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Sunday, July 9, 2006

COUNTERPOINT

Home from home from home


Special to The Japan Times

Three days ago marked an anniversary of my own personal day of independence. Thirty years ago, on July 6, 1976, I became an Australian citizen and legally forfeited my U.S. citizenship.

There is a long story in anyone's life concerning the geography of birth, and mine, I suppose, begins with my four grandparents who migrated to the United States from East-Central Europe around the turn of the 20th century. To them America was truly the land of golden opportunity, and they were keen to take up citizenship and become American in every sense of the word.

My parents were both born in New York, as was I (Brooklyn, to be exact), though we all moved to Los Angeles when I was an infant. I spent my youth in that sprawling southern California city that has variously been called "Tinseltown," "A Cemetery with Lights" and "The Place Where the Future Happens First."

To make a long story column-size, I arrived in Japan for the first time in August 1967, and, for reasons that are unclear even to me, I felt at home from my very first day here. After living in Kyoto for five years and learning the language -- and feeling more than ever that Japan was my adopted home -- I decided that I wanted to become a Japanese citizen.

There weren't many non-Japanese naturalizing at the time. Most Korean residents, even those born and raised here, preferred to keep their status as Koreans, and people of other nationalities who chose to be Japanese were few and far between.

After all, what, besides the ability to live in Japan without a visa, were the advantages of becoming Japanese? An overwhelming majority of Japanese people would never look at a naturalized Japanese and call them a Japanese. Japanese people were, and still to a large extent are, reluctant to accept a non-native as a "real" Japanese, whatever that means. To most Japanese, the very concept of naturalization is alien, and their notion of being Japanese is based on the myth of blood, not the dictates of law (even though, legally speaking, a naturalized Japanese is 100 percent Japanese).

Bite the bullet

Nevertheless, undaunted by the medieval mores of bloodline, I decided to bite the bullet and telephone the Ministry of Justice to ask them what I had to do to become a Japanese. This was more than 30 years ago, mind you, but essentially little has changed since then.

You had to live, without interruption, for five years in Japan, be an adult (20 or over) and be able to support yourself and your family. I was OK on the first two but, being a budding author, I could not make any promises on the third, though I wasn't about to confess this to my parents, let alone justice ministry officials. Upon naturalization you would lose your previous citizenship or citizenships; but this was OK with me. I was perfectly happy not to be an American anymore.

After politely explaining the above requirements to me over the phone, the official added, "Of course, you'll have to take on a Japanese name and, when you do become a Japanese, your wife and children automatically become Japanese with you."

These two points gave me a start. I didn't fancy taking on a new name, though at least I would have seen an end to all the people who thought themselves original asking me if I "pulverized" everything. In addition, I couldn't make such a momentous decision for my wife and future children.

I hung up the phone and decided that I wasn't ready to be Japanese. Some months later I was offered a job in Australia. After settling down in Canberra and becoming involved in Australian theater I took the big step and applied for citizenship there. For the last 30 years I've been an Aussie. Now that Australia is turning into a mental colony of the United States, I feel as if I jumped from the fire into the barbie . . . but that's another story.

Millions of people become naturalized. In some sense, it's no big deal. It simply recognizes the reality that you are happier where you are now than where you were before. But not many Americans do it. Most of them seem to think that everyone wants to be an American. To have the luck of being born in the United States and yet give up citizenship is, to them, like getting a glimpse of God and then pretending you're an atheist.

I remember once telling an American lady, who had spent most of her life here in Japan, that I had given up my U.S. citizenship. Her head shook from side to side, then her body trembled as if she were caught in an earthquake. I am not exaggerating.

"I'm sorry, but I would never give up my American citizenship!" she said, barely controlling her anger.

"Hold it," I said. "No one's asking you to do that. I did it, but I am surely not recommending it to anyone else."

Personal affront

She had apparently taken my statement as a personal affront. How dare I cease being an American? It just isn't done!

But to me it was a logical and natural step in a progression begun by my ancestors. My grandparents went from east to west, landing in New York. My parents went west again, from New York to Los Angeles. And I merely continued that migration, leaving Los Angeles and going to Japan, though the hop over the equator to Australia was, admittedly, an unplanned detour.

Despite the last decade having seen a serious retrogression in the quality of social and political life in Australia, with the present Liberal (only in name; they are Cheneylike conservative) government dragging the country back to its racist, provincial and Anglo-elite-ruled roots, I finally felt, when I became Australian, that I was a citizen of a country that wasn't powerful and didn't gloat and lord it over others, preaching its doctrines to all and sundry and forcing its preferences on an increasingly unwilling world.

I was actually not surprised when, in August 1976, I received an envelope from the U.S. Consulate in Sydney. The envelope contained a Loss of Citizenship Certificate, attesting to the fact that I had officially lost my U.S. citizenship.

I immediately sat down at my typewriter and wrote a letter to the consul, thanking him for my official Loss of Citizenship Certificate, adding, "In case of loss of Loss of Citizenship Certificate, am I automatically issued with a replacement?"

In the end I didn't post the letter. English doesn't have a double negative, and I didn't want to cause unnecessary cultural misunderstanding.

I began this article by saying that July 6 marked the day of my independence. But in reality all I did was exchange one kind of dependence for another. My grandparents and parents, so adoring of life in the United States, considered their American citizenship a godsend. They were accepted in America and they felt totally at home there.

I feel the same about my two new countries, Japan and Australia. I became a naturalized Australian but, in my heart, I'm also a Japanese -- whether the Japanese people around me know it or not.



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