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Dual Nationality in Japan: Learning to Love Ambiguity

SNA (Kyoto) — Dual nationality is the predicament or privilege of most of the growing population called haafu. Words like haafu represent a vague image in Japanese minds. Much confusion has been perpetuated by taking Japanese words literally as translated into English. Haafu are numerous among celebrities as well as athletes. With their contributions to society they are expanding what it means to be Japanese.

The image that the word haafu evokes to Japanese is an attractive combination of the exotic and the familiar. It normally does not imply a deficit or mean “half” in a derogatory sense. Most of those who fit the image are insiders to Japanese society who do not mind referring to themselves as haafu. They are generally treated as fellow Japanese plus alpha, sometimes useful as bridge persons to make the outside world approachable.

While mainstream Japanese people tend to constrain each other and abnegate themselves, those higher up in the traditional hierarchy have always enjoyed more indulgence. This freedom can also accrue to those who are different yet collectively granted a positive image. Kansai University sociologist Chie Sakai, who researches Japanese women working abroad independently, summed up this phenomenon as follows: Without excusing negative or positive discrimination, she said that “to be different in Japan is a privilege.”

Tennis champion Naomi Osaka has opened many hearts, expanding the image of haafu and the definition of being Japanese. Although raised abroad and limited in the language, her gestures and behavior have been recognized as distinctively Japanese. The people of Japan like a winner, while an approachable and gracious personality can be more important than skin color. To associate her with the city of Osaka, however, is fodder for humor, because her surname is just a homonym and actually written differently.

The perennially ambiguous dual nationality issue is about to explode into the open. This is because, according to the letter of the law, dual nationals have to choose one nationality by age 22, and Naomi Osaka will turn 22 in October 2019. She has stated that she will play for Japan in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But since she became a champion, the United States, where she was raised, may enter into a tug of war with Japan for her allegiance, which could be profoundly distracting to her tennis game. Japanese commentators have already warned of dire consequences for the government if she were to abandon Japan.

Much ink will be spilled over the drama, but basic misunderstandings will probably remain. This again illustrates that Japan cannot be understood by taking language literally. The law on the books has never been enforced, and young haafu in Japan have never been penalized for keeping both nationalities.

For decades this ambiguity has served everyone well. Among developed governments for instance, the United States and especially Japan with its imploding demographics do not want to lose a large number of their young dual national residents by forcing them to choose. Even if one government were to take action, nations do not recognize or abide by each other’s nationality laws.

The problem is that the law has been smoked out by the publicity surrounding public figures. It first surfaced when the political leader Renho was not forthright about her Taiwanese-Japanese dual nationality, given the strong sense that government employees must be unequivocally Japanese. The dual nationality issue thus surfaced in a negative light, a setback for the hitherto positive image of haafu in Japan.

Some spouses of Japanese welcome the issue surfacing in the hope that dual nationality will become officially recognized, but it is too complex, controversial, and hence politically impossible. Shattering the ambiguity would be harmful to the haafu, who would be forced to make the unnatural decision of which side of themselves to identify with, needlessly distancing themselves from one parent and culture, and losing the full benefits of being both.

International sports are no better in a sense than national politics for solving the dual nationality issue, as athletes have to choose one nation to represent. A zero-sum game involving high-stakes competition must have losers as well as winners.

In fact, Japan is already feeling the sting of loss resulting from such a forced choice. A haafu superstar in skateboarding and on YouTube, ten-year-old Sky Brown, has elected to represent the United Kingdom in the Olympics, despite her having been raised in the country where the Olympics will be held. This is liable to only raise the pressure on Naomi Osaka.

Tens of millions of people on each side tug on such athletes with conditional love, pining to identify with them but ready to oppose them before the events even begin. Then according to the competition results, the collective emotions of fans fuel either great glory or great disappointment in their athletes.

The haafu gladiators, however, simply dramatize the limited social evolution that denies the fullness of bicultural identity and the double benefits that they could contribute, if only clad in legal ambiguity.

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