I am from Osaka, Japan. I came to the United States in January 2002, 18 years ago. I got a green card and I got married but I didn’t get my citizenship until last year—2019. I waited, waited, waited. At first, I didn’t feel that I wanted to change my nationality. I would have to give up my Japanese citizenship. That is why I didn’t bother. But ever since 2016, I didn’t feel very safe living here without my U.S. citizenship. So many immigration laws have been changed and a lot of people are being deported. I heard awful stories and it was getting worse. Then last year it came close to us. I heard that ICE took a family from our neighborhood. It was no longer happening to people we don’t know; it could have been a school friend of our daughter. I am here legally, but I didn’t feel safe anymore.
Ever since I was in high school, I was interested in getting to know people outside of Japan. I wanted to learn about their countries and their cultures. I was hoping to come to the U.S.A. and I had a lot of pen pals all over the world. I went to university to learn English and American literature; I was particularly interested in African American literature. After I graduated university, I worked for a textile company in the exports department. In Japan in the 1980s I experienced a lot of sexism in the workplace. Women were expected to get married by 24. At 25, people said that you were like an after-Christmas cake; you were valued less. I always thought that was not right. I didn’t fit into that society. So, three years after college, with money I saved I went to England. I was 24.
I fit very well into Western society. I felt very free because they didn’t treat women the way I was treated in Japan. I learned English and I lived in England about 7 years, but I was by myself. I didn’t have any family. I decided to go back to Japan where I eventually went back to college and studied about Social Welfare and wanted to be a social worker. I was 39 years old by the time I graduated, and it was extremely hard to get a job because they thought I was too old. Eventually, I met my husband who is a U.S. citizen and I moved to the United States. Now I have a family here. My daughter has dual Japanese-American citizenship and she must choose one before she turns 22. But she is more American. Giving up my own Japanese citizenship was a really difficult decision to make, but I did it for my family here.
Another reason I wanted to be a citizen is because a lot of things these days remind me of the Japanese American, executive order. [The order that led to the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during WW II.] I feel that a lot of Asian people, especially Japanese Americans, don’t have a voice because they don’t want to talk about what happened in the past. I feel that the experiences of Asian people are forgotten. We need more of a voice. I decided if I become a citizen, I can have a voice and I can vote. Finally, I became 60-years-old last year, and I decided that this is the land where I would end my life journey.
I researched and got the citizenship application forms by myself, but I wasn’t sure if my form was filled out correctly. So I found out about a Washington New Americans citizenship clinic that they were doing with the Refugee Women’s Alliance at a local church. I met a lot of volunteers and I met a lawyer who corrected some things and made sure my application form was correct. Then I sent it to the USCIS Seattle office on November 3, 2018. I think my application was perfect. I felt really grateful and I felt confident. Then I started going to the library for citizenship classes. I studied every day for the interview and the civics test. It was my routine to listen to the tape every day.
At first, the USCIS said my interview would be in December 2019. Then I got an email changing it to September. I was excited. I thought, that’s great because it’s shorter than one year. I waited through August. I didn’t get an interview and I was anxious. Then it was September, so I called them and checked online, and they said they couldn’t find the receipt number. I was really panicking, what’s wrong? Did they lose my form? There was nobody I could talk to. I called the Refugee Women’s Alliance and Annie explained the situation to me. Because so many people applied at the Seattle office, they were sending us to the Portland, Oregon office or to the Yakima, Washington field office.
My interview appointment was December 4, 2019 in Yakima. That is far away, it took us about three hours to drive. I was sick and not feeling well and thinking, I need to reschedule. But my husband said, no, you have to go once you’ve scheduled it. Thankfully my husband drove me to Yakima. The interview was very early, at eight in the morning, so we stayed in a hotel the night before. There was a chance it would snow, so we had to rent a four-wheel-drive car. My daughter had final exams and couldn’t come with us, so we had to arrange for her to stay at her friend’s house. And we have a dog that we had to put in a pet hotel. So, the trip was really expensive. I also had awfully bad motion sickness. I could not sleep that night, and the next morning, I was very drowsy, and my brain did not work at all. The heater was not working in the hotel and the temperature in Yakima was 23°!
But even with all of this, I passed the interview and test. Because we came from Seattle, the USCIS officer told me to come back at 2:00 p.m. on the same day for my oath ceremony. I think there were about 30 people there. At the ceremony, we watched a video about people from all over the world in this country. And suddenly, while we were declaring our oath of allegiance, this phrase from Martin Luther King, Jr. came into my head, “Let freedom ring…. Free at last! … Thank God Almighty, I am free at last.” I was nearly crying. Martin Luther King is my hero, I really admire him.
Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, I didn’t feel until now. Finally, I have this! I thought I would be very sad losing my Japanese citizenship. I was sad of course, but I was more happy than sad. I am very happy I can vote in 2020! Now I feel safe to express my opinion. I feel more at home here with U.S. citizenship. I am not an outsider anymore. I am now an American!
I want to tell people who are thinking of getting U.S. citizenship—get it sooner! I waited too long. Immigration law has been changing and it’s getting more expensive and it’s becoming more difficult to become a U.S. citizen. I thought that I would lose my identity if I became a U.S. citizen but in fact it is not true. My inside didn’t change. I am a Japanese American now. I am very proud of that. I felt joy after the long immigration process. I am free from USCIS now. I don’t have to tell them my new address. I don’t have to renew my green card every 10 years. I am looking forward to going abroad and coming back as a new U.S. citizen with my U.S. passport at customs. It will be stress free!
To conclude, I want to share one of my favorite quotes from Dr. King:
“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”