Last month, I exited Shinagawa station’s Central Exit, turned right, and made my way down to the bus stop where I would catch the bus to the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau for what would essentially be the last time. After ten years of living in Tokyo, my Permanent Residency had been approved, and so after five months of waiting all that was left was to pick it up. For foreigners that live here, a trip to Shinagawa Immigration is a bit of a ‘grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it’ experience. The process is always pretty smooth, but it’s very busy, and the later you arrive in the day, the longer you’ll have to wait. Situated down by the industrial waterside, it’s full of people milling about waiting on visas, document handlers everywhere, and a Family Mart downstairs loaded up with an ungodly amount of fried chicken crammed into a glass cabinet.
The act of applying for Permanent Residency is something most people who live here long-term aspire to do. The requirements aren’t exactly easy though: you have to be living here for ten consecutive years – or married to a Japanese spouse for three – as well as meeting a whole host of other tax, insurance and pension requirements. If you are a model citizen with a good/stable job who pays their taxes on time, you shouldn’t have a problem getting it. But ten years is a long time in anyone’s life, and so the real challenge before applying is making sure you set up a life here and are happy. Once you do that, the years seem to just fly by.
I’ve touched on it before, but I always had an affinity for this side of the world ever since I heard about my dad talking about living here in the 60s. But the whole Asian region in general always provided me with a bit of an escape, mentally. The small town I grew up in in Northern Ireland was the perfect place to be a kid. The seaside was right on my doorstep, I had a ton of mates who I would play tag and kerbsy with, and then in my teens, small record shops to explore. At around 15, however, I started thinking about what was outside of my hometown.
It might sound silly to think about now, but this was before the internet, and so my first introduction to Asia was through those glossy holiday brochures you used to see in the windows of travel agents. I used to go inside, and grab a bunch from Asia and look at them in my room. There I was, this little kid, walking into a travel agents, grabbing a load of brochures and walking out. Goodness knows what the staff thought of me. I vividly remember the images of Hong Kong, and the views from Victoria Peak.
Later on, when I turned 17 and started sneaking into bars underage, I would drunkenly stumble up to the Chinese takeaway at the end of the night. Sitting there at 2am, some random Chinese programme would be playing on the TV in the background, and I would close my eyes. For just a brief minute or two, I would escape to Asia. I know this sounds rather ludicrous, but looking back now, it was my brain and heart pushing me in this direction. I must have really wanted to go.
Of course, at this early point in my life I was naively bundling all Asian countries together. But I soon set my sights on Japan as somewhere I wanted to go, initially just because my dad said it was good. Perhaps if he had lived in Vietnam, I would have ended up there. And so, a few years later, I found myself lying on my bedroom floor, applying for the JET Programme to be an English Teacher in Japan. I was still living at home, and had never even been abroad before by myself – but there I was filling out forms to travel 8,000 miles across the world on my own. I took the boat from Belfast to Scotland to interview at the Japanese Embassy in Edinburgh, and then I waited…
And I was rejected.
I was working in a supermarket at the time, having just graduated from university with a degree in Psychology that I knew I would probably never use. Standing behind the deli counter, wearing an apron and a straw hat that the company made me wear, I remember my dad coming up to me and waving the envelope with my application results. He was excited for me to open it, and so I did it right there and BOOM, I found out I wasn’t successful. The worst part of it? I still had to finish my shift, feeling like shit, wondering what the hell I was going to do.
A few months later, I recall waking up, yawning, and drowsily walking down the stairs in my pants. I opened up the front door to grab the post – and there was this weird, large manila envelope addressed to me. Now, these days, with Amazon and stuff like that there always seems to be ‘big’ post arriving. But 20 years ago, it happened much less – and since I hadn’t ordered anything anyway, I hadn’t a clue what this was. I nonchalantly ripped open the envelope and was holding a brochure for Fukuoka City in Japan. I still didn’t know what was happening. I read the attached letter and it told me someone had pulled out of the JET Programme and that I was the reserve candidate. I’d been accepted after all – and it felt all the more surreal since the news was totally unexpected. They always talk about defining moments in your life. But what they don’t tell you is that you may be standing in your pants in the hallway when it happens.
And so, in August 2003 I waved goodbye to Northern Ireland and flew to Japan, starting me on this journey. I lived in Japan for a year, then returned to Northern Ireland. But while I may have left Japan, Japan never really left me, and so I came back in 2012. For many years, I cursed myself, saying that I should never have left Japan that first time. But I’m now old enough and wise enough to see that everything happens for a reason. I’m glad I left. I’m glad I came back. And I’m glad I’m here now, a Permanent Resident.