By Kenzo Hirohashi
Many Japanese people migrate permanently to Taiwan after first moving there for business, studies, or marriage. For these residents, it can be quite a headache to logically decide the status with which they reside in the country.
There’s the option of abandoning one’s citizenship by birth and being naturalized as a local citizen. Many Japanese also undergo the naturalization process in Taiwan. But there is an impression that it’s difficult. At least to my knowledge, many Japanese people prefer switching from a five-year residential visa to an easier-to-get permanent residency permit.
Most Japanese residents in Taiwan who chose not to be naturalized might think, “what is the point of becoming a Taiwanese citizen? Compared to the permanent visa, there are few additional benefits in daily lives aside from being able to vote.”
And they are right. Ｗith my work visas since the 1990s via publishers and language schools and later spouse visa issued after marrying a Taiwanese, I’ve lived in Taiwan for years without feeling the need to apply for naturalization. But after I heard from a friend that “having Taiwanese citizenship is good for receiving social welfare services in old age,” I began to consider naturalization using my 30-year residency in the country.
I was also simply curious about having a Taiwan passport. In addition, with a Taiwan passport, I’ll be able to apply for a “Mainland travel permit for Taiwan residents,” which allows free access to mainland China. I will report on this process on a later day. Moreover, I am excited by the prospect of changing my identity, by getting a yet-to-be-decided Chinese name that is different from my Japanese one.
Regarding the naturalization process, I also found out about the existence of (and sought advice from) the , an organization with a membership of nearly 500 Japanese people residing in Taiwan. But ultimately I decided to apply on my own to show my determination to put down my roots in Taiwan.
The difficulty giving up Japanese citizenship
Being optimistic, I forgot about the fact that Japan does not recognize dual citizenship. This is because I knew Japanese people who hold both Japanese and Taiwanese citizenship, and they took it for granted.
While dual citizenship is recognized by many countries around the world, some countries, including China, Japan, and South Korea, do not recognize them.
Regarding dual citizenship, , a former legislator for the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, came under fire in 2016 for having both Taiwanese and Japanese nationalities. While it may be debatable whether Renho’s case was so significant that it warranted such strong criticism at the time, I think it would have been safer for her to renounce her Taiwanese citizenship as a politician.
But here, we are talking about the citizenship of someone with zero ties to politics. At the district office in Taipei, I was first told to obtain a certificate that I won’t renounce my Japanese nationality.
I thought I just needed to submit a declaration to the district office, stating that I do not intend to give up my Japanese nationality, and get some sort of documentation in Japan to prove it. For some reason, I thought Taiwanese authorities would approve my naturalization application after these steps. It was a misunderstanding.
When I returned to Japan, what I had to do was apply to the Legal Affairs Bureau in Kanagawa Prefecture, where I kept my koseki, to “renounce my Japanese citizenship.”
Wait, isn’t this the process to “return my Japanese citizenship?” I felt uneasy as I had no intention of losing my Japanese citizenship. What if I lose my citizenship once the application is approved? But later I received a Certificate of Not Approving the Renunciation of Citizenship. In other words, my application to renounce my Japanese citizenship wasn’t approved.
While looking at this document, I couldn’t help but think about why such a complicated process was necessary. But upon second thought, it dawned on me that the convoluted procedure might have something to do with the “special relationship” between Japan and Taiwan.
Complicated relationship between Japan and Taiwan
This is the deal. The Japanese government does not recognize dual citizenship. To obtain foreign citizenship, one has to renounce Japanese citizenship before going through the naturalization process in another country. But after the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and China in 1972, official diplomatic relations no longer exist between Japan and Taiwan. While I wanted to get naturalized in Taiwan, the Japanese government wasn’t responsible and thus couldn’t approve my application for renunciation.
Because district offices are responsible for processing these documents, there may be an implicit understanding between Taiwan and Japan in practical terms. To correctly interpret the words of the district office in Taipei, a member of the staff at the office asked me to “get a Certificate of Not Approving the Renunciation of Citizenship, so once you bring that back to Taiwan, we can proceed with the naturalization process.”
Japan’s Ministry of Legal Affairs issues this certificate as a matter of formality with an official stamp. But I couldn’t help but think about how inefficient it was that I had to travel to Japan and visit various government agencies just for a three-line explanation of non-acceptance from the head of the Bureau of Legal Affairs in Yokohama.
Here come fake marriage investigators
At the end of 2021, after finishing a two-week Covid-19 quarantine, I was finally free and the first place I headed to was the district office in Taipei. I brought the Certificate of Not Approving the Renunciation of Citizenship, completed the necessary paperwork, and was scheduled to take a written test.
I wasn’t too worried about the exam since I had read the cheat sheet from a friend who had taken the exam; the district office also provides study materials. The test tests the knowledge necessary for living in Taiwan and includes questions like“what is the helpline number for domestic violence victims.”
The result was I passed the exam with a score of 90, but for those who lack confidence in passing it, there’s also a course available that provides six months of Chinese language classes at an elementary school.
We Japanese might be able to pass a simple test written in Chinese. But when we think about it, Southeast Asian immigrants like Vietnamese wives or Filipino helpers might not have properly learned kanji. They are surely not good at tests with rows of characters. It’s reasonable that these people are offered a six-month elementary school course.
Four days after my application, I received a call from the district office and was informed that my naturalization application had been approved without any issues.
When I received the notification, the staff told me that “an immigration officer will visit your home, so please wait for further contact.” After a while, there was a call from the immigration office saying “we will visit your home tomorrow morning if you are available.”
Two young men in casual clothes showed up. They said they came on behalf of the immigration office, but if they weren’t wearing a badge with the logo of the office, I would have thought they were college students on some kind of training.
They went around the home taking pictures. “Please allow us to take photos of your bedroom,” they said. “Please,” I said. I was asked to show the pictures of my wife on my smartphone, and I generously complied with the request in a friendly mood. But it seemed that the main purpose was to check whether it was a marriage of convenience or not. “Mr. Hirohashi is Japanese, so please just think of this as a formality,” they said upon their departure.
I felt skeptical about the meticulous investigation at home in this age of strong privacy protection, but I strangely understood that it was how immigration checks work. I came to realize my identity as an immigrant after experiencing these unexpected events, though I’ve lived in Taipei for more than 30 years.
Two years on a temporary ID
After about three months, the next step was to receive the Certificate of Naturalization Approval issued by the Ministry of Interior, which has the authority to issue identification cards. After receiving the certificate, you bring it to the immigration office and exchange your permanent residency permit for a Taiwan Resident Certificate. But this is not a regular ID but a provisional one like a learner’s permit for a driver’s license (karimen, 仮免) in Japan.
This identification is just a temporary measure. There are instructions indicating that it’s valid for three years and, unlike the previous resident certificates, the new card states that I have “no household registration” in the country.
Without household registration, I cannot vote and receive services from national and local governments. Being without household registration leaves me in a somewhat incomplete status as a citizen.
According to regulations, if you don’t travel abroad within one year after receiving a “provisional certificate”, you will be granted permission to obtain your official ID from the Ministry of Interior as if to say “thank you for your loyalty to Taiwan for a year and your hard work.”If you travel abroad during the year – even though leaving Taiwan for less than 90 days in a year is allowed –, the approval would be delayed for a year as if to say, “It seems like you still have attachments to foreign countries. Please try harder for another year.” If you are absent from Taiwan for more than 90 days, there is a possibility that your application will be rejected. There is a regulation that requires you to serve (?!) as a citizen in society for a certain time in Taiwan.
So, it is not a lie that an official ID is more difficult to obtain than a permanent residency permit.
In contrast to the process to obtain the ID, which includes complicated procedures in Japan and 1 to 2 years of waiting in Taiwan, getting a permanent residency permit is simple, involving only updating the card when renewing the passport. (Hong Kong residents may be treated as compatriots and issued identification cards in a short time)
Together with the energetic Taiwanese people
At the age of 60, I experienced a slight change in mindset when I tried to go through such a troublesome procedure. I was born in Japan and have spent 33 years living in Taiwan. During this time, I returned to Japan once or twice a year and felt like a guest when I visited my family. It is almost like I was on a sightseeing trip.
Most Japanese people living in Taiwan now might think, “I will return to Japan one day” and do not question their status as foreigners. But for those of us who have put down deep roots in Taiwan, including me, we have no intention of making Japan our final resting place, nor do we have a belief that we must stay in Taiwan.
Either way, for these 30 years, I’ve assimilated into Taiwanese culture mentally, and my behavior already makes me appear as if I’m no longer Japanese, as those around me seem to think.
At this point, one could say that I’ve decided to rely on my Taiwanese family and live as I have married in Taiwan. And I’ve resolved to entrust the last period of my life to the authorities and social system of Taiwan, as well as my friends in Taiwan.
Let me tell you something good about family relationships in Taiwanese society. First of all, Taiwanese families maintain strong traditional bonds. They often gather together for family events and care for elderly members of the family. The majority of caregiving systems are internal to the family
Furthermore, Taiwanese people are international, running businesses in mainland China and migrating to the United States, Japan, and Southeast Asia. They use their family network to share information all around the world. I benefit from this network and can be active by maintaining close contact with Taiwanese compatriots rooted in various places. When I think about this aspect of Taiwan, I strongly feel this is something that Japan, with its fragile mentality and vitality, and tendency to be inward-focused, lacks.
Amid changing lifestyles and attitudes toward life during Covid-19, an increasing number of Japanese people are breaking out of their shells and seeking opportunities abroad. While I cannot say I’m a pioneer, I hope my personal experiences could serve as guidelines for those seeking to move abroad. In a world with little information on immigration, including to Taiwan, I hope I can help others migrate more smoothly. (To be continued)
This article originally appeared in The News Lens Japanese edition. Translation is by Xiaochen Su.
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