How to become a Japanese citizen national

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
The Japan Times, 13 October 1988, page 14

Note -- All instances of citizen and citizenship, except in citations, should be national or nationality.

Tired of being a Korean, American, Sri Lankan, Nigerian, German, or whatever your papers now make you? Running out of excuses not to join the seven thousand foreigners a year who are becoming members of that big happy family of 122 million people who can carry a Japanese passport and vote for the politician with the whitest gloves?

It's a lot easier than you may think. It is, in fact, no more difficult than becoming a citizen of, say, the United States.

No blood transfusion or brain transplant is required. You don't have to know peanuts about corruption in the Japanese government. And there is no language test, though you will have to be minimally fluent and literate in Japanese to apply.

Just consult with your regional Legal Affairs Bureau. A clerk will ask a number of questions to determine your general eligibility. If you seem to qualify, you will be given a guidebook and about ten forms in duplicate, told what other documents you may need to support your application, and sent on your merry way.

You can fill out the forms in the comfort of your own home. The kind and number of supporting documents will vary according to your personal circumstances. Getting them all may take some leg work, and you will have to translate them if the originals are not in Japanese.

File your application when all your papers are ready. Wait about one year for them to clear the bureaucratic maze. After being granted permission to naturalize, establish a family register and renounce your present nationality. Then celebrate your status as a proud new citizen of one of the world's freest and most open countries.

Japan's Nationality Law lists six naturalization requirements: the candidate must (1) have continuously resided in Japan for five or more years; (2) be 20 years old or older and be legally competent; (3) be a person of good conduct, (4) be able to support oneself or have other secure means of livelihood; (5) be stateless, or be able to renounce any foreign nationality upon acquiring Japanese nationality; (6) have never tried to overthrow or advocated the overthrow of the constitutionally established Government of Japan by means of violence, or belonged to a group that has.

The Ministry of Justice's "Guide to Naturalization Procedures" [Kika kyoka shinsei no tebiki] also requires, though extralegally, that, (7) in principle [gensoku to shite], the applicant must also know how to read and write, and be conversant in, Japanese.

Contrast the above requirements with those in the United States. The alien candidate for American citizenship must (1) be at least 18 years old, (2) have been lawfully admitted to the country for permanent residence, (3) have been living in the U.S. for at least five years, the last six months of which must have been spent in the state where the naturalization petition is filed, (4) be "a person of good moral character who believes in the principles of the Constitution of the United States and is favorable to the good order and happiness of the United States," (5) be able to speak, understand, and read and write simple English, (6) "pass an examination showing that he knows something about the history and form of government in the United States," (7) "give up his foreign allegiance and any foreign title he has," (8) swear to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States, and unless it is against his religion, "promise to bear arms or fight for the United States, to perform other types of service in the armed forces of the United States, and to do work of importance to the nation when he is asked to do so."

Moreover, the U.S. applicant must (9) not have joined, in the past ten years, "a political party or organization that is against all organized government or for world communism, dictatorship in the United States, overthrowing the United States Government by force, injuring or killing officers of the United States, or sabotage," and (8) must not have been deported for violation of an immigration law.

Though pamphlets given to prospective U.S. applicants do not number the above requirements, and list some of them in a different order, the impression remains that naturalization procedures are more complex in the U.S. than in Japan. A comparison of application forms, however, suggests that the two countries solicit a similar quantity of information, though interestingly different in kind.

Both Japan and the U.S. ask require information about parentage and family, Japan is mainly concerned about economic self-reliance and so wants to know a great deal about income and expenditures, while the U.S. is worried about ideological ghosts and national security and so probes for evidence of anti-American activities past and present.

One U.S. application form, for instance, asks this question, among many others of a political and military nature:

"During the period March 23, 1933 to May 8, 1945, did you serve in, or were you in any way affiliated with, either directly or indirectly, any military unit, paramilitary unit, police unit, self-defense unit, vigilante unit, citizen unit, unit of the Nazi Party or SS, government agency or office, extermination camp, concentration camp, prisoner of war camp, prison, labor camp, detention camp or transit camp, under the control or affiliated with (a) the Nazi Government of Germany, (b) any Government in any area occupied by, allied with, or established with the assistance or cooperation of, the Nazi Government of Germany?"

A Japanese applicant who had been in the Imperial Japanese Army, and had served as a guard at a POW camp in the Philippines, might have to answer "Yes" to part (b), though such an answer would probably not jeopardize the applicant's prospects of becoming an American citizen.

The same applicant would also have to fill in the "Race" box on the FBI fingerprint form, which requires nail-to-nail rolled prints from all five fingers, and unrolled prints of the thumbs, and of the four fingers taken together.

The Ministry of Justice wants to know all about your job, and how much money you save after itemizing your living expenses in a dozen categories. It also wants a map to your house so that an official can visit you (or your neighbors) to confirm your living conditions, if thought necessary. And it requires a photo, black-and-white or color.

But the Japanese bureaucracy does not need verbal descriptions of your complexion, eye color, hair color, or visible distinctive marks, even height or weight -- though some of this information might appear on medical documents that may be required if you are sick, injured, or pregnant. The oath that you must read and sign with your personal chop in Japan obliges you to only "obey the law and become a good citizen."

As for your name as a Japanese citizen, you can keep calling yourself whatever you were as an alien -- Ronald Reagan or Kim Il Sung -- or you can take any new name you like. In either case, you must write your name in two parts, family name followed by personal name, and in standard Japanese kanji, hiragana, or katakana. In the U.S., too, naturalizers are generally required to sign their name "in English".

I haven't taken out my papers yet, and I'm not sure what would move me to do so. But I know several former aliens of different ethnic backgrounds who have become Japanese citizens, and I have read about many others. And with the exception of a couple of Korean Japanese who have committed suicide, for reasons I suspect not really related to their naturalization or confusion of ethnicity with nationality, most of Japan's roughly 200,000 thousand naturalized citizens, and their families, seem perfectly happy with their nationality switch.

This is not to say that some people might not have more problems as Japanese than they had as aliens. But it is not clear in which country their problems would become greater.

One mastodonic, once blond, still blue-eyed German man who had lived in Japan for twenty years, confessed that he had thought of changing his nationality to Japanese. What stopped him was not the double looks he knew he would get from all quarters while standing in the immigration and customs lines for Japanese at Narita Airport.

"The Japanese officials would see that my passport was real and wave me through," he told me. "When in Europe I can flash my German passport and cross EC borders with no questions asked. Imagine me trying to enter France from England with a Japanese passport."