Naomi Osaka is the toast of Japan after winning the Australian Open last weekend and becoming the first Japanese player to be ranked No. 1 in the world. However, she faces an awkward deadline.
Japan’s Nationality Law requires Japanese who have additional citizenships to choose one when they turn 22. Osaka, who holds both US and Japanese passports, reaches that age later this year.
Though Japan has rarely enforced the rule, Osaka’s celebrity status poses a challenge to a nation historically obsessed with national and ethnic identity. She most likely will not be able to dodge the decision.
Her dilemma is hardly unique in Asia. While many other parts of the world have been opening up to the benefits of dual-nationality, Asia’s wealthiest and most populous economies — including Singapore and China — have stubbornly resisted doing the same.
It might be time to rethink that opposition. Nations that welcome dual citizens are magnets for globalized talent and capital — two things Asia’s aging societies are increasingly going to need if they want to remain vibrant and growing.
Historically, citizenship was viewed as a kind of exclusive relationship, permanently committing the individual to the nation. In cases of international marriage and children, citizenship was typically assigned on the basis of the husband’s and father’s citizenship.
This could have ugly consequences: As recently as the 20th century, American women who married Chinese, Philippine or Japanese nationals automatically forfeited their US citizenship in favor of their husband’s. As of 1960, more than half of the world’s nations stripped nationality from anyone who voluntarily adopted the citizenship of another nation.
This conception of citizenship began to erode after World War II. As cross-border marriages became more common, many nations chose to accept multiple citizenships without legal consequence.
Today, three-quarters of the world’s nations allow their citizens to acquire a second citizenship without automatic repercussions.
In some cases, particularly nations with large diaspora populations, the process is even encouraged.
In December last year, Lesotho amended its constitution to allow for dual citizenship, hoping to reverse decades of brain drain and lure home native-born nationals who lost citizenship when they acquired overseas passports.
Similarly, in 2016, Mexico — which for decades opposed dual citizenship — began actively encouraging Mexicans who legally reside in the US to acquire US citizenship. The goals are several, including a desire to see Mexican-Americans more active in US civic life, ensure that their legal interests are protected in the US (especially in the current anti-immigrant climate) and facilitate US investment in Mexico.
These are more than just hopes. Academic studies suggest that nations that recognize dual nationalities enjoy greater rates of return migration and overseas remittances than those that do not.
Equally important, at least one study demonstrated that citizens who are forced to choose often renounce their original nationality, particularly if, as in the case of China, citizenship rights might be viewed as insufficient compared with other nations.
Meanwhile, another study suggested that selective programs (recognizing dual citizens from certain nations only) can be an effective means of attracting targeted talent and demographics.
It is no surprise then that several Asian governments have changed longstanding policies on dual citizenship in hopes of accruing these benefits, including South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines.
However, elsewhere in the region progress has stalled for a range of reasons, including security concerns (India and China), fragile senses of national identity (Singapore and Malaysia), and concerns about ethnic purity (Japan).
Several of these nations, including India and China, have been afflicted by damaging brain drains: Allowing dual citizenship might attract at least some expatriates to come home to work.
For more developed economies such as Japan and Singapore, dual citizenship can serve as an added incentive as companies compete for an increasingly globalized talent pool. It might also provide a small, but not insignificant bulwark against aging and shrinking populations.
The Japanese Ministry of Justice estimates that there are about 890,000 Japanese dual nationals, including individuals assumed to have multiple nationalities based on birth to non-Japanese parents. Osaka, the nation’s current darling, is one of them.
Rather than force her to choose her identity or — worse — remain in the legal shadows, maybe it is time for Japan and other Asian nations to recognize her and her compatriots as representatives of the region’s globalized future.
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