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Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2003

THE ZEIT GIST

Turning Japanese no simple process

The hows and whys of naturalizing in Japan


By ARUDOU DEBITO

Japan's aging society and low birthrate demand dramatic measures, some say.

A 2000 UN report stated unequivocably that Japan must import 600,000 workers per year to maintain fiscal balance. A Prime Ministerial commission that same year concurred: "Japan should set up an explicit immigration . . . system to encourage foreigners . . . to move in and possibly take up permanent residence here."

Unfortunately, this is not happening. Though about 4.5 million foreigners cross Japan's borders every year, the average annual increase in registered foreigners is only about 75,000. So to keep its taxpayer base young, Japan must make foreigners want to stay, even encourage them to become immigrants or citizens.

How difficult is it, say, to take Japanese citizenship?

Well, the process, like naturalization procedures worldwide, has a paper chase. After being screened for eligibility (criteria include living in Japan for five years continuously and having the Japanese level of an eight-year-old), you must submit tax, income and police documents (demonstrating upstandingness).

Second, lineage records both domestic and overseas (for the Family Registry), and other forms are handed over to present a full picture of your background. Some difficulties arise (since documentary systems differ overseas), but the Japanese authorities proved bendy with rules after sufficient explanation (they even trust you to translate documents yourself).

Still, it does get overly intrusive. Surrender snapshots of and hand-drawn maps to your house and workplace. Survey your relatives to see if they approve of your naturalizing. Write a one-page essay on "Why I Want to be a Japanese."

And prepare for an inspection to see how "Japanese" you are.

You read right. Ministry officials may drop by to quiz your neighbors, look at your house interior, refrigerator, and children's toys, and otherwise get cozy about your lifestyle.

How do you pass? "If we feel no 'sense of incongruity' (iwakan)," said a queried official. Sounds highly arbitrary, but I was actually a test case. I am one plaintiff in a controversial lawsuit against a bathhouse and the City of Otaru.

Yet I passed. They said, "suing is permitted under the Japanese Constitution."

If you can tolerate this degree of third degree, and don't mind giving up your original citizenship (Japan is the only OECD country which forbids dual nationality), then things become surprisingly easy.

As ineligible applicants get weeded out at the very start, Ministry of Justice statistics indicate almost everyone who completes the papers gets a passport. The number of newly-minted Japanese is small. About 20,000 per year -- the overwhelming majority ethnic Koreans and Chinese, born and raised in Japan anyway.

So why would a white boy like me do it? To prove a point? No.

In my case (of course, hardly indicative), I don't entwine identity with nationality -- I am who I am even if I had no passport at all. Moreover, I have property, family, and a steady and enjoyable job, giving me good reasons to stay here permanently.

Moreover, Japan has as high a standard of living as any developed country, and can be, if one learns Japanese, as easy to assimilate into (seriously!) and make friends in as anywhere else.

Ultimately, I realized, people like me live here and contribute to Japan like any other citizen. We might as well legally be one.

And once we are, there is no doubt about it. We passed a nationality and assimilation test that many native Japanese, especially the corrupt and the criminal, could not. We earned our stripes. Now, do my fellow Japanese accept this?

Well, if you really must let other people determine your identity, the answer is -- believe it or not -- yes. Very few deny I am Japanese when I tell them so. Many realize, with Japan's internationalization and increased racial intermarriage, that "Japaneseness" is -- and must be -- a matter of legal status, not appearance or acculturalization. Of course it will take time for this notion to sink in, but my two plus years of experience as a Japanese do not disappoint.

So why don't more people naturalize? Partially because of the soul sacrifice of giving up one's birth nationality, but also because there is another perfectly good option: Permanent Residency (PR).

With PR, one can enjoy a stable life with increased financial access and no visa hassles. Recent changes to the laws mean you can get it after five years or so if married to a Japanese, ten if not. You still generally cannot vote or run for office (for me, rights sacrosanct), but PR is sufficient for most potential immigrants.

Still, if Japan were to legalize dual nationality, I bet the numbers naturalizing would skyrocket.

In any case, time is on immigration's side. Japan needs new blood to support the old. Somebody has to pay for the future. Immigration will do that, revitalizing Japan's economy and society in unprecedented ways; look around Shizuoka, Kobe, and Kanto and see the largely positive roles that immigrants are playing.

The Japanese government is aware of this, and has made it easier to stay. Now they must make it easier to become Japanese.



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