History of Japanese nationality

History of Japanese nationality

=The Nation in Pre-modern Japan=

The history of Japanese nationality as a set of practices begins in the mid-nineteenth century, as Japan opened diplomatic relations with the west and a modern nation state was established through the Meiji Restoration. Until then, ordinary people in Japan, though nominally subjects of the emperor were, for all practical purposes, subject to the authority of the daimyō in whose domain they lived. Even though there was no pre-modern Japanese nationality in a practical sense, the idea of Japan as a nation was a topic for scholarly inquiry for much of the Tokugawa period. Scholarly formulations of Japanese nationhood--notably those of the kokugaku school and late Mito school--exerted considerable influence on both Japanese nationalism and the practice of Japanese nationality in the Meiji period. [Susan L. Burns, "Before the Nation: Kokugaku and the Imagining of Community in Early Modern Japan" (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003) 5, 187-219; on the late Mito school, see Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, "Anti-Foreignism and Western Learning in Early-Modern Japan: the New Theses of 1825" (Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1986) 8-16, 141-144. ]

Nationality Practices Initiated in Meiji Japan

Nationality practices during the first decades of the Meiji government were shaped by pressure to conform to western norms. Meiji oligarchs saw adopting the technology and institutions of western powers not only as essential to regaining sovereignty rights lost in the unequal treaties but also as an effective means of national strengthening. Like the reforms of other modernizing states, the legal and institutional changes of the early Meiji period involved rationalizing the population, making the relationship between the individual and the state more direct, and codifying the rights and obligations associated with that relationship. By the late 1880s, Japanese leaders were increasingly preoccupied with the idea of cultivating a distinctive sense of the nation, or kokutai (国体) among Japanese subjects. This goal led to the emergence of new nationality practices--such as compulsory education, elections, and voluntary organizations--which, unlike earlier reforms based on borrowing from western models, were strongly shaped by the emerging ideology of Japanese nationalism.

The following is a list of nationality practices initiated during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Though these practices and the ideology that informed them changed over the course of the Meiji period and subsequent decades, they remained the core of Japanese nationality practice through World War II.

Legal Practices

As part of its modernizing program, the Meiji state replaced the feudal class system with a much simpler set of status distinctions. In 1872, the koseki (), or family registry, system was established, requiring each family to register with the local government and notify authorities of births, marriages, adoptions, divorces, and deaths in the household. The implementation of the koseki system meant that all families adopted a family name, a privilege which had previously been reserved for the warrior class. Members of the burakumin (), or outcaste group, were legally emancipated in 1871. This made their legal status equal to other commoners (heimin 平民), though the koseki of former burakumin families retained a record of that status, facilitating de facto discrimination. [Babu Gogineni, "The Buraku People of Japan," (International Humanist and Ethical Union, 2006), [http://www.iheu.org/node/2453] ] On the other end of the social hierarchy, the status of samurai was gradually phased out. Samurai stipends were commuted into government bonds in 1872 and former members of samurai households became commoners. A small peerage, modeled on the British Peerage, was created from a combination of court nobles (kuge 公家) and former daimyō. Its members received a small stipend and, after 1899, were eligible to sit in the Upper House of the Diet.

Changes in personal status law were accompanied by the promulgation of comprehensive new law codes. A Criminal Code, (1882) Civil Code (1898), and Commercial Code (1890), were drafted with the cooperation of foreign experts. These legal codes are a clear example of the effect of the effort to revise unequal treaties on nationality practice in Meiji Japan. Because removing extraterritoriality provisions required convincing western powers that Japanese courts met modern standards, Meiji leaders moved quickly to implement a western-style legal system. This meant that being governed by western style laws--applied uniformly throughout the nation--became part of being a subject of the new Japanese nation-state. The Meiji-era legal codes remained the basis of Japanese law until the end of World War II.

Obligations to the State

The principle obligations associated with being a subject of the Japanese state were payment of taxes and, for men, military service.

The Land Tax Reform (地租改正) of 1873 established a system of private land ownership and instituted monetary taxation. As a result, payment of taxes became linked to one's individual status as a subject of the Japanese nation-state and was no longer a function of feudal status or place of residence. [Marius B. Jansen "The Making of Modern Japan" (Cambridge, Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2000), 366-67.] Under the Meiji Constitution, direct payment of taxes to the national government became the basis for political participation at the national level.

The Conscription Act (1873) was part of a sweeping military reform, replacing the independent samurai armies of the feudal domains with a national conscript army. Reporting for the conscription exam at age twenty became a common experience for all Japanese men and military training exposed young men to nationalist ideology. Initially, about 5 percent of eligible men were drafted, serving four years active duty and three years in the reserves. During the First Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War, conscription rates rose to about 10 percent. [Jansen 336, 421.] Military conscription rates were extremely high during the Second World War.

Political Rights

The Meiji Constitution (1890) outlined a limited set of political rights. Men who paid 15 yen in annual taxes to the national government had the right to vote in elections for the Lower House of the Diet, making just over 1 percent of the population eligible to vote in the first national election in 1890. In 1900, the property qualification was lowered. [Jansen 415, 447; Carol Gluck, "Japan's Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 67.] In 1925 the General Election Law (普通選挙法) extended the franchise to all men aged 25 or older. In the 1920s, there was a movement for women's suffrage. Proposals to extend suffrage and other political rights to women were debated in the Lower House of the Diet, but failed to become law.

Political rights were most important during the period of Taishō Democracy. Yet, even during this decade of flourishing political parties, the importance of political rights for ordinary people was muted by the dominant role of non-elected groups in Japanese politics. The significance of voting rights was also limited by a series of increasingly represive Peace Preservation laws designed to mitigate the potentially destabalizing effects of popular party politics and prevent the spread of leftist ideologies.


The most significant aspect of education as nationality practice in this period is the advent of compulsory primary education. Universal primary education was first articulated as a state goal in the Education Act of 1872. Since much of the responsibility for funding the new schools fell on local governments, its implementation was uneven. Nevertheless, the school system expanded rapidly. The vast majority of Japanese children could expect to attend four years of primary school by the turn of the century. Initially, national education policy was focused on practical goals and had minimal ideological content. In the 1880s, however, anxiety about over-enthusiastic westernization mounted and the need to educate subjects who would be enfranchised by the awaited constitution became apparent. These concerns spurred debate about how the education system should promote moral conduct and strengthen national sentiment. The key document in this respect is the Imperial Rescript on Education (1882). [Gluck 109-127. ]

A system of higher education was also established. State-sponsored ryuugakusei were an important part of the Meiji modernization program.

Voluntary Associations

The government fostered the development of an expanding number of voluntary associations which acted as channels through which ordinary people were exposed to nationalist ideology. Organize, indoctrinate, and mobilize various sectors of the population, including students, wives and mothers, and Shinto priests. [Gluck, 10-13, 197-198. ]

Travel and Emigration

Nationality Practice and Territorial Expansion, 1874-1945

Previous sections of this article deal with nationality practice in Japan without reference to the fact that the boundaries of Japan were changing during the period discussed. This section addresses nationality practices in Japanese-controlled territory in light of this fact. During the period of imperialist expansion, the term "naichi" (内地), or home territory, was used to distinguish Japan proper from its colonies. Though, historically, its exact meaning varied, this section uses it in its narrowest sense, to refer to Honshū, Shikoku and Kyūshū.


Until the late 19th century, both Qing China and the Satsuma Domain had claimed the Ryūkyū Kingdom as a tributary state. In the 1870s, the Japanese government maneuvered to establish direct sovereignty over the Ryūkyū Islands. As part of a settlement with Qing government after the 1874 Japanese incursion into Taiwan, the Qing government renounced its claims, clearing the way for direct Japanese rule. The Ryūkyū King Shō Tai was declared a vassal of the Meiji court and his kingdom designated Okinawa-han (沖縄藩), or the feudal domain of Okinawa. [Note that feudal domains had been abolished in the rest of Japan the previous year, see Abolition of the han system] During the first years of Japanese control, King Shō Tai retained nominal authority, but Okinawa was largely ruled by the Naimushō office in Naha. In 1879, the Japanese government tightened control over Okinawa, forcing the King to withdraw and declaring Okinawa a prefecture (Okinawa-ken 沖縄県). [George H. Kerr, "Okinawa: The History of an Island People", (Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2000) 363-352. ]

Concerned about resistance from local elites, Japanese administrators moved gradually in implementing modernizing reforms. The standardization of household registration and the abolition of noble status occurred early on, followed by the extension of Japanese criminal law to Okinawa by 1880. Land reform was completed in 1903, ending communal tenure and establishing a system of direct land taxes paid in cash. The Conscription Law was applied to Okinawa in 1898. Political rights available to subjects in naichi prefectures were eventually extended to Okinawans. By 1920, Okinawans were represented in the Diet on the same basis as naichi Japanese. beginning in the 1880s, the prefectural government also attempted to increase attendance in primary schools and participation in nationally organized voluntary associations, but the spread of these heavily ideological nationality practices was relatively slow. The spread of these practices was part of a trend towards cultural assimilation to Japanese norms. Partly as a result of government policies, many Okinawans abandoned traditional cultural practices and the Ryūkyū language. [Kerr 393-397; 400-401; 413-415; 424-429; 460.]

Though this process in many ways resembled the modernizing and centralizing reforms affecting nationality practice in naichi prefectures, in Okinawa it had a distinct colonial dynamic. The bureaucracy and the police in Okinawa were initially staffed almost exclusively by migrants from naichi Japan. Naichi Japanese in Okinawa enjoyed privileged access to jobs and business opportunities, while Okinawans-by-birth suffered discrimination based on a perception of ethnic and cultural inferiority. [Kerr 393. ]

After initial travel restrictions were lifted, a significant number of Okinawans migrated to the main islands of Japan, where they tended to assimilate into local society, often encountering less discrimination than at home. [ Kerr, travel restrictions 375, 378; migrants to Japan 442. ] Japanese nationality status gave Okinawan emigrants access to the protection of the Japanese government when abroad and to preferential treatment as settler colonists within the Japanese empire. In practice, Okinawan emigrants experienced discrimination in areas where naichi Japanese immigrants had already settled. For this reason they tended to form distinct communities overseas. By 1938, more than 70,000 Okinawans had emigrated outside the Japanese empire, principally to Hawai'i, South America and the Philippines. By 1945, more than 50,000 Okinawans had migrated to other parts of the Japanese empire, notably to Nan'yōchō. [Yoko Sellek, "Migration and the Nation-State: Structural Explanations for Emigration from Okinawa," In "Japan and Okinawa: Structure and Subjectivity," Glenn D. Hook and Richard Siddle (London: Routledge Curzon 2003)79-81. See also Tomiyama Ichirō, "The "Japanese" of Micronesia: Okinawans in the Nan'yō Islands," In "Okinawan Diaspora," ed. Ronald Y. Nakasone, (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002), 57-70, and Edith M. Kaneshiro, ""The Other Japanese:" Okinawan Immigrants to the Philippines, 1903-1941," in ibid. 71-89.]


Before 1855, Hokkaidō was loosely integrated into the Tokugawa state through the Matsumae domain. In 1855, concerned about military threat from Russia, the bakufu assumed direct control, but its authority remained weak and had relatively little effect on the native Ainu population. After the Meiji Restoration, the new government established the Hokkaidō Colonization Commission (北海道開拓使) to administer its northern territories. The Colonization Commission and its successors promoted economic development and encouraged immigration from naichi Japan. Early settlement schemes were unsuccessful, but beginning in the 1890s, generous land grant policies attracted tens of thousands of settlers each year. [Richard Siddle, "Race, Resistance and the Ainu of Japan", (London: Routledge-Curzon, 1996), 52-59.]

The government also launched an aggressive assimilation effort directed at the Ainu population, an effort Richard Siddle characterizes as "a series of policies that attempted to turn the Ainu into productive Japanese citizens, but actually served to emphasise their inequality and subordination to the state." [Siddle, 63] In 1875, Ainu were granted legal status as commoners, subject to the same laws as naichi Japanese. As with the burakumin, the government maintained separate records of their former status. As areas of naichi Japanese settlement expanded, Ainu were increasingly subject to forced relocation. Traditional hunting techniques, as well as cultural practices such as tattooing and ear piercing, were legally banned. [Siddle 61-63. ] In 1899, the Hokkaidō Former Natives Protection Act was passed. It established a separate and compulsory school system, a program of land grants designed to encourage Ainu to adopt agriculture, and provided some welfare benefits. Education in Ainu schools promoted cultural assimilation, including adopting the nationality practices of imperial Japan, such as joining nationally organized voluntary associations and serving in the military. [Siddle 70-73.] The Ainu school system was abolished in 1927.


Nationality practices in Karafuto, under joint Russian and Japanese control 1867-1875, and Japanese rule 1905-1945, were similar to those in Hokkaidō in that the Japanese administration pursued a policy of promoting economic development and settlement by naichi Japanese. The population of Ainu and other indigenous people [See Oroks and Nivkhs.] was very small in Karafuto. As in Hokkaidō, Ainu and indigenous people were forcibly resettled and subjected to a program of assimilation. [On sovereignty, Siddle 53-4, 73-4; On policy towards Ainu and indigenous people, Siddle 66 and Tessa Morris-Suzuki, "Northern Lights: The Making and Unmaking of Karafuto Identity," "The Journal of Asian Studies" 60:3 (2001), 659.]

Some nationality issues arose out of complications related to changes in sovereignty in the nineteenth century. For example, the status of Japanese and Ainu who had remained in Karafuto during the period of Russian rule between 1875 and 1905 was ambiguous. In some cases, these people were treated as Russian nationals. [Siddle 63-4; Morris-Suzuki 659.] The other distinctive feature of nationality practice in Karafuto was immigration policy. Though the immigration of unskilled laborers was illegal in the rest of Japan, several thousand Chinese coolies were recruited to work as temporary migrant laborers in Karafuto between 1909 and 1927. After 1927, they were replaced by migrants from Korea. By 1945, more than 50,000 Koreans--under varying degrees of coercion--had migrated to Karafuto. [Morris-Suzuki 663.]


Japan annexed Taiwan in 1895 after the First Sino-Japanese War. Residents of Taiwan became subjects of Japan, but did not have the same status, rights and obligations as Japanese from the home islands. [See also .]


After decades of intervention in Korean affairs, Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910. Annexation meant that Koreans became subjects of the Japanese Emperor and were considered Japanese nationals by the Japanese government. Despite this seemingly equal status, colonial policy facilitated differential treatment of Koreans.Fact|date=March 2008 At the same time, it constituted an increasingly coercive program of assimilation into the Japanese state and Japanese cultural norms.Fact|date=March 2008

The Sōshi-kaimei (創氏改名) laws established a Japanese-style family registry in Korea, forcing Koreans to adopt Japanese naming conventions. This system was separate from the Japanese koseki system and it was illegal to move registration records between the two systems, thus preserving a legal difference between Koreans and naichi Japanese regardless of place of residence. [Sonia Ryang, "Introduction: Resident Koreans in Japan," "Notes from Koreans in Japan: Critical Voices from the Margin", ed. Sonia Ryang (London: Routledge, 2000), 4.] Naichi Japanese in Korea had privileged access to economic and educational resources. They retained rights and obligations, such as the vote and military service, that they had in naichi Japan. Because Korea was administered through the Government General of Korea, the laws issued by the Government General, rather than those of naichi Japan, determined the rights and obligations of Koreans to the state. The education system promoted cultural assimilation of Koreans--both in its content and its use of Japanese as the primary language of instruction--but gave children of naichi Japanese families in Korea preferential treatment. In the 1930s, the assimilationist aspect of education in Korea intensified under the so called "becoming the Emperor's people" policy (kōminka ). Beginning in the 1930s, Koreans were conscripted as laborers for service in both naichi Japan and colonial territories. In 1943, military consciption laws in effect in naichi Japan were extended to Korea, making all Korean men over the age of twenty subject to conscription into the Japanese military. [Ryang 19, 3.] Status as Imperial Japanese subjects gave Koreans a degree of mobility within Japanese controlled territory. Though in 1945, Koreans were present as voluntary migrants, labour conscripts, soldiers, or comfort women in nearly every part of the Japanese Empire, the most significant Korean migrations were to naichi Japan and to Manchuria.

Tens of thousands of impoverished Korean tenant farmers moved to Japan to find work. There, they faced difficult working conditions, discrimination, government surveillance, and vigilante violence. The Japanese government was anxious about the potentially destabilizing effect of Korean laborers in Japan; yet, because Koreans were legally Japanese nationals, it could not explicitly restrict immigration from Korea. Instead, during economic downturns in Japan, colonial police in Pusan were instructed to restrict Korean emigration on an informal basis by limiting access to travel documents (旅行証明書). [Michael Weiner, "Race and Migration in Imperial Japan", (London: Routledge, 1994), 63, 120.] In Japan, Koreans came under the jursidiction of the Japanese government proper, rather than the Government General of Korea. This meant that they were governed by Japanese law and had greater civil and political rights--notably the right to hold meetings and vote in national elections--than Koreans in Korea. Political rights were especially important to the community of Korean students in Japan. See Koreans in Japan. [Weiner 64-68, 148-149.] After the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, the Japanese government purused a more active policy of assimilation towards Koreans in Japan. Primary school attendance was made compulsory in 1930, as was membership in the Naisen-kyowa-kai(Japan-Korea Harmony Society 内鮮共和会). This organization, tightly controlled by the Naimusho and the Government General of Korea,issued identity cards to its members, controlled the travel of Koreans between Korea and Japan, and organized labor mobilization, as well as sponsoring the cultural, social and ideological activities typical of other "voluntary" associations. [Weiner 156-194.]

Beginning in the early 1900s, hundreds of thousands of Koreans migrated to Manchuria. Though this territory was not under Japanese contol, the Japanese government claimed Koreans in Chinese territory as Japanese nationals. This contention was part a broader effort to dominate China (see Twenty-One Demands). It meant that Japanese consulates claimed extraterritoriality privileges for Koreans in China and that Koreans were prohibited from naturalizing as Chinese citizens. [Barbara J. Brooks, "Peopleing the Japanese Empire: The Koreans in Manchuria and the Rhetoric of Inclusion," In "Japan's Competing Modernities: Issues in Culture and Democracy 1900-1930", ed. Sharon A. Minichiello (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1998), 25, 27, 33-35.] After the Mukden Incident and the establishment of Manchukuo, Japanese authorities encouraged further Korean migration to Manchuria. The nationality status of Koreans in Manchuria was ambiguous. [See Mariko Asano Tamanoi, "Knowledge, Power, and Racial Classification: The "Japanese" in “Manchuria"" "The Journal of Asian Studies" 59:2 (2000), 248-276.]

Japanese Nationality and Repatriation after World War II

When Japan surrendered in August 1945, there were more than six million Japanese nationals outside of what is now Japan. The process of repatriating these individuals--about half of whom were civilians--revealed the inconsistencies of nationality practice in the Japanese Empire. Despite the rhetoric of equality, naichi Japanese were treated differently from other Imperial subjects.


During the summer and fall of 1945, hundreds of thousands of conscripted Korean laborers in Japan abandoned their jobs and returned to Korea. [Weiner 207.] Defining the remaining 600,000 Koreans--many of whom were long-time residents or had been born in Japan--as foreigners, Japanese authorities began to limit the citizenship rights they had enjoyed as imperial subjects resident in Japan. During the colonial period, it was illegal to transfer a Korean koseki to Japan; therefore, Japanese authorities were able to target residents of Japan whose names appeared on Korean koseki. See Loss of Japanese nationality. Since Japan did not have diplomatic relations with either Korean government until 1965, Koreans remaining in Japan became officially stateless.


The treatment of Okinawans during the post-war repatriation programs reflected both the ambiguous status of Okinawans with the Japanese Empire and the strategic goals of the United States Military. Interpreting 'Okinawan' as a distinct nationality reinforced the legitimacy of governing Okinawa separately from the rest of Japan. Okinawans, defined as individuals registered in an Okinawan koseki, were repatriated to Okinawa from both naichi Japan and former colonial territories in the Pacific. About 56,900 Okinawans were repatriated from Nan'yōchō and the Philippines and as many as 79,000 from naichi Japan. [Sellek 81-82; Leonard Weiss, “U.S. Military Government on Okinawa,” "Far Eastern Survey" 15:15 (1946), 237.] Like other Okinawans, repatriates were officially Japanese nationals but were governed by the United States Civil Administration of the Ryūkyū Islands. Okinawans who traveled overseas or emigrated during the period of US administration (1945-1972), were issued US travel documents rather than Japanese passports. [Sellek, 81-86; see also "南米オキナワ村" ("South American 'Okinawa' village") "海外移住資料館たより" 第6号(Japan International Cooperation Agency, 2006) available [http://www.jomm.jp/newsletter/tayori06_02.html] .]

Japanese Colonists

About 1.5 million Japanese who were left in Manchuria after the Soviet invasion were transferred to labor camps in Siberia, where they remained for as many as five years. [F. W. Warner, "Repatriate Organizations in Japan," "Pacific Affairs" 22:3 (1949), 273.] Since military personnel, government officials and employees of major companies had preferential treatment during the evacaution, rural settler colonists were overrepresented in this group. [Greg P. Guelcher, "Paradise Lost: Japan's Agricultural Colonists in Manchukuo," In "Japanese Diasporas," 83.] Once they returned to Japan, settler colonists regained Japanese nationality, but their former status as colonial subjects contintued to have meaning. For example, colonists who had been conscripted into the Japanese militia in Manchuria were ineligible for the pension benefits available to other veterans of the Japanese military. [Asano Tamanoi, "Knowledge" 258.] The same was true of Japanese veterans of the paramilitary forces (gunzoku 軍属) in the Philippines. [Shun Ohno, "The Intermarried Issei and "mestizo" Nisei in the Philippines: Reflections on the Origin of Philippine Nikkeijin Problems," In "Japanese Diasporas", 85.]

"Japanese Orphans" in China

During the chaotic retreat from Manchuria, an estimated 10,000 children of Japanese colonists were left behind and adopted by Chinese families. In the 1980s, the Japanese government instituted a program to facilitate the belated repatriation of these individuals, known as Japanese orphans in China (残留孤児 zanryū koji). Those who could locate their name on a prewar Japanese koseki were allowed to live in Japan indefinitely, but did not automatically regain Japanese nationality. Approximately 20,000 orphans and their relatives have moved to Japan under this program. Some “orphans” contend that, even if they undergo the cumbersome process of regaining Japanese nationality, they are not offered full citizenship because they have little access to social benefits, such as pensions, available to other Japanese. [Mariko Asano Tamanoi, “Overseas Japanese and the Challenges of Repatriation in Post-Colonial East Asia,” In "Japanese Diasporas: Unsung Pasts, Conflicting Presents, and Uncertain Futures", ed. Nobuko Adachi (London: Routledge, 2006), 217-235.]

Current Nationality Practices in Japan

The legal aspects of Japanese nationality are currently governed by the Nationality Act of 1950. It states that a person is a Japanese national if either of his or her parents is a Japanese national, provides for naturalization of aliens, and explains how Japanese nationality may be lost. Introduction of a jury trial system 裁判員制度.


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