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'Cut away': Dual nationals feel cast adrift in Japan

Tennis star Naomi Osaka has dual citizenship but will technically have to decide by her 22nd birthday which flag to play under.


WHEN Yuki Shiraishi passes through immigration at Tokyo airport, she is hit with a wave of shame and embarrassment. While her parents whizz through the line for Japanese nationals, she is stuck with the foreigners, surreptitiously trying to hide her Swiss passport.

Ms Shiraishi is one of an estimated million citizens forced to give up their Japanese nationality when they became dual nationals.

The issue was thrust into the spotlight when tennis star Naomi Osaka won the US Open. The 21-year-old has a Japanese mother, a Haitian father and was born in Japan but raised in the United States. She has dual citizenship but will technically have to decide by her 22nd birthday which flag to play under, unless Japanese authorities turn a blind eye to a special case.

Ms Shiraishi, now 34, is battling for change. With a group of others, she filed a suit this year against the Japanese government in a bid to reform what critics see as an antiquated and obsolete system.

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She was born and raised in Switzerland, her parents working for the UN and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Shortly before she turned 16, she took her parents' advice and obtained Swiss nationality to facilitate day-to-day administrative issues. It was only when she returned to Japan, six years later, that she realised what that decision meant.

Her father, a lawyer, advised her to return her Japanese passport. "For him, there was no question of me living 'hidden', residing against Japanese laws by holding two passports in secret." She went to the consulate and describes a sad experience of feeling thrown out by her own country. "I realised that, without any reason, I was being rejected. I was being cut away from my country even though I was born with a Japanese passport, my two parents are Japanese and I still have very close ties with Japan," she explained.

What really stung was when her name was transformed for official purposes from the traditional kanji letters to a Western-style alphabet. "I pretended that it was just an administrative thing. But in fact, it really hurt," she added.

Hitoshi Nogawa, who is also suing the government, lost his Japanese nationality after gaining a Swiss passport and blasts what he says is a law stuck in the past. "Japan was closed off to other countries for around 250 years and the lawmakers at the time never imagined that Japanese people would one day go to work abroad," said the 75-year-old.

Ms Shiraishi said the law is "absurd" and has "stripped me of my nationality without my consent". "I am Japanese and Swiss, like a child who sticks to two parents, not just one of them," she said.

The relevant department in the justice ministry declined to comment on the specific case "because it could interfere" with the legal procedure. But authorities recalled that the law cuts both ways - it also allows people the freedom to give up their Japanese nationality if they choose.

According to the letter of the law, anyone who has not chosen either way within the period prescribed is required to make a decision within a month or they are stripped of their nationality. In practice, though, the justice ministry has never sent such a demand. It says it was aware of 900,000 people with dual nationality between 1985 and 2016.

For Shiki Tomimasu, the attorney in charge of the suit, this makes the law all the more ridiculous. "Everything rests on a personal declaration so unless an individual admits to having dual nationality, the government will never realise." Japan is one of around 50 countries in the world that allows only one nationality. AFP

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