New Perspectives on Nationality from an American-born, Naturalized Japanese Citizen

By Patrick Mackey : Freelance translator and writer
March 08,2017
Patrick Mackey
Freelance translator and writer

Patrick was born in Oregon, USA. After studying at Waseda University (Tokyo) in 2004, he graduated from the University of Oregon in 2006 and moved to Japan. He worked as a writer and website manager for a Hyogo Prefecture travel agency; went on to do translation, copywriting and editing at an Osaka translation company; and then launched his own business as a freelance translator and writer in Fukuoka. Patrick has published two travel guides: Osaka Insider: A Travel Guide for Osaka Prefecture (2012) and Finding Fukuoka: A Travel and Dining Guide for the Fukuoka City Area (2013). He became a Japanese citizen in December 2016.

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(Photo by みっきー/PIXTA)

I am a Japanese citizen. I was born in the United States into an American family with no Japanese ancestors, and I renounced my citizenship after naturalizing in Japan due to the latter's rule against dual nationality. While most people were shocked that I would give up my American citizenship and passport, two things coveted by so many around the world, those who have led similar lives to mine were not the least bit surprised.

Today, technological advances in areas such as communication and transport have made the world seem smaller and foreign countries closer. As a result, there is a growing minority of people willing to take on new nationalities in countries where they have no roots.

So why change nationality? For me, the answer is actually quite simple. I have a child in Japan, my career is based here, I have spent my entire adult life here, and I now feel more at home in Japan than in my homeland. Citizenship also gives me more security and protection than a visa.

Readers have likely heard of some of the more famous people who naturalized in Japan. Celebrated scholar, translator and writer Donald Keene (Kiin Donarudo) is a naturalized Japanese citizen, as was the late Koizumi Yakumo (Lafcadio Hearn), an international writer active in Japan during the Meiji Period.

Martti Turunen, who became Marutei Tsurunen after taking Japanese citizenship, went on to serve in the Japanese Diet. The controversial human rights activist Debito Arudou (formerly David Aldwinckle) took Japanese citizenship in 2002. Bobby Ologun (naturalized as Bobby Konda) is one of several TV personalities who have taken citizenship in Japan, and numerous athletes have done the same. There are also inverse cases such as that of Kuniaki Takizaki, known commonly as Neko Hiroshi, who naturalized in another country (Cambodia) in order to compete in the Olympic Games.

Not everyone, however, who takes citizenship in Japan (or elsewhere) is a superstar athlete, media celebrity, literary legend or government official. Take the example of a British man living in Fukuoka, who has chosen to remain anonymous in this article. He has decided to take the nationality plunge for both pragmatic and ideological reasons.

"I'm the father of two Japanese children and I can't see a future for myself elsewhere," he explains. "I'm committed to Japan." Having lived here long enough to make Japan his home, he has built a family, a career and a life here while his country of birth becomes increasingly irrelevant.

Another issue he discusses is the difference between the permanent resident visa and citizenship. Because both offer lifetime residency, the difference may seem negligible to the casual observer, but it is actually quite significant for the people concerned: permanent residency is permission from the government to stay in Japan (indefinitely) as an alien, whereas citizenship is the right to be in Japan as a citizen with the full protection that entails—the key words here are "permission" and "right."

When one has built an entire life in Japan, the idea of remaining on a visa forever is unsettling, because visas can be taken away or voided. Plus, on a personal level, gaining citizenship means moving one step closer to being an integral part of society, as opposed to remaining as a perpetual outsider. As my British interviewee puts it, "I refuse to live on the margins of society."

In my case, the naturalization process was relatively long—even longer than getting my permanent resident visa—but not as long as it could have been. I had to collect forms documenting my entire life in the United States, including birth certificates for all siblings, my parents' marriage license, proof of US citizenship and everything else necessary to create a new koseki (family register).

I was also required, of course, to submit proof of my income in Japan, my current koseki and residential registration documentation, tax return copies, and other documents to prove a stable life here—this included a hand-drawn map to my workplace and home and photographs of the inside and outside of my apartment. Then there were the impromptu speaking and writing mini-tests—neither was too difficult, as they require only elementary-level Japanese skills—and a handwritten Japanese essay explaining my reasons for wanting to be a citizen.

It took months to gather all the US paperwork from abroad, plus a week or two to get everything from local ward and tax offices. Some applicants even have to go through in-depth interviews and home visits. Ultimately, it took me about 13 months, most of which was spent waiting for the paperwork to be checked before approval by the minister of justice.

The reverse situation, a non-American naturalizing in the United States, can be much more challenging and time-consuming. Take the language requirement, for example: in the United States, an actual test is administered, whereas in Japan one is simply engaged in basic conversation and asked to write a free-themed paragraph or two.

Applicants in the United States must also have knowledge of the US government and history, and declare willingness to support and defend the US Constitution. The entire process in Japan, from application to acceptance, takes about a year in standard cases, sometimes more depending on one's country of origin; in the United States, it can take as little as half a year, but it may also take as long as several years.

There is also the process of renouncing one's citizenship, because some countries (including Japan) don't allow dual citizenship. A few nasty additions apply for Americans who renounce: They are required to attend an interview and justify why they plan to give up citizenship, and must also pay a whopping renunciation fee of US$2,350—raised from the former $450 fee due to increasingly large numbers of expatriates in recent years.

Furthermore, proof of income tax payment for the last five years is required of the expatriate, and an "exit tax" must be paid by wealthy persons. All of this on top of the fact that Americans are already some of the only people required to pay home-country income tax while living abroad (double taxation)—the only other nation that taxes nonresident citizens' foreign income is Eritrea.

When discussing the issue of naturalization, one situation worth examining is that of the Syrian refugees, who have relocated primarily to Europe and other parts of the Middle East. A large number of these people fled war-torn Syria without any identifying papers or else lost their papers along the way, and many of them are now stateless, unregistered residents in countries that are tough on immigrants.

To further complicate the matter, it is believed that over 50,000 Syrian children have been born in exile. Discussions of required documents, procedures and wait times are largely irrelevant, as this mass exodus requires us to start thinking about the true significance of nationality in more practical and realistic terms.

As for the children, many will grow up in a new country without knowing their homeland, and forcibly sending them back to Syria in the future could be viewed as unethical. In order to rectify the current situation, the Syrian immigrants will most likely need to be admitted as residents or citizens and integrated into society in novel, untested ways.

Nationality is actually a complex concept, and some people fail to understand the difference between terms such as "nationality" (legal affiliation) and "ethnicity" (roots in terms of language, race, geographical connection and so forth). Cultural background, race and heritage are additional, separate considerations.

It is often pointed out that Japanese people seldom distinguish between nationality and ethnicity, often considering a true Japanese person (nihonjin) to be someone of both Japanese nationality and ethnicity—this idea is prevalent on Japanese television and in the numerous books of the nihonjin-ron genre.

However, this is not a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. Americans, for example, often rely on deep-reaching patriotism and national identity as a replacement for cultural identity because the nation's history is relatively short and characterized by a lack of firm cultural unity.

Sadly, in the opinions of more than a few US citizens, to be truly American means being born and raised in the United States. European nations, while generally considered to be more cosmopolitan, are fraught with division due to a great number of vastly different cultures and histories in close proximity to one another, which sometimes leads citizens to latch on to nationality as a part of their personal identities.

In actuality, nationality is becoming less and less relevant in today's world. Globalization, the international integration of cultures and ideas, as well as the worldwide mobility of people and the spread of corporate influence, has been discussed for years but is just now making the transition from mere theory to reality, and it has inspired many people to relocate abroad and settle permanently.

In contrast, situations like the conflict in Syria push people across national borders, giving rise to questions of how the youth among these refugees will identify themselves later in life, and how others will see them.

In short, nationality is losing its significance as a part of one's identity, and what remains is a mere legal affiliation with a certain nation's government. One's cultural upbringing and ethnic background may be set in stone, but nationality is something that can be changed, an elastic concept no longer defined in an inflexible manner. It's still going to take the world some time to get used to this idea, but the transition has already begun.

Ultimately, the "meaning" or significance of nationality cannot be objectively defined. It means what it means to each person on a deeply personal level. It also represents greater freedom and increased opportunities for those willing to immerse themselves in a completely different culture.