Becoming Japanese: Stories of Immigration and Naturalization

testbanner3These days, Japan’s population (126,981,371 on June 19, 2014) is declining severely, caused by low birth rate and next to nothing immigration. As a result, Japan experiences a huge aging problem, what will lead to a population of which people aged over 65 account for at least 40% of it. (source) At present in Japan, the rate of this population group is 30%, making up for the oldest population worldwide. (source) Low birth rate is a development that can be observed in various countries, although the country with the lowest birth rate is without doubt Japan (7.64 births per thousand).


The blue line is the birth rate, the grey line indicates the mortality rate. In 1966 the birth rate dropped suddenly. According to Japanese superstition, women born in “the year of the Fire Horse” (hinoeuma) will bring misfortune to their husband. –

Remarkable as well is the extreme low rate of immigration. Currently in Japan, 98.5% is ethnic Japanese, 0.5% Korean, 0.4% Chinese and all other nationalities do not exceed 0.6%. To compare with Belgium, where 11% of the population is not ethnic Belgian, this is ridiculously low. (source)


Recently, the government reported to consider boosting the number of immigrants for the benefit of a long-term economic growth. Japan would accept 200,000 immigrants a year. (source) Doctors, nurses and care-givers are mostly welcome, as in 2050 worker-to-retiree ratio will be 1,55:1. (source) The immigration and naturalization procedure is not easy, however. Especially language requirements are tough. In 2011, only 15 of 285 Indonesian nurses passed the test in Japanese, full of complex medical terminology. (source) The others, although qualified nurses but not able to read kanji that well, were sent home. Maximum 2000 non-Japanese with a “high degree of capability” (high salary, Ph.D or specialized knowledge) on the contrary are surprisingly not expected to achieve a certain Japanese fluency (source).  It looks like Japan is rather hesitant to accept foreigners.


Jon Heese, foreign-born politician in Japan, mentions three reasons for this aversion. Firstly, people fear change. Secondly, until recently Japanese people grew up with the idea of “fearing foreigners”. They believe foreigners are more likely to commit crimes. Thirdly, there is excessive nationalism in Japan. (source)

But there are success stories about foreigners becoming Japanese as well. In this post, I will focus on naturalized Westerners, as I believe it is more difficult for non Asian people to assimilate.

william adams .How could we not start with William Adams a.k.a. Miura Anjin 三浦按針 (1564 – 1620), the first Westerner to be “naturalized”? In 1600 sailor Adams and 8 other members of the remaining crew of the Dutch vessel “De Liefde” stranded in Japan and were captured. But instead of the crucifix that awaited most “foreign pirates”, Adams was lucky. Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa appointed him as his diplomatic and trade advisor. For his contributions to Western style shipbuilding in Japan, Adams was rewarded with a high salary, a big house, the title of samurai and many precious gifts. Adams himself thought highly of Japan, its people and the shogun:

The people of this Land of Japan are good of nature, curteous above measure, and valiant in war: their justice is severely executed without any partiality upon transgressors of the law. They are governed in great civility. I mean, not a land better governed in the world by civil policy. The people be very superstitious in their religion, and are of diverse opinions. (William Adams’s letter to Bantam, 1612)

From now on called Miura Anjin (for William Adams was declared dead by the shogun), he married a Japanese woman and had two children. In 1613 he helped to set up a trading factory for the British East India Company and set more than once sail to Siam and Cochinchina for business. Miura never returned home. He died as one of the most influential Westerners in Japan. Today, his memory is still kept alive by several monuments and a Miura Anjin festival.

Schermafbeelding 2014-06-19 om 21.01.28Next up is Lafcadio Hearn a.k.a. Koizumi Yakumo 小泉八雲 (1850 – 1904), born in Greece with a British father, raised in Ireland and sent to the United States at the age of 19.  After finishing his studies he became a journalist there. But Hearn, with his international background, was not meant to stay in one place for too long. In 1890 he travelled to Japan and became a teacher at a local school in Matsue. Hearn did not only fell in love with Japan, he actually married a Japanese girl of the Koizumi family and became a naturalized Japanese. He spent the rest of his life on teaching at a secondary school and at Tokyo and Waseda university. Hearn wrote down his impressions of Japan in various books and short stories. As an enthusiastic Japanophile, Hearn was later often accused of exoticizing Japan. Indeed he is fascinated by the Japanese nature and can frequently be found glorifying Japanese culture and traditions.

The most beautiful sight in Japan, and certainly one of the most beautiful in the world, is the distant apparition of Fuji on cloudless days, – more especially days of spring and autumn, when the greater part of the peak is covered with late or with early snows. (in “Fuji-no-Yama”)

His works however have great historical value, and moreover, they presented an image of Japan to the West. Hearn describes with precision the transformation of a traditional Japan in a modern one. Among his writings, many focus on Japanese folklore, legends and ghost stories.

Schermafbeelding 2014-06-19 om 21.25.20

Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

A third and more recent case was the naturalization of Donald Keene a.k.a. Kīn Donarudo 鬼怒鳴門(°1922), American born scholar of Japanese literature. Keene taught for over 50 years at the Columbia University. He published many works of importance in the field of Japanese studies, covering the topics of Japanese literature, history and culture. Furthermore, he provided several translations of Japanese classic and modern literature and befriended famous writers Mishima Yukio, Kenzaburō Ōe and Junichirō Tanizaki. Keene attributed a great deal to the study of Japan and as a would-be scholar of the Japanese myself, i can only admire him. Keene’s interest in Japan was triggered by a translation of the Tale of Genji.

After the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, Keene was deeply moved by the tragedy Japanese people went through, and decided at the age of 89, to spend the rest of his life there. Keene chose his Japanese name with a sense of humor: the characters mean devil – angry – sound – gate and are a phonetic version of his English name.

“When I first did it, I thought I’d get a flood of angry letters that ‘you are not of the Yamato race!’ but instead, they welcomed me,” said Dr. Keene, using an old name for Japan. “I think the Japanese can detect, without too much trouble, my love of Japan.” (in The New York Times)

But after all, Keene concludes “I have become a Japanese in many ways. Not pretentiously, but naturally.” Not the legal way makes you a Japanese, the cases of these three people point out that becoming Japanese is a matter of deep love for and a strong connection with Japan.


3 thoughts on “Becoming Japanese: Stories of Immigration and Naturalization

    • Yes, there was. William Adams was given a piece of land in the Miura Henmi district, hence his last name. “Anjin” means pilot, or someone who navigates by use of a magnetic compass. Hearn chose his Japanese name because of his marriage with a daughter of the Koizumi family, and Yakumo because it was the name of the village where he lived. (Yakumo means “eight clouds”)

  1. yes, language is the first and major problem for foreigners to feel at ease in japan. the locals there simply don’t succumb to foreign language the way other asian countries would. which, i guess, a good thing, and it plays a part in the preservation of the traditions of the country. but i own english translated books by Yukio, Oe, and Tanizaki, which help me in getting to know the culture better. i wonder if any of them translated by Keene.

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