The notion of citizenship in Japan

by Kentaro Sakamoto

Citizenship is a proof to show a person’s belonging to a certain community. Usually the community is a nation, or at least some sort of political community formed in a certain location. (n.d.) defines citizenship as “the character of an individual viewed as a member of society; behavior in terms of the duties, obligations, and functions of a citizen” (“Citizenship”). This definition makes us believe that one is accepted as a member of the society as long as he/she holds a citizenship of that community. However, the reality is different in many countries including Japan. Even if you have a Japanese citizenship, people often regard you as a foreigner as long as your appearance is different from an ‘average’ Japanese person or if you do not follow an ‘average’ Japanese cultural lifestyle. This is making harder for those who look ‘non-Japanese’ to incorporate into the society even when they have the citizenship of Japan. To know why this happens, understanding the modern history of Japan is important.

Since the Meiji Restoration, when Japan tore down the Samurai regime and started modernizing the society under a strong central government, the government worked hard to create an ethnic-based nation state by spreading the myth of ‘Japan as a mono-cultural, mono-ethnic society’ (Oguma, 1995). By giving people a common understanding of Japanese history and teaching them to speak the ‘common Japanese language’ which was created based on the Yamanote dialect, the central government succeeded to make the majority of Japanese people believe that Japan has been a homogenous country throughout the history (Ibid). The diversity represented by Ainu People and Okinawan people was denied, and they were force to assimilate into the Japanese society. Even when Japan started expanding its territory to overseas, it tried to assimilate people from its colonies in various ways. One example is claiming Japanese and Koreans have the same origin, implying Koreans to follow the Japanese way as ‘Japanese people’ (Kim, n.d.). After World War 2, this idea of homogenous Japanese society was even strengthened as Japan lost its territory overseas which resulted in having less diversity. Historically, having the citizenship of Japan did not merely meant having a legal contract with the Japanese government, but it also meant integrating to the Japanese society culturally.

However, Japan is becoming diverse. The number of international marriages is increasing which is making the so-called ‘hafu’ (a term described to use a person born between a Japanese parent and a foreign parent) people more and more visible to the society (Yamashita, 2013). Having Japanese citizenship does not automatically mean you look Japanese, speak Japanese, and follow Japanese lifestyle anymore. However, the myth of homogenous society is still dominating Japan so strongly that it seems like it will take more than decades for Japan to become a multicultural society where people do not automatically assume someone as a foreigner just because of the way he/she looks, or how he/she acts. While there are movements trying to create a multicultural society to accept hafus and other minorities, people from younger generations are tilting to the right influenced by the media, especially internet websites stirring up ill feelings against minority and foreign people. They often believe that Japan should be a nation only for Japanese, but their notion of ‘Japanese’ usually do not include those who do not look Japanese and do not follow the typical Japanese lifestyle, regardless of the possession of Japanese citizenship. What makes it harder for them to accept multiculturalism is news from European countries telling the ‘fail of multiculturalism’, represented by the 2011 England riots.

Then, what is the solution? How can Japan become a more open society? How can it change the notion of citizenship? It is very difficult to find the answer, but one way is to wipe away the negative images towards multiculturalism. What is not introduced about multiculturalism in Japan is how it has contributed to the economy of countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Canada, the United States, and Australia. By giving immigrants citizenship, the government can collect more taxes which can become a solution for the collapsing national pension system due to the rapid growth of the population of old people. It can solve depopulation in rural areas. It can increase workers in farming and fishing industries which are facing serious problems because of the lack of young labors. Many of these difficult issues that appear to be insoluble can be solve by giving immigrants Japanese citizenships, changing the notion of citizenship to a thing that is given to everyone who helps forming the community in Japan, and creating a diverse society accepting different people.


Citizenship. (n.d.). In Unabridged. Retrieved May 09, 2013, from

Kim, M. S. (n.d.). Koukoku shikan to kouminka seisaku [Emperor-centered historiography and Japanization]. Retrieved May 09, 2013, from

Oguma, E. (1995). Tannitsu minzoku shinwa no kigen: Nihonjin no jigazou no keihu [The origin of mono-ethnic myth in Japan: The history of a Japanese self-portrait]. Tokyo: Shinyosha

Yamashita, M. (2013, April 11). 30 nin ni hitori ga hafu no jidai: Tachihadakaru bunka no kabe wo dou norikoeruka [An age that one in 30 children are hafu: How to overcome cultural barriers]. Wedge Infinity. Retrieved May 09, 2013, from

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