Becoming Official In Japan – Part One – Getting A Gaijin Card

I’m not talking about becoming an official, like trading in your English teacher’s license to sit behind a desk and wear a short-sleeved shirt and tie and ruin ordinary citizens’ lives with bureaucracy. I’m not even talking about learning to march about purposefully with files under your arm so that you look official. I’m talking about becoming a real person in Japan.

You see, until you have burdened yourself with paperwork and bureaucracy to the point that you want to just leave Japan and come back another time when there’s less of a queue, you are not a real person. You are a tourist.

For those of you who are already real people, or are never planning to become a real person, you can just skip this post. In fact, I feel jealous of you unreal people. I imagine you spend your days frolicking in zen temple gardens, eating green tea icecream and mooning over the efficiency of Japan. Oh, the transport system! Ha. I used to be like you too.

So, in order to stop being a tourist and start being official, you need to get a few things in order.
You need a gaijin card, a bank account, an internet connection, a driver’s license and a cellphone. Unless you have these things, you are pretty much a lesser being. Well, I guess that if you live in a city you won’t need a driver’s licence. But just wait until your hot new Japanese girlfriend wants to go “for a drive”. And if there are internet cafes around, you probably won’t need an internet connection. Unless of course you never get a Japanese girlfriend, in which case, well, let’s hope your local dvd shop is liberal.


1) Gaijin card.
The official name for this is the Certificate of Alien Registration, which is stupid, because it’s a card, not a certificate. And you’re not from Mars, you’re just another gaijin. Japanese people will always use the official name though.

In Japan, it’s the law that you have to carry ID. Everyone does, even the locals. Possibly even the kids. If you’re a tourist, you’re supposed to carry around your passport, but if you actually live here, you need to get a gaijin card within 90 days. Since 90 days is the limit on even the most liberal tourist visa, you can’t get one unless you have a proper visa.

You’ll need this card for everything. Opening a bank account, getting a cellphone, renting a car, opening a library account and so on. If you’re stopped by the police for anything (like walking along minding your own business) you’ll need to show them your card. If you don’t, you could be hauled downtown for a chat. Even if you’re just popping to the 7-11 for milk wearing your PJs, bring your card. There’s been a lot of chat on the internet about how racist it is that they always want to see your gaijin card – but hey, it’s the law to carry ID.

Anyway. Getting a gaijin card isn’t all that much hassle. In fact, the simplicity of it lulled me into a false sense of security about how easy things are in Japan. I asked my employer where to go get one. Answer – my local ward office. I asked how to get there – get the local train a few stops up, then go into the giant building across from the station. I went in, the receptionist immediately knew what I was after and herded me over to the Alien Registration Desk. I was shown to a row of plastic chairs while I waited.

I waited, I looked around. I looked at some posters and tried to remember my hiragana. I looked around some more. Then, I made a startling realisation. I was the only customer in the entire room. The full first floor of this enormous government building was one open-plan office. And I was the only person there who didn’t work there! Now, when was the last time you went to a government office for something, anything, and there wasn’t a huge queue. Or at least one of those ticket machines where you take a number and wait to be called. Nope. Nothing.

I still had to wait though. God knows what the 50-odd workers were doing, but it took about 20 minutes for one of them to help me. (Actually, they were probably playing janken, the Japanese version of rock paper scissors to decide who would have to help me. It’s the cornerstone of Japanese society after all). Eventually I was brought up to the desk and the dude whipped out a rake of forms and looked at me expectantly. I told him in my shoddy Japanese that my Japanese is, well, shoddy. Fear passed over his face. He scampered off and came back with a giant book which he heaved up onto the desk and started leafing through, giving me terrified glances every few pages.

This book was genius. It had all the instructions, rules and regulations pertaining to foreigners in it, with Japanese on one page and then English and Portuguese on the facing page, all the sentences nicely numbered. The guy found the relevant sentence in Japanese, and then pointed to the corresponding English sentence. Brilliant. I had to fill out the expected details, name, address, employer (you can leave this blank if you don’t have a job yet), telephone number (also can be left blank), home address, place of birth etc. I gave him a passport photo of myself. Then I waited on a plastic chair again for about ten minutes.

The guy then gave me a receipt and told me I could pick up my card in 3 weeks. Apparently that receipt can be used to open a bank account and get a cellphone, but as I was in no real rush to get either, I waited til I had the actual card. I just showed up on the appointed day with my receipt and was handed my card.

I was partly official.


2 Responses

  1. Just wait till you have to go to the immigration centre, it is the most horrible time wasting confusing place on earth! Oh that makes sense, you let me line up for 3 hours to pay for my visa when actually I have to pay for my new visa with a stamp from a nearby conbini! The signs are in the worst Engrish ever and the staff speak the least amount of English I ever encountered in my year in Japan.

  2. Hayley honey, I’m dreading it. I plan to go to Thailand before Christmas and that multi-entry visa thing is hanging over me like a mistletoe grenade.

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