When Yuki Shiraishi passes through immigration at one of Tokyo’s airports, 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.
Shiraishi is one of an estimated 1 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 US.
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.
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.
She was born and raised in Switzerland, her parents working for the UN and the UN 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 realized 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 said.
She went to the consulate and describes a sad experience of feeling thrown out by her own country.
“I realized 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 said.
What really stung was when her name was transformed for official purposes from the traditional kanji characters to a Western-style alphabet.
“I pretended that it was just an administrative thing, but in fact, it really hurt,” she said.
Hitoshi Nogawa, who is also suing the government, lost his Japanese nationality after gaining a Swiss passport and blasted what he said 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,” the 75-year-old said.
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 Japanese Ministry of Justice declined to comment on the specific case “because it could interfere” with the legal procedure.
However, authorities said 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.
However, in practice the justice ministry has never sent such a demand.
It said that it was aware of 900,000 people with dual nationality between 1985 and 2016, but the actual figure could be bigger or smaller.
For Shiki Tomimasu, the attorney in charge of the suit, that 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 realize,” Tomimasu said.
Japan is one of about 50 countries in the world that allow only one nationality. In Asia, China and South Korea also impose such a law.
Atsushi Kondo, a law professor at the University of Meijo, near Nagoya in western Japan, said that there is one main reason the government is unwilling to change the law.
“The majority of the population want Japan to remain a country of one people and perhaps linked to that is the idea that we do not want to become a country of immigration,” Kondo said.
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