Permanent Residency in Japan

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.

44 Replies to “Permanent Residency in Japan”

  1. Good thing you didn’t go all in for citizenship then.

    For ”some place completely different, filled with amazing architecture, beautiful nature, strange people, unusual customs, and exotic foods” I’d have to suggest Finland. Fun language to learn also, if you feel ready for a new challenge in that area.

    1. Honestly, I have a really good impression of Finland. I don’t know how seriously I’m looking for a new country to move to, but if I ever decide to do a global search for a new home, Finland would be on the top of my list.

      1. I’m sure you’ll like their dark and dry sense of humour too!

        But you might find yourself longing for Japan from time to time during those winter months…

        Anyways, it’s good to have you back!

        1. Thanks, good to be back.

          Yeah, I’m not really down with long winters, although I do like Nordic skiing. Eh, it could work.

  2. Hi Ken,

    What do you think of cheating as a subject in Japan? I recently watched this video (link below) and it says over 80% of women here cheat. How true is that? Maybe you would like to dedicate a post to this? Thank you and have a good day. Oh, and congratulations on your Permanent Residency. Probably a good idea not to go for citizenship, the population is declining and surely you wouldn’t want to pay increasing taxes as the number of young people supporting the elderly continue shrinking.

    1. I think it’s a subject akin to walking into a minefield. And the more I think about it, the more I love it. Yeah, I’ll take that on next. Good suggestion.

  3. Congrats on permanent residency!
    Maybe try Europe next (just need to know five languages for traveling an area the size of Texas)?
    No better way to spend the next 25+ years 😀

    1. I’ve always admired people who could live in a variety of different countries, moving around the world every few years.

      After Japan, I’m not sure how much moving I have left in me. It takes so long to get set up and settled, not to mention the monetary and emotional expense. But you never know—if my job goes south here, maybe I’ll be looking for a position in France.

      1. Very true, it is quite exhausting in a variety of ways to be moving around frequently.
        Maybe getting permanent residency is just like after a marathon where you think “Why did I ever do that” but sure enough after a couple of weeks you’re back in your running shoes.
        Maybe now that this worry is gone you find some new perspectives and goals like a Japanese Rule of 7 YouTube Channel or get a cat or something 😀
        Seriously though, I think what you’re doing with this blog has a positive impact on a lot of people’s lives so wherever you end up I’ll be rooting for you!

        1. “Seriously though, I think what you’re doing with this blog has a positive impact on a lot of people’s lives…”

          Seriously, this. I check this blog every day, haha. Went to Hamamatsu in 2009 and loved every second – also love Ken’s writing style and voice. I’m in wherever the road takes you, as long as there’s internet.

          1. Agree!
            How does he manage to say so much with so few words? Poignancy leaking out the wazoo.

            What’s good about Japan? It’s confusing! The surface experience contradicts the deep experience.

            I frickin love living in Australia. I thought it was full of arseholes until I travelled abroad and realised that our particular brand of arseholery is just the flipside of honesty.

            I’d invite Ken to Australia, but I don’t think it’s enough of a puzzle for him. Though if you want human connection, it’s a great place to be.

            1. Hey, throw another shrimp on the barbie and I’m there. Yeah, I know you don’t say that. Embrace your stereotypes. Don’t make me get my gun and bible.

              I love the Australians I’ve met in Japan. They’re a good bunch, what with all the kangaroos, koalas, and Foster’s beer. I probably wouldn’t move there forever, but I’d be willing to give a weekend a go.

      2. Seeroi, when it comes to settling in a new country as a foreigner, Japan is about as S-rank as it gets. You could move to and settle waaay easier almost anywhere else (maybe not Saudi Arabia or North Korea, but you get the point). For example here in Europe, if you are a EU citizen, you can just go anywhere. Me, as a Hungarian, I can just cram my stuff into my car, drive to Germany, Portugal or Poland or whatever, rent a flat, find a job and get settled mostly without any restriction. Of course there is bureaucracy everywhere to an extent, but this is not Japan. There is no staring, no “look, a gaijin”, nothing like that. With so many ethnicities around, you won’t stand out here at all. Also, a lot of foreigners can go without learning the local languages since lots of locals speak English. None perfect, but enough to scrape by in everyday life. Granted, people are generally not as nice here (especially compared to Japan), and if you are not outlandishly flamboyant or make a scene, people will most likely just ignore you, which is not necessarily a bad thing if you are looking to fit in. Of course you also lose the benefits, because literally anywhere is less safe and more dirty than Japan, it’s an exchange.

  4. That is exactly what I experienced in Japan!
    After a few years I got 1) bored 2)stressed with the working culture 3)fed up with the all the people and rudeness as I was living in Tokyo 4)constantly sick, because all the stress and lack of vitamins/minerals! seriously. and I eat and cook very clean! It all went away after moving do Ireland.

    btw, you can still live in another country, just be sure to apply for a reentry permit at the immigration office (it is valid for 5 years), and if you decide you wanna live in Japan after all, just be back within 5 years. cheers!

    1. That’s excellent advice. I’m not saying I’m ready to move anywhere yet, and I may well stay here forever. But it’s good to have the option.

  5. I had a chance at permanent residency once. I looked around at the other professional gaijin I knew who after many years of being told and shown by Japanese how special they were had actually come to believe it. And then I left the country.

  6. “So okay, I know that sounds bad. And trust me, I am enormously grateful for permanent residency in Japan…. Now all that’s done, well, turns out I’m still that dude who wants to move somewhere new and exciting… Somewhere like—I dunno—America. ”

    Bluto: What? Move? Did you say “move”? Nothing is moving until we decide it is! Was it moving when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!
    Otter: Germans?
    Boon: Forget it. He’s rolling.
    Bluto: And Ken ain’t moving now. ‘Cause when the goin’ gets tough . . . the tough get stayin’! Who’s with me?

  7. I could have done it. I was eligible 4 years ago. I was married to a Japanese woman (still am), and had a daughter (still do). We moved to Canada 3 years ago because we didn’t want our daughter to suffer through Japan’s education system as a haafu, study only for tests, and never learn how to think critically. I had a conversation with a 14 year old girl I taught about the education system, and she agreed with my assessment. But if I had been single, I would have applied for permanent residency. I would have stayed in Japan the rest of my life.

    1. “We didn’t want our daughter to suffer through Japan’s education system as a haafu, study only for tests, and never learn how to think critically. I had a conversation with a 14 year old girl I taught about the education system, and she agreed with my assessment.”


      1. I must say, I’ve heard that a lot, and it seems the responsible thing to do. The educational system in this country is absolutely bonkers.

        1. Then there’s the issue of better pay (maybe not so much if you teach English), better working conditions, better living conditions (if you come from Tokyo), better welfare (if you go to Europe) ….

          I struggle to come up with reasons to stay in Japan 🙂
          …. maybe … Onsen? 😀

          1. It helps to like Japanese food.

            Japan’s a fine place, and you could do worse. It is, literally, the white rice of nations. The question is, could you do better? I try hard not to ask that, every day.

  8. Congratulations, Ken! It sounds like you’re feeling just a little bit empty after your victory, but at least you don’t have that dread anymore, right?

    As for me, I just moved to Japan like a month and a half ago and already life feels normal. I’m okay with this. I actually prefer a boring existence, but I’m weird like that. Sometimes I feel like I’m an old man in a young man’s body, heh.

    1. Congratulations on your move. Yeah, Japan’s a pretty chill place to live. Sometimes it feels a bit like a retirement community, what with all the old people around.

      You really nailed my feeling. Although there’s a bit of emptiness, I’m tremendously relieved. That dread of somehow being forced out of the nation really started to build up over the years, as I acquired more and more of a stake here. Thank God that’s resolved.

  9. Yay ! congrats, i am happy to hear you got pr for Japan. i heard it is difficult to get. i always cheers for you. it’s great. am I being positive? 🙂

  10. Congratulations on permanent residency! The thing with the old lady sure was strange.
    Should I expect an americanruleof7 blog next, and how America is full of trucks, guns, fastfood, trucks, and posts on how you when and got a truck driving license? Nah, I think not. Cheers!

    1. Hey, ya never know.

      I will say this: with U.S. culture as material, I wouldn’t be hurting for things to write about.

  11. I did 7 years . Married a japanese woman had 3 kids. Im Canadian, never killed a fly worked full time but damn japan refused to give me permanent residency. Reason? Come to the office they said. I bought my tickets back to wonderland Canada and left. Living there is very unstable, pension sucks, work for women tend to be bad as they look down on women and kids i almost killed mine with the tremendous amount of homework. I must to admit that if i were to be single things would be different so much fun beyond your imagination but that’s what happens to most new generation japapanese they dream and when they get to 30 and wake up all they have done is travel, drink and f** then is too late cuz is hard to gey married or get a good retirement. Im glad i left as a parent i saw no future in my kids studying so hard to end up as a slave of a company, a boss or the culture. From the souvenirs you are basically forced to bring every time you go anywhere to the forcing to drink and waste your weekends with the boss not with family. Thank you Japan for refusing me so i had an excuse to say to my wife i had had it there.

    1. Can you give us a hint why you were denied PR? You weren’t masturbating on the train or anything? Personally, I got over the idea of PR early on in my stint for some of the reasons you mentioned. Ideally you want to be on the outside looking in. I’ve seen too many people with their spirits broken working within Japan. When you are working in one of those dodgy language school and your Japanese friends with real jobs tell you that they envy you because your life is so easy says a lot. Here I was thinking this job is the worst.

  12. I really like this blog a lot: the insights about Japan and life in general, and the humour.

    One wish: It would be nice if one could sort the posts chronologically.

  13. Warm congratulations on your permanent residency, Ken.
    I hope you cracked open a hot can of Boss coffee to celebrate in traditional style . It’s what Tommy Lee Jones would do, if he ever had a can of coffee in his life, that is. The grass is always greener on the other side of the planet so kudos for making a positive choice and commitment. If I had to make an actual decision to apply for permanent residency here in the UK, where I’m actually a citizen, I would probably have a nervous breakdown worrying over the pros and cons. Well done!

  14. Since moving back to Germany almost two years have passed.
    I very much understand your sentiment of “Japan’s just normal”. I felt (feel) the same way.

    Being in Germany I sometimes missed aspects of Japan (some people, some places, a kind of atmosphere, a kind of human interaction). Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly.

    But truth be said, my life and that of my family is un-disputably better. We have more of the enjoyable things of life and less of what sucks about it. So my “homesickness” to Japan has been limited. Same goes for my wife (Japanese, remember).

    I’ll come to Tokyo for a business trip in a few weeks. I wonder how it will “feel”. First time I pretty much felt nothing … just happiness to meet old friends and happiness to see some rice fields.
    Tokyo? Meh.

    1. You know, the first time I went to Tokyo, it was like I’d died and gone to Disney World. It was amazing, like the most astonishing place I’d ever been. The most recent time I went there (last year), it was just what you described: lots of meh. As in lots of crowded sidewalks, crowded trains, crowded restaurants, salarymen and tourists everywhere. But it was good to see old friends. Now, that’s what I like best about Tokyo, the few friends who remain there. But the city—you can have that.

  15. Have you seen the gigapixel spherical photo or whatever it’s called taken from the Tokyo Tower? (Google if not) It’s a massive photo and you can zoom in wherever you want. Hotel windows, any street, cars, combinis. When I first came across it I was so excited. ‘Oh my god! This is cool! I’m going to spend hours! ‘ Then you play around with it for a few minutes and it’s nothing but people going to work, kids going to school. Strained over-polite interactions taking place. A gazillion air conditioners. ( I now live in Australia, where surely we have shitloads of air conditioners too, but somehow in Japan the back of an air conditioner is visible every time you open your eyes)
    I think it was around 2012 when I saw the gigaphoto and thought, ‘What am I doing here.’

  16. People ask me where they should go and eat when they visit Japan…and I tell them they’re talking to the wrong guy. I eat at conbeni, Yoshinoya, and Matsuya when I’m not with the in-laws…they’re better off looking at Lonely Planet or Tablelog if they want to see THAT part of Japan.

  17. I lived in Japan for a few years and recently (as in, last week) just went back to visit and see if perhaps I had made the wrong decision in moving away (back to America), and if perhaps I wanted to return to Japan permanently.

    I came to the same conclusion you did. It was a great visit, and I can never pass up the comparatively cheap sake, but the novelty had all worn off and by the end I was ready to get back to a place a little less, well, boring.

  18. Congratulations, Ken. Glad to see you made your dreams come true.

    I was 8 years into my Japan stint when I contemplated sticking around an additional 2 years in order to get my PR, but then I was faced with the question of whether I really wanted it and for what purpose. Before moving to Japan it had always been my dream to live there, but now I was wondering what precisely I’d get out of staying further.

    I’d captured most of the value that living in Japan confers, and I was past the point of diminishing returns. Already in my 30s, I’d seen most of what’s there to see and did almost everything I’d wanted to do. I’d gotten a pretty good picture of what was attainable and what would have to stay relegated to daydreaming. Part of the excitement of starting a new life in a different place is the great unknown that lies ahead of you and the hope it gives you. It’s not so much the place that changes as the years go by, it’s the fact that you eventually find out the limitations of your existence there; you find out where the all the glass ceilings are. In a way, with that great unknown gone, what was previously valued as shiny and exciting gradually loses its luster and novelty value and becomes suffocating and oppressing instead.

    Essentially, I realized I had passed the inflection point where I was putting in more than I was getting back. I started to realize how it feels to be Japanese in Japan. I had become a prisoner of the very thing that was at one point a welcome escape from the drudgery of my hometown overseas. Ironic but not completely unnatural.

    With a fiancé and (a kid in the pipeline), I realized that raising a family in Japan is a completely different ball game from drinking in Shibuya and Roppongi several nights a week as an unencumbered bachelor. Only the environment remains the same but it’s an entirely different existence, a much harder one to swallow given the societal constraints in Japan. I couldn’t justify putting my future child through the Japanese education-workforce gauntlet.

    And while the alternative of staying an eternal bachelor in Tokyo has some (surface) appeal, I’d seen most of my foreign friends over the years turn into old cynical drifters, aimlessly looking for their next high in some nightlife area, hoping that finally they’re going to find something or someone to fill their personal void, only to make it a pattern and repeat it week after week, year after year. Many of them had nothing to show for their efforts other than financial problems, a lack of financial security and the odd alcohol or sex addiction.

    That is not to denigrate my Japan experience – I’m very glad I did it and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. But it was only one phase of my life and life has a lot more to offer and the new unknowns to discover 🙂 (and sorry for the wall of text.)

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