Tuesday, November 8, 2016

How to get your Japanese citizenship back

Photo credit: DiscoverNikkei.org

I grew up a dual national. I was born in Japan but my mother is an American citizen so she reported my birth abroad (see also: Wikipedia). The United States uses the jus sanguinis – meaning "right of blood" – principle to determine nationality so because my mother was a US citizen, she could apply to have my birth recognized by the US, thus giving me citizenship.

Having spent the majority of my life in the US, when it came time for me to choose a nationality, the obvious choice was to renounce my Japanese citizenship. I was attending college in the US, could no longer speak Japanese fluently and had no plans to ever return to Japan to live. I had also been living under the illusion that I had fully assimilated into American society.

The first time I came to regret my choice was during the 2000 election. Friends with European heritage looked into the possibility of applying for citizenship in their families' homelands and some actually went through with it. But as terrified as I was of living under a Bush presidency, my life was here and my Japanese fluency had only declined since I had renounced my citizenship. I figured that it was an impossible task. Then I thought about it again in 2004 and on and off since then. It's been on my mind ever since Donald Trump became the Republican nominee.

The US and Japan have enjoyed a surprisingly cozy relationship for the past 71 years given the brutal history of WWII. When I read about the Japanese American incarceration and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki I frankly do not understand how Japanese and Japanese Americans are able to embrace America. However, at this point it's difficult to imagine the US-Japan relationship deteriorating any time soon given that the two nations are dependent on one another. But who knows. I don't think that Japanese Americans in the 1940s thought that what happened to them could ever happen.

I used to feel secure in my status as a US citizen but as I have gotten older I have realized that for some Americans, you're only American as long as it's convenient for them. It doesn't matter that my mom's side of the family has been here for more than 100 years – for some people that's not long enough. I also have a Japanese father and the United States is not the land of my birth. The only reason I have US citizenship is due to a legal technicality. While I believe these people represent only a small fraction of Americans all it takes is for a few of the wrong people to be in power.

One of my friends who is Jewish (though not religious) sent me this text earlier today about something her seven-and-a-half-year-old half-Jewish daughter had said: "Did I tell you that [my daughter] said 'I don't want Donald Trump to be president. I don't want to do the Anne Frank thing.'" [She learned about the Holocaust and Anne Frank from BrainPOP]. I asked why her daughter was scared given that they aren't Muslim and my friend said: "She knows that she is Jewish, and she knows he wants to ban people of one religion. And she knows all about the Holocaust. She is afraid of being rounded up. I cried when I assured her that wouldn't happen no matter who wins." Parents in democratic countries should not have to have these conversations with their children.

I never thought that in my lifetime I would see a return to the sort of racist injustice and fearmongering that led to 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans being locked up by the US government for the crime of being Japanese, yet here we are. Earlier this year American-Japanese artist Setsuko Winchester wrote about a conversation she had with a park ranger at Tule Lake in which he told her that they had seen an increase in the number of visitors last year. "The problem he said was that they weren’t coming to uncover this dark part of US history. Rather, they were coming because “they wanted to know how internment worked” — and they were doing so “because they heard Trump and some mayor say it was an example the government might re-think to solve the Muslim-American problem." This story has haunted me ever since. 

With that in mind, I decided it was time to stop wondering and find out what else besides intensive language lessons I would need to reacquire my Japanese citizenship. I called the Consulate-General of Japan in Boston and the staffer I spoke with kindly emailed me some links after our call.

The first step in reacquiring Japanese citizenship seems to be to live in Japan for a minimum of three years (the residency requirement for foreign nationals who do not have a Japanese parent is ten years) as laid out in Article 6 (ii) of the Nationality Act. In order to do that I was told that the relevant visa is the one for "Spouse/child of Japanese national". Although it does seem that in the case of a former Japanese national the Minister of Justice can permit naturalization if you have a domicile in Japan per Article 8 (iii) so I'm not entirely sure if I bought property in Japan if I could bypass the three year residency requirement.

第六条 次の各の一に該当する外国人で現に日本に住所を有するものについては、務大臣は、その者が前条第一第一に掲げる条件を備えないときでも、帰化許可することができる
Article 6 The Minister of Justice may permit naturalization for a foreign national currently having a domicile in Japan who falls under one of the following items even if that person has not met the conditions listed in the preceding Article, paragraph (1), item (i):

二 日本で生まれた者で引き続き三年以上日本に住所若しくは居所を有し、又はその若しくは母(養父母を除く。)が日本で生まれたもの
(ii) A person born in Japan, and continuously having a domicile or residence in Japan for three years or more or whose father or mother (excluding an adoptive parent) was born in Japan;

It seems that the biggest hurdle to reacquiring my Japanese citizenship would be my lack of fluency. At my age and given how complex Japanese is, it feels like it would be nearly impossible but there's that old aphorism: "desperate times call for desperate measures." Renouncing my US citizenship might ultimately be the most difficult part since the bulk of my family is in the US.

Japan has its own problems and their fate is closely tied to the US's but sometimes I feel like if I'm going to live in a country where I'll never be fully accepted would I rather live here or in Japan? It's not an easy question to answer. This election cycle it has felt like the US is regressing, not moving forward. Some would argue that Japan is having similar problems with rising Japanese nationalism and attempts to return to more traditional values but when I hear news about changing attitudes towards Okinawans and gaikokujin and see the incredible aerial footage of mass anti-nuclear, anti-security bill (article), and anti-US military protests it feels like Japan is poised to make some real progress. It could be a grass is greener on the other side of the Atlantic fantasy but at least now I know what my options are.

Disclaimer: Any errors in this piece are due to my own misunderstanding. If you are thinking about returning to Japan and reacquiring your Japanese citizenship please contact your local embassy, consulate, or permanent mission for more information.

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This post has been crossposted at Discover Nikkei, a multi-lingual Nikkei online community. 

From their website: "Discover Nikkei is a community website about Nikkei identity, history and experiences. The goal of this project is to provide an inviting space for the community to share, explore, and connect with each other through diverse Nikkei experiences, culture, and history." Discover Nikkei is coordinated by the Japanese American National Museum and supported by The Nippon Foundation.


  1. Hi. I am naturalized and I run a site about this topic with over twenty contributors (some named, some not) who are also naturalized and from many nationalities, races, genders, and walks of life.

    Some quick notes on your interesting post:

    1. residency. The standard residency requirement is five (5) years of continuous physical residency for "normal" or regular naturalization.

    "continuous" means being physically absent from Japan (vacations, visits to America, etc) for no more than 150 days per year, and no more than 100 days in a row.

    "physical" means your bottom was actually present on Japanese soil. Getting a Japanese residency visa continuously for five years but only popping in for business trips or visits to the extended family does not count. Yes, they will actually look at your passport stamps and immigration records to check this.

    "normal" naturalization applies to people that have no significant connection to Japan (family connections, and that includes a Japanese national spouse or children)

    the opposite of "normal" naturalization is "simplified" naturalization. In this case, the physical presence test drops to three years (3) -- like they told you because they obviously assumed you had "Japanese family ties" or even one (1) year for deep ties. For example, they only required one year for me because although when I applied I could only meet the physical presence test for 1 year, I have been in Japan, married to a Japanese, with a Japanese child, for what is literally decades (yes, I'm old). I have lived in Japan continuous since graduation from American college in 1992 with the exception of a four year stint when my Japanese employer sent me overseas on assignment (breaking my physical presence streak).

    Regarding needing to speak the Japanese language: The ACTUAL requirement (emphasis added on "abilities") is:

    "Being able to make a living through his/her own assets or abilities, or through those of a spouse or of another relative who is making a living."

    When the Ministry of Justice evaluates your application, it’s assumed that "Japanese language ability" is a necessary skill to survive in Japan, along with your educational degrees and/or a resume or career (and bank account; yes, they will look at your bank statements and tax returns).

    Their intent is to make sure you don't become a destitute welfare case because you're unemployable.

    In theory if you were so rich (or your FAMILY in Japan is rich enough and they've agreed to support you) that you never needed to hold an honest typical job in Japan, you could in theory pass with zero Japanese ability. I've never met a person who has done this in real life. :) I do know that it's a judgement call. They test some applicants, but if your consultation adviser, in the course of talking to you, has no communication problems, they probably won't even test or evaluate your ability.

    It should be noted that there are some countries where it’s literally impossible or illegal to lose one's nationality (actually a UN human rights violation). Natural-born Mexican citizens is an example. These people can still become Japanese nationals, but they must sign a special legal oath swearing they won't attempt to ever use that nationality again. The same oath / choice of nationality that Japanese-Americans must do by 22, actually. However, you do not get a choice in the matter. If you country allows its citizens to lose their nationality (Canada & the United States), you must do so.

    Here's a plug for the website: Becoming legally Japanese.

    1. Hi Eido-san! Osashiburi desu! Thanks for these incredibly detailed comments.

      For the longest time I didn't know if it was legally possible for me to reacquire my citizenship having already renounced it once and no one I knew had any idea. So it was nice to finally get a concrete answer that yes, legally, it's possible. Logistically and emotionally though... that’s another story. I think that conditions in the US would have to deteriorate significantly before it would make sense for me to pursue returning to Japan. But knowing that in theory, I have options, is somewhat reassuring. Abe-san is playing nice though so I hope that US-Japan relations will remain relatively stable.

      It hadn’t occurred to me to take a look at international law so thanks for the information below. I also was not familiar with the cases you cited.

    2. No problem. There's actually one more "re-acquisition of Japanese Nationality" law that applies to a lot of Japanese-Americans and other diaspora you should know about.

      Although in your case it doesn't apply, because your parents apparently "reserved" (weird word, but that's the legalese) your Japanese nationality when you were naturally-born as a U.S. citizen, there is a path for minors (the definition of "minor" in Japanese: under 20, not under 18) to still "reserve" their Japanese nationality (for example, your Japanese parents forgot to register you as a Japanese national born overseas at the local Japanese consulate or embassy) -- PROVIDING you're willing to give up your Other Nationality immediately (in other words, you don't get to wait until your 22 to choose).

      The only advantage of this is that it's not "naturalization" -- you do not have to qualify via residency in Japan, abilities, etc.

      This provision is covered by Article 17 of the Japanese nationality law.

    3. Finally, one last comment and I promise I'll stop leaving graffiti on your excellent post:

      Recently, Japan just changed the voting laws so that people who are 18 (technically minors in Japan) can vote. Before, it was the age of Japanese adulthood: 20.

      However, their is debate in the Diet (hasn't passed) to uniformly change the "age of adulthood" from 20 to 18. That means not just voting, but you can drink alcohol and smoke at 18.

      HOWEVER, this law will affect Japanese-American minors: currently, Japan requires that multi-nationals make a choice of nationality within two years of becoming a Japanese adult. Twenty + two = by 22 years old. That gives most Japanese-Americans a year after higher education to take a "gap" year to discover their roots in Japan and decide from what they experience if they want to take the plunge (very few do).

      However, if the law of adulthood in Japan changes, that means that Japanese-Americans etc will have to choose at eighteen plus two years: twenty years of age. Not old enough to drink (in the U.S. or Japan), and while most are still in college.


    4. Wow this is really fascinating. I've never come across a JA who has taken a gap year in Japan but I'm sure it must happen? That would be really unfortunate for them. I don't know how any college-age student can be expected to make life-altering decisions at that age. I'm not sure if I would have chosen to renounce had I known then what I know now.

  2. One more thing off topic, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in many cases that the 14th Amendment is clear in that it is impossible for an American citizen to involuntarily lose their nationality -- even if you're a terrorist. See
    Afroyim v. Rusk
    , Nishikawa v. Dulles, and Vance v. Terrazas.

    Additionally, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, article 15, and a lot of related conventions and treaties prevent other countries from removing a person's nationality and making them stateless, because every human is entitled to "a nationality." (that "a" -- meaning "one", is a very important keyword)

    However, if you (1) have more than one nationality, and (2) that nationality is not absolutely protected like it is by the 14th amendment -- it is fair game, under international law, to be legally revoked. You have a human right to one nationality under international law. Everything above that is technically a privilege.

    Many countries (Canada's C-24 Bill, Denmark, Austria, to name a few) have passed or are or have debated legislation for revoking their nationality from terrorists and/or criminals.

    In theory, although Japan has never done it, Japan can legally revoke Japanese citizenship from a dual national.

    Nobody can take your U.S. citizenship though, thanks to the 14th amendment. Many Supreme Court rulings have backed this up.

    1. I'm so sorry - I just discovered that I had a bunch of comments that were held for moderation that I somehow never saw. Thanks for the info.