One factor behind the confusion over the law is that it fails to specify any penalties against dual nationals who do not pick a nationality. It instead only states that the justice minister reserves the right to “warn” them to choose a nationality. If a dual national does not make a choice within a month of receiving the warning, their Japanese nationality is automatically revoked.
However, this right to warn such nationals under the 1985 revision of the nationality law has never been exercised, a Justice Ministry official confirmed earlier this month, partly because the act of tracking down citizens with multiple nationalities and encouraging them to make a choice would be a bureaucratic nightmare.
“We actually cannot be sure about who has multiple nationalities,” Kei Kurayoshi, then the ministry official in charge of nationality issues, told a parliamentary session in 2008.
“Given that uncertainty, sending reminders to those we just happen to know have multiple nationalities by chance is a questionable practice,” Kurayoshi said. “There are a lot of opinions about this, but we have not sent out any reminders due to such reasons.”
That is not to say that the law itself is completely ineffective, because in theory Japanese citizenship could be revoked if a dual national does not make a choice. Its very existence serves as a threat, said Yasuhiro Okuda, a law professor at Chuo University who specializes in the Nationality Act.
Even if it may be only on paper and not in practice, the official stance that one can have just a single citizenship sends a powerful message to those with multiple nationalities.
“I strongly connect with my Japanese heritage, but I don’t feel welcomed by Japan. Having to choose a nationality at age 22 was the first formal instance of feeling as though I was ‘not Japanese enough,’ ” Dethlefsen said.
This sentiment was echoed by Chris.
“If I were forced to decide which citizenship to retain and which citizenship to relinquish, I would view it as which culture and which nation am I to abandon,” he said. “I think of that decision as emotionally charged.”
Michiko, who asked to be identified only by her first name, was born to a Japanese mother and a German father but never lived here and only received her Japanese passport at the age of 22 on a visit to Japan. She was unaware of the intricacies of having dual nationalities in Japan, yet she could tell that something didn’t feel quite right when her mother took her to the local municipality to get her first Japanese passport.
“When we got the passport in Japan at the local city hall, it didn’t feel legal to me,” she said. “It felt a little weird. I never researched it or anything … but I just had this feeling that it was illegal to have a second passport.
This climate of fear is creating a vicious cycle of negativity, said Teru Sasaki, professor of sociology at Aomori Public University.
“For some, nationality is the final stronghold of the Japanese identity. The very notion of dual nationality challenges that and creates fear for those who are unfamiliar with the concept,” said Sasaki.
Regardless of whether dual nationality is tacitly approved or not, “the idea of single nationality also tied in with, and reinforced, the Japanese postwar belief in a pure, homogeneous nation-state,” said Atsushi Kondo, a professor at Meijo University in Nagoya. “The wording of the current law shows a very strong hope in maintaining that ideal.”