The Jailer Card

Seth Godwynn
After living in Japan for five years, I met the minimum standard to apply for citizenship, and decided that was exactly what I would do. It was a combination of practical considerations, and just feeling it to be the right thing to do under the circumstances, something that I would not come to regret a decade or so down the line.
Nope. Totally good decision that one.
And here I am.

It was recently asked of me for research purposes if and how changing my nationality had affected my sense of identity. It wasn’t a question I’d really considered before, and I had to put some considerable thought into answering it. I remembered the episode of Star Trek where Mr Spock somehow died and came back to life again, and wouldn’t answer any questions about the experience because there was no meaningful way to convey them. If you’ve never traded in one nationality for another, you’re unlikely to understand the experience. An illustrative example did come to mind though, which I will share with you below.

During the application process which took approximately 18 months (many of those due to the tardiness of Croydon…), I had no expectation that the experience would change me personally. It was a proverbial piece of paper; I go from one legal status to another: the colour of my passport changes, I have to get used to using a new name, not that I ever really used my own name in the first place. Nothing too outlandish—just another day, at the end of the day, of which this was just another… of?

So I got my phone call on 4th April 2006 at approximately 4:15 in the afternoon saying my application had been successful, and that I needed to come and pick up some seeder documents on 13th. I would then need to take those seeder documents to my local municipal office to have them made up into a “family register” that would become the basis of my new legal identity. Sounded simple enough. But when I turned up at said municipal office with said seeder documents in my hand, they told me I had to do something important before they could process them—something that in hindsight was so brilliant it must have been deliberate!

But let’s skip back a bit first to provide some important context.

Like many countries, in Japan you’re required to be identified, just like how in England you are required to have a cup of tea in your hand at all times, and in America, you’re required to not be able to name the current vice-president.

In Japan, if you are not a citizen, you are required by law to carry an alien registration card (later replaced by the residency card, I think) at all times. If, and only if, you’re a tourist (or have been there less than 3 months) you can carry a passport instead. There’s no criminal penalty for failing to do so, but if you can’t produce them on demand, you can be detained until such time as you can, which as you can imagine is not just an inconvenience but also something of a catch 22. Sometimes, I think, the police are helpful enough to escort you to your home or hotel so you may retrieve and present them under supervision, but it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, and I never got the impression that doing this speedily was anything of a priority for them.

So like most law-abiding foreign residents, I carried that card religiously. For nearly 7 years, I would not leave the house without knowing that card was safe upon my person. I never gave it much thought at the time, but that card had become my jailer, my parole officer, my chaperone, or whatever metaphor you want to use. Ironically, the card granted me my freedom to participate in society. Without it I was lost.

You know that dream you have where you turn up at work and notice you’re the only one that forgot to put any clothes on. Leaving the house without the card was that nightmare come true. As Red from Shawshank Redemption would say, the cards are funny! First you hate them, then you get used to them, then you come to rely on them.

So there I am at the municipal office trying to get my paperwork sorted, and they tell me that before they can process it, I need to surrender my alien registration card right there and then so they can close the file. I’m not a foreign national, so that file has no business remaining open, and that card belongs right there with it.

That card had been my jailer, friend and protector for nearly seven years, and they wanted to take it away from me!

It wasn’t an emotional experience, but it was certainly the source of some anxiety. I figured though that they’d make up my family register, and I could pop over to the licence centre in the afternoon to update my driving licence. Then I could use that to prove I was a citizen if I was ever stopped by police. Problem sorted.

How long will this take?” I asked.

A week to ten days,” they replied.

So I have to walk around for a week to ten days without an alien registration card and no way to prove I’m a citizen? What happens if I’m stopped by police?”

Just tell them you’re a citizen!”

No matter where you are, paperwork sucks. It just depends how hard...


Somehow, that wasn’t very helpful. I left the paperwork with them, and stepped outside sans jailer card. The air somehow smelt fresher, more free. Yet I still felt like a prisoner. I hoped, prayed even, that for the next week to ten days I could avoid any run-ins with the police.

And then, a miracle happened.

I had a run in with the police, (miracles are quite different in Japan, you see).

A week to ten days had passed, and I got a call to say my family register was ready. I could pick up a copy Sunday morning and take it to the licence centre straight away. So Saturday afternoon I did a practice run to the licence centre on my VT250 just to make sure I didn’t get lost, and in doing so, I foolishly made an illegal right turn right in front of the police.

They weren’t impressed.

Long story short, I’m sat in the back of a police car being processed (small fine and a few points on my licence), and the conversation takes a turn for the awry:

I see from your license that you’re a British Citizen.”

That’s what it says, yes.”

Can you show me your alien registration card then please.”

Um… no. I can’t. You know how it is!”

No, I don’t. Kindly elaborate on how it is.”

Well you see… I was granted citizenship a week to ten days ago, so I had to surrender my alien registration card, but the paperwork is still being processed so I can’t update my license yet.”

I did not sound in the least bit convincing.

Let me get this right,” he said with a sigh. “You’re telling me you can’t produce an alien registration card because you’re actually a citizen, but conveniently you can’t produce any documentation to prove this fact?”

Um… yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

There was no way he was buying this.

Well, that’s fine then.”

It is?” I stuttered. “I mean, I pick up my documents tomorrow, so I can present them at a police station in a day or so if…”

No need,” he interrupted. “You’re a citizen. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone! You do still have to pay the fine though.”

I rode away from that encounter with my head held high. I finally understood that becoming a citizen HAD changed something important. I no longer needed permission to exist. I no longer had to live under the symbolic tyranny of alien registration law. I no longer had to care how I was viewed by the native population, because I had just as much right to be here as they did. It was strangely liberating in a most remarkable way!

I think I also got a special police file! On a few occasions I was randomly asked for identity, which I complied with •making it very clear to them that I’m under no obligation to do so and that I’m doing them a favour•. After they radio it in, they come back apologising profusely for having inconvenienced me, because it rather seems said file comprises the message, “For the love of god do not give this man any reason to complain about you!”

It’s worth mentioning for context an incident that happened around the same time I was granted citizenship. Police in Saitama detained a woman on suspicion of being foreign after she refused to identify herself and didn’t seem to understand what they were saying. It later transpired that she was not foreign at all, merely shy and content to exercise her right not to interact with the officers. This clear violation of her rights was the source of national outrage! The Saitama Chief of Police had to give a televised news conference apologising, and outlining the steps they would be taking to ensure this never happened again.

They clearly know that I only have to go to the papers with a sob story about how I, a citizen, am constantly harassed by police, and they’re screwed! Having the police scared of you is like a super power! I always feel like laughing maniacally any time I pass a police station as a result. It’s like being bulletproof, although that hasn’t been tested so far!

So yes, taking citizenship did have some small affect on my sense of identity, now I think about it.

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