When I took comparative politics in high school and college, there was a lot of discussion about the United Kingdom, France and Latin America. Not much was said about Japan.

One thing that I do remember being mentioned, in both my high school and college textbooks, was that Japan had a crazy bureaucracy. I got to understand this concept by reading about the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the Japan, Inc. phenomenon that caused Japan to grow crazy-fast during the 1980s before people figured out that it was mostly bullshit (something that they haven't noticed yet about China, but that's a different story).

Anyway, now I know that it's much broader than just government collusion with industry (which, let's face it, happens in any country with a corruptcompetent government). Let's talk about alien registration in Japan.

First things first: the card

Most foreigners in Japan are only familiar with the alien registration system because they have to register to get an alien registration card, more commonly known as a gaijin card. The card has already been written up to death, but here's a brief summary in case you haven't read the longer summaries in those nodes.

When you come to Japan on a student visa, working visa or some other non-tourist status, the immigration inspector at Narita or Kansai will tell you to go to your local authority within the next 90 days and fill out a registration form. You do this and you get a cool-looking laminated card in return. Then you're supposed to give the card to immigration when you leave Japan, although many people I know just "lose" the card so they can keep it as a souvenir.

If you're just in and out of Japan, that's all you'll probably see. That was certainly all I saw as a high school exchange student. Then I decided to come back as a working stiff, and begin getting more involved with the system. That's where it gets weird.

The foreigner bureaucracy

Let's get further into this discussion by looking at the various agencies that can mess with you if you decide to come to Japan.

First, there's the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Their only responsibility toward foreigners is to issue visas, and you can only get a visa by going to a Japanese diplomatic post overseas. So MOFA handles everything beyond the shore.

Once you arrive in Japan, you will be greeted by Immigration, which is a unit of the Ministry of Justice. When you show your visa to the immigration inspector, he/she will more than likely put a sticker in your visa that says "LANDING PERMISSION." This, not the visa, is what allows you to leave the airport and go on with your merry life.

Now, if you don't have a visa, there are several options. If you're just in Japan to check stuff out, and you come from the right country, Immigration will probably give you landing permission as a "temporary visitor" for 30 or 60 days.

On the other hand, if you come from a less savory country, or you're in Japan for work or school but don't have an appropriate visa, you will "take a little walk" with the immigration inspector to a gray room, where you will wait for a few hours with some random shady characters (toothless old Chinese men, raggedy backpackers, Eastern European vacationers on their way home from Tahiti, etc.) until you either (a) bullshit the immigration chief into giving you landing permission, (b) get sent to a nearby hotel for detention under 24-hour guard (for which you will be charged a pretty penny) while they work out your status, or (c) get flown out of the country by whichever airline flew you in.

Once you get past this stage, you might be done with the government. Unless you're staying for more than 90 days, in which case you'll get to experience Japanese local government as well.

A trip to city hall

Japanese people have a registration system of their own. In fact, they have two: the koseki system, which keeps track of families, and the juminhyo system, which keeps track of individuals. Both of these systems effectively function as birth certificates, marriage certificates and identification systems for Japanese citizens.

Foreigners aren't allowed to have a koseki or juminhyo entry. (Even if you marry a Japanese person, you're only allowed on their record as a footnote, at least until you naturalize.) The alien registration system fulfills that role.

Koseki, juminhyo, and alien registration are all handled by local authorities, and the three usually occupy neighboring counters at city hall. Even in cities where you might not expect to find many foreigners, there will be a pretty sizable alien registration department. Foreign people are all over Japan; many of them are third and fourth-generation Chinese and Koreans who are practically indistinguishable from Japanese but just haven't bothered to naturalize. Then there are all the Southeast Asian women who are imported by Japanese men as brides, and all the South Americans who come to work in factories. Of course, if you go to city hall in one of the expat ghettoes in Tokyo, like Minato or Shinjuku, you'll see foreigners from all over—East Asian, South Asian, black, white—engaged in all kinds of work and play.

So you go, and they give you a form, and you fill it out: your name, passport number, address in your home country, address in Japan, and other basic information. The person at the counter takes the form and tells you to come back in a couple of weeks to get your card.

The innards of the system

Gaijin cards don't do a good job of telling you their origin. Try to decode it from this rough reproduction of mine (Japanese either omitted or translated into English for clarity's sake:

|                                                                           |
|                                                                           |
| (1) NAME: BADASS NODER SEKICHO          (2)(13) NATIONALITY: USA          |
|     DATE OF BIRTH: 19xx/xx/xx           (12) PLACE OF BIRTH: FLORIDA      |
| (14) ADDRESS: LIONS MANSION PARK #101         (4)(5) PASSPORT: 123456789  |
|      TACHINOMI 1-2-3, MINATO, TOKYO                            2003/01/01 |
| (15)(16) HOUSEHOLDER: BADASS NODER SEKICHO    (9) LANDING:     2006/01/01 |
|                  (3)(17) OCCUPATION, ETC.     (10) STATUS: TRAINEE        |
|                   DEWEY, CHEATHAM & HOWE LLP  (11) PERIOD OF STAY:        |
|      #####        IZUMI GARDEN TOWER 27F                       2007/01/01 |
|     #######       ROPPONGI 1-1-2, MINATO, TOKYO                           |
|    # -   _ #                                                              |
|   (' @ / @ ')     RENEW WITHIN 30 DAYS STARTING FROM           ( MOJ )    |
|    |  /    |               2010/xx/xx                     SIGNATURE:      |
|    |  ''  /                                                               |
|     \ == //\_     ISSUED BY:                              _/,././--       |
|     /\--^/ /  '-  MINATO CITY MAYOR                                       |
|                   SHII TAKEO                                              |

Yeah, I know it's a bad picture; the photo machines are like that.

Now, whose name is on the card? It has Ministry of Justice written all over it (and on a pretty hologram that flashes when you spin the card around under the light), but it's issued by Minato City and it has their seal impressed on the back.

In reality, both sides have some fingers in the pot. The Ministry of Justice mandates the system, but runs it on a fairly hands-off basis. The local authorities are responsible for the paper chase to support it.

When you register for the first time, the city hall creates a register for you, called a toroku genhyo. The register is a very undramatic piece of paper, and you will never see it, as it is for internal use only. However, the register contains the same information that appears on the gaijin card, so you never need to see it. It just sits there.

Making the genhyo move

So let's introduce some chaos into the system. Say that I get sick of living with uppity investment bankers who spend all of their time trying to get increasing numbers of slutty women into one apartment, so I decide to leave Minato and move to a more boring abode, like Setagaya (the most populous city in Tokyo, as it consists entirely of low-rise apartment buildings and single-family homes scattered around in a random pattern as far as the eye can see).

I go to Setagaya and tell the alien registration desk that I've just moved to town. Setagaya calls up Minato and asks for my genhyo. Minato sends the genhyo over. Now Setagaya has my genhyo, and they put my new address on it. Assuming I don't need a new card, they add the new address as an endorsement on the back, and I'm good to go. As far as Minato is concerned, I don't exist.

This is actually identical to how the koseki and juminhyo work. When you move, your record moves with you. (These systems were recently digitized, but only your city of residence can access your data, and I have no clue where it's stored.)

Now, what if I leave the country? If I have a re-entry permit (an additional passport stamp that you get after a few hours waiting at the Immigration Office, which for Tokyo is a humongous building in the middle of nowhere near Shinagawa), nothing really happens. However, if I leave the country for good, I give them my gaijin card, Immigration tells Setagaya, and Setagaya sends my genhyo to the Ministry of Justice, which puts it in storage (which I imagine involves sealing it in an underground bunker along with the Unit 731 evidence and Horiemon).

Now, this is where alien registration diverges from the koseki and juminhyo system. If you're Japanese, your juminhyo reflects every residential address you've ever had. This might not sound too important (or appealing, for you EFF members), but given Japan's obsession with paperwork, it can turn into a pain in the ass.

Which reminds me of a story

I was on a particular special ops assignment at work: to get some cars cleared for export. I had no experience at all in doing this, but my boss gave me the job anyway, for "personal development." (He's an awesome boss.)

Anyway, one of the cars was registered at an old address. I had proof of the owner's current address, but no proof of the former address, and Japanese bureaucrats are incredibly anal about having the paper trail fit together perfectly. So I went to the alien registration section in the city where he was living. I had a power of attorney to get a copy of the registration (as is necessary thanks to Japan's draconian Personal Information Protection Law), so it should have been a simple matter of filling out a form, waiting a bit and walking out with a nice little certificate of the guy's old address.

But lo! It turned out that the guy had left the country since he bought the car. And he didn't have a re-entry permit! Which meant that the city had gotten rid of all of his old records. "We'll have to get them from the Ministry of Justice," explained the guy behind the counter, "and that will take two weeks or so."

Son of a bitch, I thought. There wasn't that much time. "Can I go there and get them myself?"

"No," said Counter Guy, "we have to do that. Also, next time, you should write his name in romaji on the power of attorney, because our internal rules don't accept katakana." (This is the kind of shit bored bureaucrats come up with.)

I ended up getting around this problem by pleading with one of the workers at the vehicle registration bureau ("my boss will kill me! I'll never work in this town again!"), who came up with a surprisingly simple solution: file for a change of address, which (for some insane reason) does not require proof of the old address.

Things like this explain why Japan has an entire industry of administrative scriveners, people who build careers around dealing with bureaucrats. Maybe one of these days I'll sit the exam.

Carrying the card

Most foreigners in Japan are aware that it is a crime not to have your gaijin card on you at all times. (If you're a permanent resident, it's downgraded to an administrative infraction, at least according to the Japanese version of Wikipedia.)

And many foreigners in Japan have had, or will have, the experience of being stopped by a police officer and asked for their gaijin card. If you want to experience this in person, try riding a bicycle on a regular basis, and you're sure to get stopped sooner or later, because foreigners with bikes are just trouble.

Some notes on this:

  1. Before you provide the officer with your gaijin card, the law provides that you are allowed to get the officer's name and badge number. If they won't pony up, you have no duty to show them your gaijin card. (Some cops will try to give you their phone number instead; insist on their badge number, if only because you want to psych them out to make them less willing to target foreigners in the future.)
  2. Japanese citizens are not required to carry ID, so (although I have never tried this) you should be able to say that you've naturalized, and not have to show any identification. Of course, if the officer thinks this is suspicious (e.g. if you don't speak Japanese), you might get arrested. Getting arrested in Japan sucks. Which I suppose is why I have never tried this.

Many people consider this system to be discriminatory and a pain in the ass. Of course, it exists because of bad apples. As does the requirement for fingerprinting and photographs of incoming foreigners, which was recently (i.e. within the last few days) reinstated. It's just another one of those things you have to go through to have access to some of the best food, safety and cleanliness in the world.

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