Will Naomi Osaka Pick Japanese Citizenship or American? Her Deadline to Choose Is Looming
If anyone can stir Japanese national pride at the moment, it is Naomi Osaka.
The world’s No. 1-ranked player in women’s tennis, Ms. Osaka is among the biggest stars in Japan, splashed across television programs and advertisements for Nissan cars and Citizen watches. As a mixed-race person, she has also helped prompt a discussion about how Japanese see their country.
But a looming deadline — Ms. Osaka’s 22nd birthday in October — has raised the question of whether she can continue to represent Japan on the international tennis circuit, where she has given the country bragging rights on the world sports stage.
Ms. Osaka, whose mother is Japanese and father is Haitian-American, has citizenship in both Japan and the United States. Under Japanese law, dual citizens must choose between the two nationalities by the time they turn 22.
That legal clause has left fans and commentators trying to guess whether Ms. Osaka will pick citizenship in Japan, the country of her birth, or the United States, where she has lived since she was a young child.
The choice facing Ms. Osaka comes as Japan is under pressure to loosen its entrenched insularity. Japan has long prized racial purity, seeing a largely homogeneous population as crucial to social cohesion. But with the country’s population declining and employers increasingly desperate for workers, its legislature passed a law in December to admit more guest workers, starting this month.
Ms. Osaka’s case, along with the new influx of foreigners, could exert new pressure on the government to begin to bring Japanese citizenship laws in line with those in the roughly three-quarters of countries, including the United States, that allow dual citizenship.
For now, though, Ms. Osaka has a decision to make. When asked by reporters which nationality she intended to choose, she responded with trademark feistiness.
“I’m pretty sure it’s obvious,” she said at a news conference following the China Open in October. “I’m playing for Japan. Not to be disrespectful or anything, but I don’t really get where the conclusion that it’s a hard choice for me or anything comes from.”
Still, it might be hard to imagine Ms. Osaka giving up her American citizenship to keep playing under the Japanese flag. And in reality, she may not have to. Legal experts say the Japanese government rarely enforces the law requiring citizens to choose between nationalities.
The Justice Ministry estimates that about 890,000 Japanese citizens may also hold foreign passports, and the government has never revoked Japanese citizenship from anyone who, like Ms. Osaka, was granted citizenship at birth. (Japanese citizens who voluntarily naturalize in another country automatically lose their Japanese citizenship.)
But some analysts warn that because of Ms. Osaka’s celebrity, it would be difficult for the government to quietly give her a pass on dual citizenship.
“I think for the government it is a problem if she openly carries on having two passports,” said Sachiko Horiguchi, associate professor of anthropology at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “Because that means the public would know that the law isn’t really enforced. I don’t think the government wants to admit that or the public to know that.”
Three years ago, when Renho Murata, whose father is from Taiwan, ran as the first woman to lead the opposition Democratic Party, right-wing critics attacked her because she had not formally relinquished her Taiwanese citizenship.
Partly in response to the frenzy over Ms. Murata, Kimi Onoda, a member of Parliament from the governing Liberal Democratic Party who was born in the United States to an American father and a Japanese mother, formally renounced her American citizenship.
Ms. Osaka’s multicultural background has challenged Japan’s notions of national identity, and she has become the most prominent mixed-race and mixed-nationality figure in a country where only one in 50 children born each year has a foreign parent. Though she is not fluent in Japanese, she has captivated the country with her whimsical remarks to the news media, as well as her humility in victory.
Her parents decided when she was young that she and her sister, who also played, would represent Japan, partly because the American tennis federation showed them little attention.
Anticipating Ms. Osaka’s citizenship choice, Michio Ushioda, a former columnist for The Mainichi Shimbun, a daily newspaper, and a professor at Teikyo University in Tokyo, said on Twitter that Japan would fall into a national funk if she elected American citizenship over Japanese.
“The disappointment of the Japanese at that time would be great,” Mr. Ushioda wrote in a tweet that only select followers could view, even suggesting that Japan’s current administration would collapse if Ms. Osaka competed for the United States in the Olympics.
Under International Olympic Committee rules, competitors must be nationals of the countries they represent. Similarly, under International Tennis Federation rules, Ms. Osaka could not play for Japan if she gave up her Japanese citizenship.
Legal experts say Japanese law provides a loophole through which dual citizens can effectively retain both nationalities. The law requires only that a Japanese citizen “endeavor to renounce” foreign nationality, a phrase that can provide just enough wiggle room for citizens to hold on to an extra passport.
“Many people misunderstand the law and feel threatened that they have to choose a nationality,” said Yasuhiro Okuda, a law professor at Chuo University.
Published: 6 April 2019