The Monday after submitting my application for Permanent Residency in Japan, I started checking the mailbox.
Yeah, I knew it was a bit soon. The woman at the Immigration Office with the mismatched eyes said it’d take months, and I believed her. Still, I couldn’t resist the pull; every evening checking for a postcard from Immigration, walking past my dear friend Ato-san dying of lymphoma and the weird kid who shot me with the pellet gun. Ah, Japanese neighbors, you are my new countrymen. But of course the mailbox was always empty and somehow I was always disappointed. Such is the pitfall of my perpetual optimism.
And then one day out of the blue, I got a phone call. It was almost three months from the day I submitted my application.
“Seeroi-san?” said a man on the other end.
“Yeh, who dis?” I replied. Only I said it in Japanese, so it sounded way better. I should mention I’ve gotten a total of about eight phone calls since moving to this country, and understood maybe one.
And the man said, “Yeah something immigration something application something visa blah blah.” That’s what fifteen years of studying Japanese will get you.
“I see,” I said. “Is this about my permanent residency?”
“I can’t tell you,” he said. “Just come to the office with your passport and an eight-thousand-yen revenue stamp.”
“Weird, but okay,” I said, and hung up. Can’t tell me? You called to tell me you can’t tell me? Nobody in this nation makes any sense.
Getting Permanent Residency in Japan
I had a fleeting fear that someone would be hiding in the bushes outside the Immigration Office waiting to jack me for my passport and 80 bucks, but I went anyway. Inside, the lady with the mismatched eyes told me to sit and wait and then proceeded to shuffle papers for half an hour. You’d think since they called me they could just hand over the card, but apparently not. And who gets a phone call anyway? The internet said I’d get a postcard in my mailbox, and the internet’s never wrong. Maybe the whole thing was an elaborate sting operation to lure me into the office and arrest me for some past crime they’d uncovered.
I was about half-way through my long list of crimes committed when I heard, “Seeroi-san? Here you go.” I stood up and suddenly there it was, shining on the counter, a radiant ID illuminated by a shaft of light. The picture of my boyish yet ruggedly handsome face, the phrase “No work restrictions,” and next to “Date of Expiration,” just a string of asterisks, all laminated beautifully to last forever. Actually, I thought the asterisks looked a bit tacky, but maybe I could put it in a nice case or something.
I looked up at the lady, and gazed lovingly into her mismatched eyes. “Thank you,” I stammered with tears of joy welling up, and she stared back like she’d just handed me a sausage on a stick. Just exactly the way the old man running the wooden shack under the sakura trees mindlessly handed out sticks of ground-up cow and pig with zero emotion, like, Here’s your visa, enjoy the festival.
Whatever. On the street, in the train, I couldn’t stop looking at it. It felt like the most significant accomplishment of my life; at least one that took ten years to get. Now I could live and work in Japan forever. I dreamed a dream, and it actually came true. Time to start playing the lottery.
And then a strange thing happened.
The Old Lady in the Bar
After the Immigration Office I went straight to this dingy bar I know, and a lady friend joined me for two pints each with a wine chaser and a session of staring at my new ID. Okay, nothing too strange there. But then in the corner was this old woman looking at least a hundred-and-fifty sitting on a barstool drinking a small beer. And at a certain point, she just slid off and pitched onto the floor with a soft thud.
How many Japanese people does it take to change a light bulb? Well, how many you got? Because in typical Japanese fashion either nobody does anything, or everyone goes nuts and does everything all at once. And so both of those things happened. At first, everybody just looked the other way, like, Oh, I don’t notice the old lady taking a nap on the bar floor.
But when it seemed like they just couldn’t ignore the situation any longer, suddenly a dozen Japanese folks gathered over her and brought out an armchair and propped her up in it. She was white as a sheet and her lifeless frame kept sliding out of the chair, but everybody was drunk and kept trying to straighten her and hold up her head, like She’s all right, she’s fine. But every time they let go, her noggin just dropped to the side and she slumped over. So they kept doing it—she’s okay, she’s okay—holding her up, trying to balance her head like an egg.
And I was like, Uhh, she’s pretty far from okay. You know, I’m not a doctor or anything, but I’m pretty sure that lady’s dead. Only I didn’t say it, because I’m Japanese and all. Eventually somebody got the bright idea to call an ambulance. And so naturally then everyone had to pull out a cell phone and all start dialing the exact same number at the same time, until eventually one arrived and carried her frail body out on a stretcher. And that was sad, because she still had a pretty full beer.
Living the Rest of Your Life in Japan
What with the permanent residency in Japan and the dead old lady and all, somehow my perspective started to shift a bit. Like, now that I’d worked so hard for the right to live and die here, well, maybe I didn’t want to all that much. It was strange, but I felt slightly—what?—done with the place.
Here’s the thing: everyone wants to move somewhere better than whatever wretched hole they’re in now, reinvent themselves, have a life that’s better or at least different from the miserable one they were dealt.
I didn’t really think about it when I started this journey fifteen years ago, but maybe that’s what I was doing, trying to craft a new existence with more—well—more something, anything. I went to a place utterly new, with neon towns and strangely-dressed folks who looked wholly different. Hell, even the writing was amazing. The citizens bowed and ate tiny pieces of fish with sticks and rode trains. How cool was that?
But somewhere along the line, it all became supremely normal, even banal. Sitting cross-legged on tatami, drinking matcha tea in an old teahouse used to feel so Japanese; now it’s something I take tourists to do, just like my Japanese hosts took me years ago. If I really wanted tea, I’d buy it in a plastic bottle from a vending machine. Going to the 100-yen shop used to feel like a grand adventure. Now it just feels like I need to buy something that costs a hundred yen.
What’s Great About Japan?
Ask anybody what’s great about Japan. Go ahead, I’ll wait. And I bet they say the same thing. It’s safe. It’s clean. The people are polite. Well, at least the first two are largely true. But safe and clean, is that enough? That’s what my toilet bowl cleanser says.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Japan. I mean, safe and clean—you could do a darn sight worse. Plus, the food’s good, it’s pretty cheap, and it’s typically quiet, at least when the dogs aren’t barking and the horrible black sound trucks aren’t blaring imperial marches from World War II. But forgive me for saying this—it’s, um, kinda boring. The next Eddie Murphy or Dave Chappelle probably isn’t going to be penning one-liners in kanji. Japan’s a nation with a bit of a stick up its ass.
Seeroi, You Ungrateful Sonofabitch
So okay, I know that sounds bad. And trust me, I am enormously grateful for permanent residency in Japan. It’s fabulous, really. But I’m also trying to paint an honest picture, if not of Japan, then at least of my experience as an immigrant. Japan’s a fine place, and I’m happy enough here. But in no way is it perfect. I expect Japan’s got as many plusses and minuses as any developed nation. I gotta concede that a lot of the attraction was the novelty, the ability to start anew in a foreign land, to have another shot at life. Now all that’s done, well, turns out I’m still that dude who wants to move somewhere new and exciting. Maybe some place completely different, filled with amazing architecture, beautiful nature, strange people, unusual customs, and exotic foods. Somewhere like—I dunno—America.