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[Bookmark] Japanese Citizenship or Dual Nationality? Everything You Need to Know

Acquiring or retaining Japanese citizenship is less complicated than foreign media make it appear to be. Here’s the low-down on its pros and cons, costs, benefits, and prohibitions.

Earl Kinmonth

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Canceled U.S. Passport after relinquishing citizenship (L) and new Japanese Passport (R).

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Bookmark is a JAPAN Forward feature that gives you long reads for the weekend. Each edition introduces one overarching thought that branches off to a wide variety of themes. Our hope is for readers to find new depths and perspectives to explore and enjoy.



On January 21 the Tokyo District Court issued the first decision on a lawsuit brought by six individuals who had lost their Japanese citizenship and two who feared they would. They are challenging as unconstitutional a provision in the Japanese Nationality Law that says, “A Japanese national will lose Japanese citizenship when the individual obtains a foreign citizenship on his or her own will.”

Headlines in both English and Japanese news media generally misrepresented the significance of the decision, with wording that implied that it covered multiple citizenship in general. For example, Kyodo had the headline “Court rules in favor of Japan’s ban on dual nationality” and an Agence France-Presse story was headlined “Japan court upholds ban on dual citizenship.”

The decision in fact only dealt with one limited situation in which Japanese law does not permit multiple citizenship: the case where Japanese citizens intentionally take citizenship in another country. Only one foreign report — that of Reuters — explicitly noted the very limited scope of the lawsuit.

The text of the citizenship law (available in English) makes it clear that the court ruled on a section of the nationality law that does not apply to people who have involuntary or unintentional dual citizenship by birth, or naturalized Japanese from a country that does not allow its citizens to relinquish their citizenship.

More generally, especially in English language media, the issue of multiple citizenship in Japan is phrased in terms of these two cases, not the intentional expatriation that was at issue in the Tokyo District Court Decision.

The decision by Naomi Osaka to take Japanese citizenship in 2020 because she had turned 22 is a widely reported example of unintentional dual nationality.

Naomi Osaka, of Japan, holds up the championship trophy in the women’s singles final of the US Open tennis championships, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

What the Plaintiffs Were Seeking

Six of the plaintiffs were seeking monetary compensation equivalent to $5,160 for the “suffering” caused by having to give up their Japanese citizenship as a result of taking foreign citizenship (variously Switzerland or Liechtenstein) for their work. Two were seeking assurance that they would not lose their Japanese citizenship if they did the same.

The lead plaintiff and apparent instigator for the lawsuit is Hiroshi Nogawa, a resident of Switzerland since his 20s and citizen since 2001. At a press conference he gave to the Foreign Correspondents Club Japan on July 6, 2018, I asked him why he needed Swiss citizenship rather than just permanent residency, the holding of which would not result in any threat to Japanese citizenship.

His answer was vague — that he needed Swiss citizenship “to bid on government contracts.” But numerous sources say that Swiss citizenship is needed only to bid on contracts for infrastructure with military significance. In the absence of a clear statement to the contrary from Nogawa, it must be assumed that he wanted to retain Japanese citizenship while being able to bid on military-related contracts as a Swiss citizen.

Access to military-related research funds also led Shuji Nakamura, a 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, to take U.S. citizenship after he moved to the University of California in Santa Barbara.

Given that permanent residency in a country usually permits the same range of activities as those allowed citizens except in the political, military, and intelligence sectors, it is hard for me to see official acceptance of Japanese citizens acquiring foreign nationality as progressive. If anything, it is retrograde in terms of the Japanese “peace Constitution.”

The court decision recognized that a prime consideration behind the provision for loss of Japanese citizenship was to forestall problems with Japanese dual citizenship holders being subject to the draft or getting involved in military matters in another country. The court also noted dual citizenship in such cases “could cause conflict in the rights and obligations between countries, as well as between the individual and the state.”

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Although the clause of the nationality law at issue here says unequivocally that “you will lose Japanese citizenship,” in reality “you might lose Japanese” citizenship if you are unlucky or flaunt the fact that you have taken foreign citizenship without going through the procedure to relinquish your Japanese citizenship.

This explains why, while waiting to speak to Nogawa’s lawyer after the press conference, I heard people speculating about what Nogawa had done to attract the attention of Japanese authorities in Switzerland.

As with foreign nationals who acquire Japanese citizenship without following the legal mandate to make an effort to relinquish your other citizenship, the Japanese government has no way of knowing whether you have done this, and makes no proactive effort to find out. This is not just tacit policy but something that government officials have admitted on the record.

This is also indicated by the tiny number of Japanese citizens who relinquish their citizenship or have it canceled in any given year.

There are late filing penalties for expatriating Japanese who do not file the required paperwork within the specified time limit. However, in practice, these do not seem to be applied.

Widening the View

Comments on social media, such as Twitter, used the court decision as an excuse for criticism of Japan as backward and out of touch with 21st century reality. It is a line that has been taken generally in prior English and Japanese language writing on this subject. Almost invariably, they treat dual or multiple citizenship as something good and progressive.

The reality of multiple citizenship and its recognition is quite different.

Although a few countries have long recognized multiple nationality, it is only in the 1990s that an increase in the number of countries doing so attracted attention. Academic studies show the movement for acceptance is not easily tied to whether a country is progressive or conservative, as seen by pundits. 

A major reason for countries moving to accept dual nationality has been the hope that it would help integrate large migrant communities into the social and political fabric of the host country. This incentive has been completely lacking in Japan.

Norway, widely cited as one of the most socially and politically progressive countries in the world, only moved to accept dual nationality in 2020. 

Some countries that allow dual nationality do this only on the basis of reciprocity agreements, specific historical connections, only for certain minority groups, etc. Spain has dual citizenship recognition for natural born citizens and countries with which it has bilateral agreements, but not in general. It requires U.S. citizens, for example, to renounce their U.S. citizenship.

Elected Officials ー the Renho Case

Another pattern that is commonly found among nations that generally allow dual nationality is a prohibition on dual nationality for holders of national government positions.

In 2016 there was a flap over Renho (Renho Murata), a member of the upper house of the Japanese Diet (House of Councillors) who held both Republic of China (Taiwan) and Japanese nationalities. Although the site that called attention to her situation is known for apolitical muckraking, criticism of Renho was labeled sexist, or even racist.

The real issues were two. First, as a lawmaker it did not look good that she was in nominal violation of a well-known, albeit toothless, law and held citizenship in a country the very existence of which is highly politicized and open to challenge.

Second, she had built a reputation during the years (2009-2012) when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) held power for her sharp questioning of government officials that made them squirm, but when she herself was questioned, she gave waffling and evasive answers.

I had been a fan of Renho and had hoped that she would stand as a candidate for governor of Tokyo. But, after seeing her response on this issue, I came to feel she was good at applying heat to others, but unable to deal with it when it was directed at her.

In any event, she did the paperwork to relinquish her ROC citizenship and went on to lead the DPJ to a stunning defeat in 2017.

The debate about sexism would not have happened in Australia because, while that country generally recognizes dual nationality, it has an absolute prohibition on holding citizenship in a country other than Australia ー whether that citizenship was accidental or intentionally acquired ー without regard to countries such as Britain or New Zealand, with which Australia has close ties and numerous reciprocal arrangements.  

Dual Citizenship in Practice and Public Policy

Writers who advocate that Japan get on the dual nationality bandwagon are nominally correct in saying that more countries allow “some form” of dual or multiple nationality than those that do not. But there are two things hidden by a simple country count.

On a population-weighted basis, the picture is very different. Neither of the two most populous countries on the planet allow dual citizenship. China and India both prohibit it. In the cases of India, the prohibition is enshrined in its constitution.  

That China and India, each with a population of approximately 1.4 billion, do not allow dual citizenship is far more important in terms of impact than the fact that Liechtenstein (population 38,557 in 2019) allows dual citizenship in some cases. 

Specifically in Liechtenstein’s case, it is allowed only on a reciprocity basis and forbidden for naturalized citizens. This makes the claims of those plaintiffs who took Liechtenstein citizenship look that much more absurd.

Aside from other countries’ practices, both journalistic and academic writing on the issue of Japan and dual or multiple citizenship is almost entirely superficial or one-side advocacy writing. Dual or multiple citizenship is almost invariably assumed to be a “good thing,” and this is either simply asserted without evidence or, if evidence is given, only supportive evidence is provided.

My own view as a naturalized Japanese with one and only one citizenship is that dual or multiple citizenship is not a good thing, primarily because of the inequality aspect. Recognizing multiple citizenship in the case of purchase or investment clearly favors the wealthy and widens the class gap among citizens, but that is also true of birthright citizenship.  

There is considerable evidence that income and asset inequality is growing in Japan. There is no good reason for exacerbating this growing divide by giving general, formal legal recognition to dual or multiple citizenship. If there are two Japanese citizens, one with only Japanese citizenship and the other with a second birthright citizenship, the second is in effect a member of a minor aristocracy with privileges and prerogatives not available to the first.

Citizenship for Sale

Writers who advocate that Japan accept dual or multiple citizenship see non-Japanese citizenship as arising from having a parent with non-Japanese citizenship or the result of having been born in a country, such as the U.S. or Canada, that gives citizenship to anyone of any parentage born within the national boundaries.

These writers are ignoring another route to citizenship that has appeared in the last few decades: purchase.

Citizenship for sale can be just that: a cash payout for citizenship and a passport. Typically, the sale is disguised as investment in land or job creation. In either case, the key determinant for acquiring citizenship immediately or on a fast track basis is money ranging from tens of thousands to millions of dollars.

Countries that sell citizenship are not necessarily poor, developing countries. Austria, an exceptionally wealthy country, sells nationality to the investing principal, a spouse, and up to two minor children, for an amount that is generally €2 million EUR ($2.425 million USD) or more. Cyprus grants citizenship in exchange for a substantial purchase of government bonds.

The sites that give advice on citizenship through purchase give at least three reasons for seeking an additional citizenship and passport: a haven if you need to bail out of your home country, greater freedom of movement than your first passport might allow, and tax management.

The widely cited Henley Passport Index already considers a Japanese passport the best in the world in terms of movement without having to get a visa for each and every country you visit. 

Tax management is a euphemism for tax evasion. Related to this, but not overtly mentioned in advice sites, is money laundering. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has in fact questioned the wisdom of member countries giving blanket recognition to dual or multiple citizenship precisely because of the potential for tax evasion and money laundering.

Some countries offer “golden visa” programs that can be a fast track to citizenship, although this is not guaranteed. These too can be used for money laundering and tax evasion. A special visa scheme for big ticket investors in Britain was halted in 2018 after it became clear it was being used for money laundering.

Costs for the Individual: Military Service

Just as they ignore potential costs for countries in recognizing dual or multiple citizenship, advocates ignore the same for individuals.

A number of countries have compulsory military service for all males. Israel has it for all citizens over the age of 18.

Having a second citizenship in a country without compulsory military serviceー such as Japan ー does not automatically exempt you from service in the country that has it.

The United States has not drafted anyone for 40 years, but it still has compulsory male registration for the draft. Failure to register can cause problems with access to financial aid and certain jobs in the U.S. A male Japanese with a secondary U.S. citizenship could be in for an unpleasant surprise or two if he moves to the U.S. having not thought to register because he was resident in Japan. 

The possibility that draft registration will be extended to females in the name of gender equality should not be ruled out.

Costs for the Individual: Taxation

Of possible secondary citizenship for anyone, Japanese or otherwise, the U.S. is easily the least desirable of all because the U.S. is the only country that taxes you on your worldwide income, even if that income is not earned in the U.S. and you do not reside there.

While you can exclude foreign income up to $107,600 (2020) from your taxable income, you are required by law to file a U.S. tax return each year ー even if you have no U.S. tax liability. 

If you do this yourself, it is quite time consuming. If you pay a tax account to prepare your filing, it is quite expensive, especially in Japan where accountants with the required knowledge cater to well-heeled expats and charge accordingly.

If you have the dollar equivalent of $10,000 USD or more in financial assets in an overseas account, you must file a FBAR (Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts). Few people get into trouble for failure to file, but those who do face truly draconian penalties.

Further, since the advent of FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act), signed into law in 2010 by Barack Obama, foreign financial institutions that also do business in the U.S. have been required to report on the financial assets of American citizens or face punitive penalties.

The requirement that foreign banks report your holdings applies, even if you are only an accidental U.S. citizen, do not live in the U.S., and have no income or assets there.

FATCA has led to numerous reports of banks in various countries terminating the accounts of customers with U.S. citizenship and refusing to accept new accounts from U.S. citizens.

Accidental citizenship is a particular problem for Canadians who have U.S. citizenship because they were born in U.S. hospitals just over the border.  Many have never thought about filing U.S. tax returns.

Even before Janet Yellen was confirmed as Secretary of the Treasury, American expats sent her a letter pleading for relief from U.S. filing requirements and FATCA. The European Union also made an unheeded appeal in 2019.

The U.S. flag is seen on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) following Election Day in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., November 4, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Relinquishing U.S. Citizenship

Relinquishing U.S. citizenship is an expensive and convoluted process. It requires at least two sessions at a U.S. embassy or consulate. These are at their convenience, not yours, and only a small number of slots are available each week. Currently the fee is $2,350.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands were waiting for a first appointment in some countries. The situation has worsened with the result that it can now take several years to quit a second citizenship you have never exercised and might not even know you had.

Consular Representation: Maybe Not

There are other disadvantages to U.S. citizenship. As stated on the U.S. Embassy Japan website:

While recognizing the existence of dual nationality and permitting Americans to have other nationalities, the U.S. Government does not endorse dual nationality as a matter of policy because of the problems which it may cause. Claims of other countries upon dual-national U.S. Citizens often place them in situations where their obligations to one country are in conflict with the laws of the other. In addition, their dual nationality may hamper efforts to provide diplomatic and consular protection to them while they are abroad.

The issue of consular representation is not U.S.-specific. It is noted in the official statements of other countries that accept dual or multiple citizenship.

Prince Akishino in Hawaii wiht children carrying the flag of Japan.

Acquiring Japanese Citizenship

Reading the complaints of long-term foreign residents who could not easily enter Japan for some months in 2019 — an issue that received repeated coverage in the Japan Times — I could not help wondering why they had not taken Japanese citizenship because the right to freely enter and exit Japan is one that all postwar governments appear to have scrupulously upheld.

Aside from removing the curse of FBAR, FATCA, and the IRS in the case of U.S. citizens, there are other specific benefits to having Japanese nationality. It gives you the right to vote, to stand for election, and, given COVID-19 restrictions on foreign nationals other than “special permanent residents” (essentially Korean citizens born in Japan), the “right of abode.”  

Compared to U.S./U.K. citizenship, that of Japan is relatively easy to acquire, although the apparent near-100% acceptance rate is deceptive. As with the “99% conviction rate” in Japanese court cases, it is the result of marginal cases being weeded out at an early stage.

The minimum requirements for naturalization are: 

  1. Five years domicile (residence) in Japan with a valid status of residence; 
  2. 20 years of age or more (18 beginning 1 April 2022); 
  3. Good conduct as evidenced by having no serious criminal record, paying taxes, etc.; 
  4. Livelihood either as individual or family income or assets; 
  5. No nationality or prepared to “in principle lose their nationality,” except in cases where “nationality of the country cannot be lost regardless of the intention of the person”; 
  6. Compliance with the Constitution of Japan.

Further, “some of the above naturalization conditions [are] relaxed for foreign nationals (those born in Japan, or who have a Japanese spouse, Japanese child, or once had Japanese nationality) who have a special relationship with Japan.” In other words, unlike the U.S. or Canada, you are not automatically a citizen just by being born in Japan, but, if you were, it is relatively easy to get Japanese citizenship.

Koreans born in Japan who do not have Japanese citizenship sometimes refuse to apply for Japanese citizenship for ideological reasons. They are not denied citizenship, but rather do not take advantage of the fast track that is available to them.

Other requirements for naturalization all involve documentation. There is a minimal, common list of required documentation, plus documentation that must be supplied on a case by case basis, such as proof of a divorce settlement.

All documentation not originally in Japanese must be translated with both the original and the translation submitted. Rendering archaic British legalese, such as appears in property deeds, was a real challenge in my case.

It is also worth noting what is not required. In striking comparison to the U.S. and the U.K., there is no charge at any stage of the application process. Local governments in Japan have to provide required documentation at no charge.  

There is no trivia contest or pub quiz style national knowledge examination as required by the U.S., U.K., Australia, and other countries.

There is no minimum Japanese language competency specified. It is measured indirectly by your ability to deal with the required interviews and hand copy a statement you have prepared explaining why you wish to acquire Japanese nationality.

Being severely disabled or having a chronic disease does not prevent you from acquiring Japanese nationality, unlike some allegedly liberal countries that have been known to deny applicants on the basis that they would be a burden on the national health system.

Conclusion

Thanks to the excellent site Becoming Legally Japanese, a Japanese language book written for legal scriveners who help prepare citizenship applications, and assistance from my wife in translating U.S./U.K. documents into Japanese, I was able to complete my successful application with zero expenditure on professional legal or other assistance.

When asked whether I have any regrets about taking Japanese citizenship, my stock reply is: “Yes. I have one great regret. I should have done it much sooner.”

Author: Earl H. Kinmonth

Earl H. Kinmonth is professor emeritus at Taisho University. Before moving to Japan in 1997, he was reader in Japanese Studies at the University of Sheffield (1989-1997) and professor of history at the University of California-Davis (1977-1989). His research is in the history and sociology of Japanese education from the Meiji period to the present, with an emphasis on 1930s-1940s Japan. He is a Japanese citizen and writes commentary in English and Japanese, and does Japanese English translation. He is currently writing a book on foreign media coverage of Japan under the working title Japan in the Foreign Imagination.