Naturalization and names

The legal and extralegal wrinkles of choice

By William Wetherall

First posted 10 March 2006
Last updated 20 June 2023

No laws on "ethnicity" of names   Family register constraints concern only forms and graphs of names
1983 Asahi stories 16 May 1983 story 17 July 1983 story
Naturalization guidebooks 1975 guide 1988 and 1994 guides 1999 guide 2010 guide
Aliases as naturalization names   Not nearly as odd as it might seem

No laws on "ethnicity" of names

Laws concerning names on members of Japanese family registers concern form and function, not ethnicity. The main formal constraint is that that a persons name consist of a family name and personal name. The family name is constrained by the functional requirement that people in the same register share the same family name, and that Japanese couples and their children must be same register.

Another formal constraint, that has functional implications, is that names must be written in Japanese script -- meaning approved kanji or kana. This is formal because numerous "forms" of representing names are thereby excluded -- including alphabetic letters, hangul, non-standard kana, and Sino-Japanese graphs not on standard lists or otherwise approved for use in names. It is also functional because its main intent has been to standardize, while simplifying, the writing of Japanese and otherwise facilitate literacy and record keeping.

For sure, such constraints have favored Japanese family law and customs and even the political and racialist ideology that has sometimes informed laws and the extralegal administration of law. And there is always elements of "coercion" in any practice that mandates "assimilation" or "localization" by any any other name.

Yet, in Japanese law, there is no such thing as a "Japanese name" in the sense that some people consider "Yamada" but not "Smith" or "Kim" a "Japanese" name. From the point of view of Japanese law, names like "Smith" and "Kim" are just as acceptable as "Yamada" as names of Japanese -- meaning persons enrolled on family registers affiliated with Japan's sovereign dominion.

Family Register Law

The parameters of legally acceptable Japanese names are defined in the Family Register Law. No article in this law, or in any other statutory provision regarding the names of Japanese, have ever restricted or otherwise touched upon the putative ethnicity of the name of a Japanese national as recorded in a family register at time of birth or naturalization.

In other words, the putative ethnicity of a Japanese name has never been a concern of law. The "ethnicity" imputed to a name exists only in the mind of the person who considers the name to be a mark of ethnicity.

This is not to say that laws governing names on Japanese registers have not had an impact on the forms of names perceived as being "non-Japanese". Nor is it to say that the administration of naming laws in Japan has not at times been discriminatory with regard to adopting such names for use on family registers.

The Ministry of Justice did, for a while, put more than a little "extralegal" pressure on applicants to adopt names that conformed to stereotypes of "Japanesque names" -- meaning names like "Suzuki Takeo" or "Kaneda Masami" rather than "Ri Daisei" (I Taese) or "Ou Minshi (Wang Mingzi)". At the same time, all manner of putatively non-Japanesque names were being accepted as legal Japanese names.

Administrative attitudes toward names began to substantially change from the 1980s, when laws related to name changes of Japanese married to aliens, and of children of such marriages, forced the Ministry of Justice to change the advice it was giving its legal affairs bureaus regarding names adopted by naturalization applicants for use as Japanese.

1985 Family Register Law revisions

The Family Register Law was revised in 1984, effective the following year, to permit a Japanese spouse of an alien to formally adopt his or her alien spouse's family name for use on his or her register. This move affected the practice by Legal Affairs Bureau officials, promoted by the Civil Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Justice, of encouraging naturalization applicants to chose putatively "Japanesque names" for use as Japanese.

Bureau officials were to keep in mind that applicants were free, as had always been stated in guidebooks, to adopt post-naturalization names of their choice, within certain constraints that had to do with the number of names, the script in which they were written, and whose register they would be entering if not a new register. Officials were not to unduly pressure applicants beyond advising them to give careful consideration to their choice of names, as they will have to live with them.

The intentionally ambiguous expression "Japanesque name" was deleted from naturalization guidebooks no later than 1988. Guidebooks continued to show examples of completed forms on which applicants had chosen a disclosed passing name for use after naturalization. Such examples typically involved a Korean who had married a Japanese or a Korean whose mother was Japanese.

The use of examples showing the adoption of passing names continued through no later than 1999. Not until sometime during the first decade of the 21st century were examples of completed forms revised in such a way as to truly suggest that, in principle, one was free to adopt any name for use after naturalization -- within the usually restrictions on the function (family name followed by personal name) and form (Japanese script, meaning standard or other officially recognize kanji and kana).

Commercial guidebooks also blossom with such examples, as in fact they represent the vast majority of individuals who may be regarded as "Korean residents in Japan" -- i.e., they are spouses of Japanese nationals, and/or are offspring of Korean and Japanese parents or otherwise of mixed-nationality (which does not necessarily mean "mixed-racioethnic") descent.


1983 Asahi stories

In 1983, the Diet undertook the mission of revising the Nationality Law to permit a child born to a Japanese women married to an alien man to become Japanese at time of birth. Such a revision would have an impact on family registration because such children would be registered in their mother's family register, hence the problem of what family name to use.

Asahi shinbun, known for advocacy of non-conservative solutions to social issues, came out with a number of stories related to the name choices in family registers, first concerning the revision of the Nationality Law, then concerning Justice Ministry practices in applications for naturalization.

Note that the Nationality Law itself has nothing to do with names. Whether in the case of child acquiring a name at birth in the process of registration as a Japanese national, or in the case of alien being registered as a Japanese national after receiving permission to naturalize, the writing of names in family registers is governed by the Family Register Law and related enforcement regulations and administrative guidance.


16 May 1983 Asahi story

The lead story on the front page of the Monday, 16 May 1983 morning edition of Asahi shinbun reported that the Nationality Law group within the Justice Ministry's Legal System Council, in preparation for diet discussions on Nationality Law revisions, had been deliberating issues involving the family name, under Japanese law, of a child of a Japanese woman married to an alien.

The nationality law was to be revised so that a child of a Japanese mother married to an alien would qualify for Japaneses nationality at birth, in which case it would enter its mother's family register. Would the child take her family name as required by the Family Register Law principle of one family name in a family, or would the law be revised to exceptionally permit such children to be registered with their father's alien family name? Or should the mother be permitted to change her register name to that of her alien husband?

Katoō Ichirō, a former dean of Tokyo University, then the head of the civil law section of the Justice Ministry's Legal System Deliberation Council, reportedly said "[This] is an opportunity to reconsider the way-of-being [state, standards] of family registers in response to internationalization. That katakana [as well as Chinese and Korean style] names would increase [would be] natural."

Other opinions reflected the view that "If un-Japanese-like names (Nihonjin-rashiku-nai namae) increased, the image of Japan as a single race [ethnos, nation] (tan'itsu minzoku), single state (tan'itsu kokka) would come to change".

There were many other articles about "Japanese names" -- both in reference to the changes that the government planned to make in the Nationality Law -- and regarding the names that Koreans in Japan were likely to use socially, or were apt to choose when becoming Japanese. The latter issues -- involving Korean and post-naturalization names -- had, in fact, been flaring up over the past decade, in the daily press, but also in weekly and monthly magazines and in books

The emergence of the name problem tied to revisions in the nationality sparked another round of concern about the names of Koreans and naturalized Japanese. Predictably, Asahi-related media, which cultivates a reputation for minority advocacy, took the lead.

The 1 July 1983 issue of the Asahi jaanaru, the Asahi group's generally leftist weekly magazine, carried a four-page report titled "Zainichi Kankoku·Chōsenjin ga honmyō o nanotte wa ikenai no ka" -- or "Why can't Kankokujin and Chōsenjin in Japan go by their principal [real, legal] names?" The article was pegged to a recent movie called Irum (Irumu) . . . namae -- Irum in hangul, Irumu in katakana shown as furigana along the hangul, and namae in hiragana -- all meaning "name" in English (Volume 25, Number 28, Issue 1274, pages 94-97).

On 3 July 1983, The Japan Times (page 10) published my own long report, several months in preparation, called If Ito can be American, why can't Pak be Japanese?. At the time I was doing a lot of research and writing on names, as the spectrum of my academic interests in social issues included names generally.

I also had a personal interest. My daughter's nationality confirmation lawsuit had by then reached the Supreme Court, and my son's case was being examined by the Tokyo District Court. The litigation sought Japanese nationality as an effect of birth, not as a result of naturalization. Still, their choice of names, should the Nationality Law be favorably revised, would depend on how the Family Register Law was revised to accommodate changes in the Nationality Law.


17 July 1983 Asahi story

Then something very important happened. The top story in the Sunday, 17 July 1983 Asahi Shinbun carried the following headlines (Chiba home-delivered edition, my structural translation).

Headline across top


Kikasha no shimei wa
honnin no ishi sonchō

[Family and personal] Names of naturalizers
Respect wishes of principals [applicants]

Subhead across top


Hōmushō ga shiji tsūtatsu

Ministry of Justice, Instructional notification

Headlines down right side


"Nihon mei shōrei" yurumeru
   Katakana sei de mo kyoka

Relaxes "encouragement of Japan names"
   Permits even katakana names

According to this report, the ministry, on Saturday, had issued a notice instructing all regional Legal Affairs Bureaus, which handle naturalization applications, that "Regrading family and personal names [to be used] after naturalization, [the bureaus were] to determine [them] respecting the wishes of the principal person" (Kikago no shimei wa honnin no jiyū ishi o sonchō shite kimeru). An "interpretation" (kaisetsu) on the second page expressed the newspaper's view that the ministerial notice was a "wind hole in [its] single-race [ethnos] principle" (tan'itsu minzoku gensoku ni kazeana).

The Asahi Evening News carried a very brief and poorly written Associated Press article in its Monday, 18 July 1983 edition (page 3). The article attributed its source to the Asahi Shimbun article, and noted that "Ministry officials were not available to confirm the report because of the weekend holiday."

The Tuesday, 19 July 1983 edition of The Japan Times (page 2) ran a brief article, probably a wire-service retread, reporting that ministry officials had denied the Asahi Shimbun report, and stated "the officials said the ministry had not changed its policy over the issue."

The official who had issued the notice on 8 July was identified as "Kiyoshi Hosokawa, director of the Fifth division of the ministry's Civil Affairs Bureau" -- which, though not stated in the article, oversees nationality. (See my review of Hosokawa's seminal article on nationality in Japan at Hosokawa 1990).

The Justice Ministry objected to the implications of Asahi's report, which essentially accused the ministry of being in the practice of "forcing" name changes. The ministry reiterated that in principle naturalizers have always been free to choose their post-naturalization names within the parameters of law. The 8 July notice had been issued to correct the misimpression that the ministry was forcing name changes.

The ministry admitted that it had been "guiding" applicants and "suggesting" that they adopt "appropriate Japanese names" -- reflecting "Nihonjin ni fusawashii shimei" or "family and personal names appropriate for Japanese" in Japanese reports -- in other words, names that would not inconvenience their life in Japanese society. Moreover, the ministry would continue to offer such advice -- though in principle applicants would be free, within legal constraints, to make their own choice.


Naturalization guidebooks

The Asahi reports were, of course, intended to publicize the name issue. Though Asahi sometimes colored the facts with wishful thinking and advocacy, its reports opened the window wider and let more air into the public sphere. And from about this time, more naturalizers appear to have opted to use original names as alien as their Japanese names.

However, the Justice Ministry continued to encourage the use of passing and other such names when naturalizing until around the start of the 21st century. As late as 1999, guidebooks were still showing the same examples of forms filled out with passing names and the like entered in post-naturalization name boxes.


1975 naturalization guide

Earlier guides included the ambiguous phrase "narubeku Nihon-teki-na shimei ni shite kudasai" after stating that, in principle, one is free to determine the "shimei" (family name / personal name) to be used after naturalization -- subject to limitations on choice of kanji and kana script. Some commercial guides said "Nihon-fō-na".

The 1975 guide (produced 1 October 1975), used by a friend who naturalized, included this phrase in the instructions concerning choice of post-naturalization honseki (principle address) and family and personal names (shimei) (my translation).


[You] can freely determine [your] post-naturalization family name and personal name, but as far as possible [please] make [them] a Japanesque family name and personal name.

In one example, the applicant for permission to naturalize, a man named 金継達 (きんけいたつ Kin Keitatsu), was born in 朝鮮 (Chōsen) to 金龍洙 (Kin Ryūshu) his father and 崔順南 (Sai Junnan) his mother). He had used two passing names, 関口継達 (Sekiguichi Keitatsu) and 関口英雄 (Sekiguichi Hideo), and his post-naturalization name is entered as 関口英男.

His daughter 金信子 (きんのぶこ Kin Nobuko), alias 関口信子 (Sekiguchi Nobuko), born in Tokyo to 金継達 (Kim Keitatsu) and 山本純子 (Yamamoto Junko), would be 関口信子 (Sekiguchi Nobuko).


1988 and 1994 naturalization guides

By the end of the 1980s, the phrase urging the adoption "Japanesque names" had disappeared from Legal Affairs Bureau naturalization guidebooks. The showing of the use of Japanesque alias as post-naturalization names, however, continued until the end of the century.

I obtained a copy a guidebook around 3 February 1988 when investigating naturalization procedures in Japan and the United States. I obtained later version from a friend who was naturalizing in October 1994.

Both guidebooks -- like the guidebook I obtained when undergoing an interview for naturalization in 1999 (see below), and like the guidebook I obtained from a friend considering naturalization in 2010 (see below) -- reiterate the "freedom to determine names" statement found in official and commercial guidebooks even when Legal Affairs Bureau officials were attempting to pressure applicants into adopting "Japanesque names".

However, both the 1988 and 1994 pamphlets (as did the 1999 pamphlet) showed the applicants adopting their aliases for use after naturalization. The application examples differ in some minor respects, but are identical with regard to the following particulars (1988:15-16, 1994:15-16).

First applicant

The first applicant is a man of Chosen (朝鮮 Chōsen) nationality status (国籍 kokuseki) named 金龍作 (きんりゅうさく Kin Ryūsaku). Kin has used two aliases, 関口龍作 (Sekiguchi Ryūsaku) and 関口一郎 (Sekiguchi Ichirō), the later of which he adopts as his post-naturalization name.

The family-name box within the post-naturalization name box parenthetically notes that the family name is the "Family name of husband". This has to specified since the applicant is married. He could just as well as adopted a family name specified as "Family name of wife".

Kin was born on 18 April 1947 the eldest son of 金継達 (Kin Keitatsu) 崔順南 (Sai Junnan), both of whom have the same 本籍 (honseki) address in the Republic of Korea. This address is also given as Kin's "place of birth" (出生地 shusseichi). In other words, the address reflects a locality that was within the jurisdiction of ROK at the time was established on 15 August 1948.

It is not clear whether the ROK address relates to where Kin was actually born, or is merely his honseki address as a Chōsen status alien, or whether the people who came up with the information in the example failed to work out all the angles. It is, of course, quite possible that Kin was born on the peninsula, and came with one or both of his parents to Japan at some point before ROK was established and enacted its nationality law.

Note that Kin, though his place-of-birth (and apparently honseki) address is in the Republic of Korea, is stated to be of Chōsen status. The status of his parents is not given, but the locality of their honseki in ROK does not necessarily mean that they are ROK nationals. They, too, could be of Chōsen status.

Kin's residence is an address in Tokyo.

Second applicant

The second applicant is a woman, also of Chosen (朝鮮 Chōsen) status, named 金信子 (きんのぶこ Kin Nobuko). She was born in Tokyo, and now resides at the same address as Kin Ryūsaku, who is listed as her father. Her mother's name is 山本和子 (Yamamoto Kazuko), and her mother's honseki is an address in Tokyo, meaning than her nationality is Japan.

Kin Nobuko, born on 26 May 1976 in the 1988 pamphlet but 16 May 1986 in the 1994 version. Both list 関口信子 (Sekiguchi Nobuko) as an alias, and this is the name she adopts for use after naturalization.

Both applications in the the 1988 pamphlet are dated 15 September 1985, which would mean that Kin Nobuko was 9 years old at the time of application. The 1994 version leaves the dates of the application examples blank, but still, at the time, Kin Nobuko would be only about eight years old.

In either case, Kin Nobuko, would not have been able to apply for for naturalization on her own accord until she was 15 years old. In fact, both pamphlets show her application to have been signed by both Kin Ryūsaku and Yamamoto Kazuko, as those with parental authority (親権者 shinkensha).

The 1988 pamphlet shows Kin Nobuko's birth in 1976, when she would not have qualified for Japanese nationality through her mother, if her mother was then married to her father. Had her mother not been married, she would have qualified for Japanese nationality.

Changing Kin Nobuko's date of birth to 1986, as in the 1994 version, adds a new wrinkle -- though it is not clear that the wrinkle was intended by those who changed the date of birth. 1986 is the year after 1985, when revisions came into effect making it possible for her to have acquired Japanese nationality through her mother at time of birth, notwithstanding her mother's marriage to an alien.

However, Japan's nationality law does not automatically attribute nationality to any child. Nationality is confirmed only upon filing a birth certificate that specifies that a child qualified through one of its parents is to be registered in that parent's register. Kin Nobuko's mother, married to an alien of Chōsen status, had the option of specifying, with Kin Ryūsaku's approval of course, that her daughter was to be registered in his register only. Me thinks.


1994 naturalization guide



1999 naturalization guide

The application on the 1999 form (received when I interviewed for application on 4 June 1999), shows the use of passing names as post-naturalization names.

Applications forms are shown for two applicants -- a man and a woman (pages 14-15).

First applicant

The man, ROK (韓国 Kankoku) national 金永坤 (きんえいこん Kin Eikon), born in Seoul in the Republic of Korea, resides in Ootemachi 1-1-3 in Chiyoda-ku in Tokyo. His passing name is 大手二郎 (Oote Jirō), which is also shown as his post-naturalization name.

The post-naturalization family name is parenthetically qualified as being "Family name of husband" (夫の氏 otto no shi). The notation means that the family name Kin is adopting is his own and not that of his wife, who does not desire to naturalize.

Second applicant

The woman, ROK national 金順子 (Kin Junko) (順子), born in Tokyo, is residing at the same address as her father ROK national 金永坤 (Kin Eikon) and her mother ROK national 李慶順 (Ri Keijun). No passing name is shown for Kin Junko, whose post-naturalization name is shown to be 大手順子 (Oote Junko).

The list of immediate family members, which notes their relationship to the applicant, name, occupation, residence, and then whether they have contact with the applicant, whether they desire themselves to naturalize, and whether they approve, oppose, or have no opinion regarding the applicant's naturalization.

The instructions state to list "Kin in Japan" (在日親族 Zainichi shinzoku) first and "Kin outside Japan" (在外親族 Zaigai shinzoku) second.


2010 naturalization guide

The 2010 guide (full copy obtained from a naturalizing friend on 3 July 2010) leaves the post-naturalization names blank -- sort of.

The saga of the Kin Keitatsu family continues (pages 14-16) .

The applicant is ROK national 金龍作 (きんりゅうさく Kin Ryūsaku), ROK national -- alias 関口龍作 (Sekiguchi Ryūsaku), 関口二郎 (Sekiguchi Jirō), 金山龍作 (Kaneyama Ryūsaku) -- second son of 金継達 (Kin Keitatsu) and 崔順南 (Sai Junnan), both ROK nationals.

His post-naturalization name was shown as ○ ○ (夫の氏) in the family name (氏) box and ○ ○ in the personal name (名) box. While no script is shown, the use of two "maru" marks for the names suggests the use of more than one character.

The parenthetical notation means "Family name of husband" (夫の氏 otto no shi). The uncompleted form has only "Family name of _____" ( の氏). Kin's wife is listed on a following page, showing names and other particulars of immediate family, as 姜和子 (Kyō Kazuko). It is noted there that her address is the same as his, she "Has" contact with him, "Does not have" a desire to naturalize, and "Approves" of his naturalization.

Kin's father also has contact with him, has no desire to naturalize, and approves of his naturalization.

Kin's mother is deceased.

Kin's daughter 金信子 (Kin Nobuko), a university student, has contact with him, desires to naturalize, and approves of his naturalization.

Kin's parents-in-law have contact with him, do not desire to naturalize, and have no opinion for or against his naturalization.

Kin has three siblings. His older sister is deceased. His older brother lives in the Philippines. He has no contact with a younger sister in Korea, but has contact with a younger sister in the United States. The opinions of his siblings concerning his naturalization have not been solicited.

The instructions state to list "Kin residing in Japan" (日本在住の親族 Nihon zaijū no shinzoku) first and "Kin residing in foreign [other, outside] countries" (外国在外の親族 Gaikoku zaijū no shinzoku) second.


Aliases as post-naturalization names

There is a lot of misunderstand about the use of a so-called "passing name" (通称 tsūshō). The "passing" does not mean "hiding" in order to "pass" as someone other than who one really is. It simply means the name one goes by, or is known by, in the course of one's daily life, other than one's formal legal name.

In fact, not a few people who use such names show both names on their business cards. I have several cards which show Korean-style names on one side and Japanese-style names on the other. I also have cards with names that I know to be different from other names that the person may use.

My own cards have, in the past, shown "William Wetherall" on one side and "ウェザロール ウィリアム" (Uezarooru Uiriamu, Wezarooru Wiriamu) on the other. The latter is my registered "passing name". This name is noted on my alien registration card, and I am allowed to use it legally in all my affairs in Japan, from banking and National Health Insurance and National Pension, to contracts and property deeds. I can even use it when completing emigration and immigration forms. And I do.

Or I did. ウェザロール ウィリアム is now my name as a Japanese national, and this becomes "Wetherall William" on my Japanese passport. In other words, when becoming Japanese, nothing needed changing on public and private records accept my nationality.

It would have been my post-naturalization name had I filed my application for naturalization -- for a reason that may not seem obvious to some people. If I had chosen any other name, I would have ceased being ウェザロール ウィリアム and would have had to adopt the new name as my name in all matters in which I had been ウェザロール ウィリアム.

I could just as easily have adopted a Japanesque passing name such as 上沢 (Uezawa) or whatever. Or even an odd name like 羊舎 (Yōsha) or "sheepshed" meaning "Wetherall". 羊舎 is actually the legal (tax-office recognized) name of my office and library. The point is that I could adopt practically any name by which to live my daily life.

Whatever reasons some alien children in Japan come to be known by a passing name -- usually passively, in their infancy, through decisions made by their parents, which they discover later -- when it comes time to naturalize, they are not likely to want to discard the name by which they have been known to others, and to themselves, most if not all of their life.

Family ties and familiarity usually trump ideological afterthoughts of ethnicity -- particularly the sort of "ethnicity" that one might want to wear as a costume found in a family closet. Families put things in closets, and forget them, for all manner of reasons, not necessarily out of morbid fear of public disclosure.

The vast majority of Koreans in Japan have been born in Japan, have a Japanese spouse, or a Japanese parent and grandparents, if not other Japanese ancestors and relatives, or have otherwise been raised in the mainstream of Japanese society. Many have at least as many if not more Japanese than Korean or other relatives. And most I have known have had no significant contact with anything "Korean" except a quantum of their genetic ancestry and their legal status -- and have no compelling reason to "identify" as "Koreans". They have very good "social" and "familial" and "personal" reasons to regard themselves as part of the "Japanese" mainstream. For them, naturalizing with their "passing names" is merely to bring their legal status into alignment with their customary identity.

Children of parents of differing name backgrounds, or of immigrant parents, might also find themselves bearing -- for better or worse -- all manner of hybrid names as their legal names. And they will have options, as they get older, regarding their choice of name or names by which they wish to be known to their friends.

Nor is it unusual for people to be known to some people by one name and to other people by another name -- whether nicknames -- or middle names that only some people are privy to use but not others -- or pen names or stage names.

There is, to be sure, some pathology in the social pressure that has been brought to bear on some people in Japan -- but also on some people in most other countries -- to somehow "localize" or "nativize" their names. But not a few "passing names" in Japan are adopted for very private and even familial reasons that are not necessarily the result of "racism" or "assimilation policy" and the like.

See also these articles.

Soshi kaimei myths: Confusion then, misunderstanding now
Passing names: A personal and family choice
Passing names: Koreans and Chinese in Japan, 1959
Passing names: Koreans and Chinese in Kawasaki, 1971
If Ito can be American, why can't Pak be Japanese?