Masae Ido, a journalist highly versed in citizenship issues who is also a former DPJ lawmaker.

    The opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai submitted a bill to the Diet on Sept. 27, which would ban those with dual citizenship from running in Diet elections.

    Under the current Public Offices Election Act, those with Japanese nationality can run in lower or upper house elections. The Nippon Ishin no Kai bill would require candidates to renounce any foreign nationality and clearly state their history of obtaining and renouncing their foreign nationality in official campaign bulletins.

    A page in the party's website that explains the bill says, "We call the bill the 'Renho bill,'" showing its rivalry against the DP.

    Takagawa reacted coolly to the fuss that legislators have created over dual citizenship saying, "In my eyes, legislators only appear to be politically using the issue of dual citizenship."

    Ido said, "The Nationality Act, and not the Public Offices Election Act, should be fundamentally reviewed. I guess legislators are focusing only on politicians' dual citizenship because they are afraid of opening up the country."

    It is a good idea to look around the world to see if Japan, which is stepping up efforts to ensure that those with dual citizenship renounce one of the nationalities, may have become a minority in the international community.

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