On Losing Your ID In Japan

The last time I’d seen it, it was 4:59 a.m. I stood in the streets in a robe watching 50 men haul a one-ton shrine through the city on sticks. I sleepwalked home with empty pockets.

The government gives a national ID card to every foreign resident of Japan, the sole purpose of which is to be shown when bored policemen ask to see it. I’ve never been asked to see it. Nonetheless, the law dictates that the card is always occupying a pants pocket, even when I’m not wearing pants, which happens more commonly than I’d expected.

When I arrived it was called the Alien Registration Card, now it is the less daunting Residence Card. It’s like a driver’s license, with a photo, name, address, and a stamp of the city’s official seal on the back, all of which slides into a clear plastic case.

You need this card to leave and return to Japan, though I was able to get to Thailand without it after a simple negotiation and chastisement from a policeman who then showed me pictures of various drugs and asked me if I had any. When I said no, he put the picture away, looked at me again, and said, “May I examine your baggage?” Seems the simple denial wouldn’t have worked, had I been carting several kilos of cocaine into Japan from Thailand.

The Disappearance
The card may as well have booked itself a flight to Bangkok. The dark corners of my apartment had no clues. Some alchemist transformed my card into kicked-up dust and golden streams of snot pouring from my nose.

I’d hoped to get a jump on a visa to China or India, now hopelessly postponed, but my desperation was driven by a nagging fear of the Japanese bureaucratic machinery required to produce a replacement.

The bureaucracy of Japan is so vast that even the simplest things, like asking for a replacement of a document, becomes a massive pain in the ass. The language barrier alone is daunting, the sad realization that you will have to explain yourself to at least nine people, six of whom are completely redundant, made deportation seem blessedly simple.

I turned the bureaucratic crank and walked through the stacked wheels of Japan. I spoke to my work supervisor, who spoke to the office supervisor, who spoke to the school supervisor, who placed a phone call to the Board of Education office in the capital. The Board approved my request to leave the school to speak to the police.

I went to the local police box – a single-room mini-station with two officers and a desk. These police boxes (koban) are a regular staple of Japanese law enforcement.

The Interview
The interview I had with police, roughly recollected.

“Where did you see it last?”
The night before Hakata Yamakasa (a giant festival in my city). I’d worn a robe and taken the midnight train. But I might have had it after that.

“What time was it?”
It was about 11 p.m., I took the last train from here…

“The last train is 12:01. So you last saw it the day of Yamakasa?”
Yes OK.

“When did you lose it?”
I don’t know.

“Where did you lose it?”
I wish I knew!

“What time did you realize it was lost?”
Yesterday I realized it was lost, after tearing my house apart.

“What time yesterday did you understand that it was lost?”

An officer completed the report and called the police headquarters. The police headquarters said I needed to physically file a report at the police headquarters. The koban guys ripped up the report and sent me to the HQ, where I filed the exact same report.

Instead of tearing it up, they gave me a copy of the report. It includes a space for the description of the item, and the card and its plastic wrapper were listed on separate lines. Only in Japan would I ever expect results from that. The phone rings: “Good news! A piece of cellophane was found on the ground and our boys think it might be yours.”

A clerk made a copy of the police report and handed me the original in a plastic binder. Now, I was free to visit the immigration office and actually request the replacement card.

One Week Later
The Immigration Office is open during the exact work hours of everyone in Japan. So, as with most government offices or banks, you have to request time off before even attempting any kind of administrative accomplishment.

Taking a day off, at my office, requires two pieces of paperwork that have to be circulated between my supervisor, my vice principal, two administrative assistants, and the principal. Each person also has to make a mark in a notebook that they use, and then the school secretary has to black out the day in the personal calendar that we all use to check in for work.

By Thursday, I was able to go to the airport’s immigration office. Once I arrived, I went to a desk where the clerk spoke lovely English and informed me that I’d have to go outside to another office to have my photo taken, then return to him to have the photo glued to a piece of paper, which I would then take to another office across the hall for processing.

I returned with the photo and filled in the paperwork – again, the question, “Where did you lose the item?” (“Banking,” I answered, discovering a newly-acquired passive-aggressive tendency to greet incomprehensible questions with vaguely comprehensible answers).

I took the paperwork to another waiting room and took a number.

Number 36
An American couple was speaking to the non-English-speaking clerk at the desk, a southern drawl asking, in the finest American tradition, to speak to the manager about getting her request expedited simply because she was in a hurry. A Pakistani man stared at me from across the room.

My number was called and I handed over my passport, the police report and the paperwork filed by the other office, with my photo. The clerk shook his head at me disdainfully before wordlessly strolling over to the photocopier.

“Number 36, sit down,” he said in Japanese. I obeyed.

Thirty minutes later he called my name.

“Mr. Sarubashio?” he asked me.
“Hai.” (“Yeah!”)
“Harisu-san desu ka?” (“You are Mr. Harrison?”)
“Ie-e, Sarubashio desu.” (“No, it’s Mr. Sarubashio.”)

The man held the passport out for me to look at.

“Harisu-san desu ka?” (“Is it Mr. Harrison?”)
“Kore wa Sarubashio desu.” (“That’s Mr. Sarubashio,” I said, pointing at the name.)

The man took the passport back, looked at it, and handed it back.

“Dare wa Harisu-san desu ka?” (“Who is Mr. Harrison?”)
“Wakarimasen!” (“I have no idea, dude!”)

I took the passport, opened it to my visa and showed him, hoping it was something. I felt like a parent with a crying baby, just putting whatever I could find in front of it to calm it down. “Do you want food? A blanket? This remote control for the TV? What? Do you want this stick?”

The man looked at my visa, shook his head disdainfully, and told Number 36 to sit down.

It Takes a Village
Behind the counter an older clerk goes to a bookshelf and opens a book. He reads my foreign registration number to the younger clerk, who copies it down using a pen, and hands it to a woman beside him, who types it into a computer.

An hour later, the clerk emerges from behind the counter, where he most likely used an abacus, bellows and a foot loom to craft my new alien registration card. In the new photo, I am chinless, an inch of empty space above my head.

“BE CAREFUL!” I’m told. I say yes, I will, and bow.

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2 Responses to On Losing Your ID In Japan

  1. Mercedes says:

    Oh god I lost it a “An hour later, the clerk emerges from behind the counter, where he most likely used an abacus, bellows and a foot loom to craft my new alien registration card.”… I definitely don’t want to ever lose my card just based off of how hard it was to get registered the first time.

  2. DraganB says:

    I got mine at the airport in 5 minutes. I guess I was lucky. Where I worked, I could go to the dentist, a doctor or take lunch for as long as 1 hour anytime I wanted. (As long as I came back and did my 10-12 hours) :)

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