What does citizenship mean?

One by one, the old men and women before me declared they wanted to become Japanese citizens. They were children of Japanese fathers, who died either before or during the war. After years of legal struggle, they were allowed by Japanese courts to become Japanese.

“I wanted to go to Japan because I was close to my father,” said one woman.

“I want to see my ancestors,” said another.

Another woman sang a Japanese song, one of several she learned as a child, because her father would sing those as they walked to the store, with her riding on his shoulders.

Yet after the first few words that connect their desire for a Japanese citizenship to their love for their respective fathers, there is one other, invariable line: they wanted to go to Japan because being a Japanese citizen could improve the chances that their children and grandchildren could work and live in Japan.

“I want to ask help from my relatives,” said one woman, a line that was echoed by another.

Don’t you want to become Filipinos anymore? I wanted to ask. Is this all that citizenship means? A better life, and acknowledgement of ties to a long-dead parent? What about pride of country, and of culture? 

Of course Philippine laws allow dual citizenship. But one pledges allegiance to a country when one becomes a citizen. Can a person be loyal to two countries at the same time? It’s a little like a man swearing that yes, he REALLY CAN love two women at the same time.

But their life is not my life, and I have no right to judge them. One man’s Japanese father was killed by Filipino guerillas and he remembers, as a child, being called “anak ng Hapon” in school.

Another woman, the one who could sing in Japanese, grew up in poverty. Some of her grandchildren grew up in an orphanage.

“We grew up in Boys’ Town; our mother could not afford to keep the family together,” said her grandchild, who was with her. 

When the press conference was over, I asked my Japanese boss: if he had an American father and a Japanese mother, would he choose to be American?

“We have such a choice,” he said. But It would depend, he added, where he lived. If he had lived in Japan all his life, would he want to be an American? I asked.

No, he said. And he does not know of anyone, at least among his peers, who would want to be an American, having grown up in Japan. He shook his head, unable to imagine why, having his spent all his life in Japan, he would not want to be a Japanese.


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