Step One of the Japanese citizenship process is apparently sitting on a blue plastic bench in a frigid concrete government building staring at the number in your hand. Mine was 12. This was a semi big deal, not the number but the whole procedure, since it meant renouncing U.S. citizenship and basically scotching my chances of ever living or working again in the greatest country on earth. But since I’d been in Japan this long and it was looking like I’d eventually die here, I figured Hell, might as well go all the way. I mean, people get face tattoos, undergo plastic surgery, get married, have kids…maybe I needed to put an end to this hedonistic Peter Pan existence and start screwing up my life too. Can’t just keep on having fun forever, right?
Just say Right and let’s move on. Fortunately, I’d had a few cocktails the night before and was possibly still drunk. “Twelve,” a woman yelled, and I nudged my dozing girlfriend and in we walked to the world’s dreariest room full of Japanese office workers in black suits staring at computer screens over desks piled high with papers. I’d taken my her along because no matter what you do in Japan, you get an entirely different experience being accompanied by anyone of even vaguely Asian appearance. Better service, better prices, and generally less bullshit with folks trying out their pidgin English on you. This, however, turned out to be a spectacularly bad idea.
Applying for Japanese Citizenship
A small man in a rumpled gray suit greeted us.
“Hello,” I said. He looked past me to my girlfriend and asked, “Did he bring his passport and foreigner card?”
“He did,” I answered.
“Has he lived in Japan for at least five years?”
“Over ten,” I replied.
“This way,” he said to her.
Yeah, my Japanese citizenship was off to a flying start. He led us to a table in the middle of the cavernous room, inches from Japanese women tapping intently on their keyboards, and pulled closed a stained pink sheet. Somewhere in Japan there’s a hospital ward with a bunch of dudes all staring at each other because somebody stole their divider curtain.
Whatever. Sealed within this soundproof fabric privacy chamber, he handed my girlfriend a long list of required documents and began asking her questions in Japanese. Did he understand the process might take up to two years? Was he prepared to surrender his U.S. citizenship? When are you two getting married? She dutifully repeated each question to me in Japanese, and I replied in Japanese, until a light bulb seemed to go on and the little man suddenly began speaking directly to me.
“We’ll need the birth or death certificates of your immediate family members,” he said. “And a letter from your mother, acknowledging your wish to nationalize to Japan.”
Sure, no problem. Ken’ll just ask his Mom for a letter saying she’s cool with losing her beautiful first-born son. That’ll be an easy conversation.
How Sure are You?
Truth be told, I had plenty of doubts about the wisdom of pursuing Japanese citizenship. Why not just apply for permanent residency? Then I could live and work in either country forever. Citizenship sails you over the horizon of no return. What if my mom got sick, or my Japanese job prospects dried up, or war broke out? I mean, life’s pretty long and lots of stuff can happen. Think World War II. Bet the Japanese-Americans who got penned up in U.S. internment camps never expected that. And given what I know of Japanese people here, they’d be plenty happy to round up all the gaijin and return the favor. But since I’d set the Titanic on its fateful course, I figured I’d press on a little further. Can’t let a little ice worry you.
“And we’ll need documents from your family as well,” he said to my girlfriend.
I was like, Whaa? Wait, I’m the one applying for citizenship. She’s just here because the last time I went to the cell phone store alone they conned me into a multi-year contract.
This is when the full spectacularity of my bad idea manifested itself.
Now Let’s add This to the Mix
The rumpled gray man tore a sheet of paper from his notebook and began slowly drawing a diagram. “This is Ken’s family,” he explained like I was five, and made a circle on the bottom left of the page. “And this is your family,” he said to my girlfriend, tracing a circle on the bottom right.
“And this is the two of you,” he said, and put a third circle on top of the page. Then he drew a neat triangle around all three. Ta-daa.
I was like, Uh, we really need to focus on the concept of “girlfriend” here. I mean, I could add a few more circles and make like a freaky hexagon.
“If you got married,” he said, “everything would be much easier.”
“See?” my girlfriend echoed, “It’d all be much easier.”
Apparently, I was the only one thinking things would be way much harder, but since I was also the only non-Japanese in our little curtain fort, and the individual trying to become one, I decided to let it go. Full steam ahead, moonlit night, no need for a lookout. Just clear sailing from here.
The Japanese Citizenship Application
“Now I’ll need to speak with Ken-san alone,” rumpled gray man said to my apparent fiancé, who appeared quite pleased and promptly retreated to the plastic bench. He then pulled out a paper and said, “Please fill this out. You can’t use your phone or a dictionary, and you can’t ask me any questions.”
I’d heard there was some sort of language test, nothing too hard, so that’s what I was expecting. But what he handed me was a 4-page form written in ancient Egyptian, with apparently real questions. Great, fifteen years of studying Japanese and I can’t read an effing form.
Japanese Citizenship Questions
The trouble began immediately. Address? Who knows their address in a nation of unnamed streets? That’s why God invented the iPhone, so mankind could spend time growing maize and domesticating oxen instead of memorizing inane details. I wrote “Japan” and my apartment number. Well, not too many Seeroi’s in the country, so probably good enough. My workplace? I had some idea of the name, but no clue where it was. Then the essay questions began and things launched into the realm of the absurd.
One question said something like “Have you ever been convicted of a misdemeanor, felony, or engaged in criminal activity?” From which I could decipher “You…criminal?” I mean, I can read every line of an izakaya menu, but this was a flood of kanji I never figured on needing. Another question appeared to be asking about monetary stability, couched in double negatives, like “Have you never declared bankruptcy or not become insolvent?” I said to the little gray man, “Uh, you’re either going to have to let me look stuff up and give you real answers or settle for some bullshit.” He just shrugged dejectedly and sank further into his chair. Finally I wrote something that probably sounded like, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.”
The Never-Ending Questionnaire
The whole time, Little Man sat in his rumpled suit inches from my elbow. The insulating properties of the curtain divider were incredible and I started sweating all over the paper, while he kept breathing and staring at me with those sad eyes. Each question took minutes for me to painfully read and then scrawl illegible kanji to.
Maybe it was all that shochu the previous evening, but soon everything began to blur into the same question, spoken in Little Man’s voice: “Why would you want my life?” Here he was, stamping forms in a dingy government office, crammed in with faceless desk workers on the same terminal program, when in breezes some white guy looking like Beverly Hills, backlit with an open shirt blowing in the wind, flowing golden locks all Fabio from the country that won the war, landed on the moon, then invented Fritos. Like the football team captain trying out for chess club.
Japanese Citizenship, the Existential Question
I finally got to the last question, which should’ve been the first: “Why do you want to be a Japanese citizen?” I looked at him and said, “Uhh, kinda deep, don’t ya think?” And by this point I basically had no answer.
But by now Little Man and I were finally on the same page. The page of Get this over with and let’s get the fuck out of here. “Just write,” he said, “’I like Japan.’” So that’s what I wrote. Jeezus. I like Japan, now lemme live in ya nice country. Yeah, pretty convincing.
I left the office dejected. I’d spent an hour inside a curtain with a decrepit salaryman writing a bunch of nonsense on an application, been pressured into marriage, and came away needing to get a letter from my mom. Faaack. But knowing Japan, that seemed about par for the course.
Of the dozen Japanese people I’ve consulted about my genius plan before and since, literally no one’s ever thought it was a good idea. To a person, they’re all like, Look, we’re famous for sleeping on trains, jumping in front of trains, molesting people on trains, and putting teeny slices of raw fish on top of rice just so. Maybe choose a country a bit higher up on the world happiness ranking? Japan’s not exactly killing it in 54th place.
Some Dreams die Hard
Still, there was something that seemed to make sense about being a citizen of the nation I planned to spend the rest of my life in. Was I crazy? To find out, I met with an old Japanese corporate lawyer I knew and told him the whole story. Literally, he’s like a hundred years old. He closed his eyes in reflection, and after a while I thought maybe he’d died, but then he gasped and seemed to revive a bit and said, “You should probably hire an immigration attorney. And next time, leave your girlfriend at home.” Then he thought a moment more and added, “Why not just apply for permanent residency?”
From which I’ve concluded that applying for Japanese citizenship is like being a retarded kid hitting himself in the head with a bucket. Everyone’s like, Ouch, freaking please just stop that. Here’s the nice, soft pillow of Permanent Residency. Hug on this.
Fine, yeah, I get it. That’s reasonable. And since Ken Seeroi clearly ended up living in Japan through a string of reasonable decisions…well whatever, there was still time to right the Titanic, steer around the iceberg of Japanese citizenship and chart a course for open waters. So that’s what I decided to do, but more on that next time. Permanent Residency, here I come. Ah, you gotta love the salt air and wind in your face. Nothing but sunny skies from now on. Hardly an ice cube in sight.