After over a decade in Japan, this week I got a letter from the Japanese government. It said that the alien registration card (外国人登録証明書), or informally "gaijin card", was vanishing.
Starting this summer, the credit card sized i.d. will be replaced. This is a card I've had since I've been in Japan, and one that I've legally required to have on me at all times. It's the card that clearly marked foreigners — even Zainichi Koreans — "alien".
For all the controversy on Japanese microaggressions (which is, in many ways, taking one's eye off the ball), the gaijin card has been a part of daily life for expats since the early 1950s. It's been a requirement for those staying in Japan longer than 90 days. Every few years, you need to renew it, and every time you move, the government writes down your new address (doing so often in ball point pen) on the back.
But it's also been something that people are hotels, video stores, and even real estate agencies often demand to see before you can do business with them. It's been something that has made many foreign residents feels "others" them. And this July, it will be no more.
Japan is a sovereign country. It can handle immigrants and foreigners as it sees fit. The U.S., and other countries, does likewise. However, that still doesn't mean their methods are without fault. In Japan, foreigners have reported unpleasant experiences with the gaijin card, such as random police officers demanding to see it.
To date, I haven't had any unpleasant experiences with the police, save for speeding traps, which are universal (and annoying!). The police, though, was totally cordial as I paid the ticket. Likewise, my experiences with immigration have been pleasant and helpful — and more importantly, welcoming.
As for microagressions, living in Japan for all these years, my gripes really haven't been over inconsequential questions like whether I can use chopsticks or eat nattou. If I let those types of questions get to me, life here is going to be difficult. What's more, getting offended by such questions might cut you off to interesting people — people who've lived abroad, people whose kids married foreigners, or people who are simply interested in life outside Japan. Those silly, and repetitive questions, will gradually fad over time as more and more Japanese have daily interactions with non-Japanese.
What have been problematic are things outside of the government and, largely, out of the daily interactions with people. These are things like paying higher prices to rent apartments — or not even being able to rent apartments for fear that I might suddenly leave Japan and not pay my rent. It was particularly depressing to be told that I couldn't sign or co-sign for an apartment and that my wife, who was pregnant and not working at the time, would have to sign. Foreigners were apparently no good. I remember a real estate agent — who was a super nice guy — telling me, "Japan is an island country" and apologizing for the way things were run at his company.
Other gripes have been video stores who would not rent videos to you, even if you had a gaijin card. Instead, many used to demand that you have a home phone number, which is something that many foreigners do not have. Cell phones do not suffice. Then some cell phone carriers used to illegally require an alien registration card to purchase a card.
Not every aspect of the country is like this. I'm happy to say that once you move beyond renting and into buying an apartment or a house, things do get way easier dealing with real estate companies and banks (note: you probably need a permanent resident visa). Buying a place or a car and getting a car loan have all been less painless than renting an apartment or even getting a video store card. More banks, which used to require foreigners to have a Japanese style enkan (stamp), are accepting signatures as binding.
Yet, even as things have been getting bettering, one of the most divisive things is how the alien registration system legally separates families. That will change this summer when the alien registration system ends. As The Wall Street Journal explained, the new system will now allow Japanese with foreign spouses to registered under the same system and be registered as in the same household. All residents — foreign and nationals — will get new identification cards. The difference between the foreigners' cards and the citizens' cards is that there is a marking that separates them, marking the holder's nationality.
Things in Japan move slowly — especially regarding immigration and internationalization. The changes are might not even be noticeable. Yet, they're there, bit by bit. Eventually.