Charles McJilton on how visa overstayers too get Gaijin Cards


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Hi Blog. I asked Charles to write this up because it’s an interesting case study on how visa overstayers still get Gaijin Cards for social services (such as Calderon Noriko’s schooling). The answer is: local governments issue them. And the police, according to one anecdote below, are aware of it. Now, however, the GOJ is trying to close that avenue, by abolishing the current Gaijin Card system and replacing it with something even more draconian. See my Japan Times article today on it. Arudou Debito in Sapporo



By Charles E. McJilton
Catholic Community Worker, May 19, 2009

“All my paperwork except my visa…”

This was the constant refrain of Miss X. For her a visa was not the beginning of the process of legitimizing her legal existence in Japan but the end. For most foreigners in Japan, receiving a visa to stay in Japan begins the road of registering at the local ward, applying for a gaijin card, opening a bank account, and eventually paying taxes. All of these things are milestones signifying that one is a bona fide member of society. But how does one survive if the do not have a visa? How do they go about legitimizing their existence, and is it possible?

I first met Miss X in June 1994 when she was staying at Catholic facility for unwed mothers. I was a Catholic community worker and met her went I went to mass on Saturday nights. Her son had just been born and she was not sure what she was going to do. The father was also a foreigner and was not really prepared for this new responsibility. Over the years I saw many changes in her life and the struggles she went through. She and the father were never able to make things work and went their separate ways. Left to work things out for herself she had many different jobs until she settled at a factory making toys for 600 yen an hour, or 4800 yen a day. On a good month her pay would be 100,000 yen, but it could easily be as a low as 80,000 yen. With rent at 50,000 a month, money was tight for her Miss X, but she found many ways to save money and get by. While the pay was low, it meant she could be home with her son in the evening rather than working at some club.

There is an unwritten rule among the foreigners I deal with and that is we do not ask about one’s visa status. There is no reason to ask. So, in 2002 I was having coffee with Miss X when she casually told me, “I have all my paperwork except my visa.” She then pulled out a folder filled with documents. And sure enough, one was a copy of her foreign registration at her local ward. And then she showed me her gaijin which had written in black 在留資格なし(no permission to stay). She explained that each year she was required to “renew” her gaijin card.

Then she explained why she registered. As registered foreigner and single mother she was eligible for support from the government for specific things related to her son. For example, when she gave birth, the ward office picked a part of the hospital bill. When her son went to daycare while she was working the ward stepped in and provided some assistance. And when her son entered elementary school the ward subsidized his lunch meals. This would not have been possible had she not registered her son.

In 2003 the police served her with a warrant to search her house. The police suspected that an acquaintance of hers had left a gun in her apartment. What was amazing was that the warrant had her address and correct legal name even though she never uses this name and it is doubtful many of her friends know what it is. However, the police did not arrest her. In fact, she later told me that on two other occasions the police had questioned her at the local police station and in court about a crime they believed she had information about. Again, she was never arrested.

Miss X finally went home in July 2004 when she voluntarily turned herself in to immigration. I went with her that day and waited to see what would happen to her and her son. As I waited I wondered if she would be detained or what would happen. She was the first person of her group that had been questioned together to leave interrogation room. “The let me go first because I had all my paperwork.” She explained she had to return two more times; once with paperwork from her embassy and the last time with her ticket proving she was leaving Japan. “My son asked them to change the date we had to come back so he could attend a school event and they said OK.”

I recently called Miss X to see how she is doing. Her son is doing well in school and she is in nursing school. She said she would like to come back to Japan again some day. “But this time I want to have a proper visa.” I called her local ward and asked what their policy was regarding issuing gaijin cards to overstayers. They said in principle they notify immigration and seek guidance on whether to issue a gaijin card. If they do issue a card, the word “在留資格なし“ will be written in read, which was the case for Miss X’s last gaijin card. It is indeed an interesting world out there.

Charles E. McJilton

Tokyo, Japan


4 comments on “Charles McJilton on how visa overstayers too get Gaijin Cards

  • Alexander says:

    The variety of different cases is simply astounding. On one hand you have a case like this. On the other, you hear stories of people arrested at airports *trying* to leave the country after overstaying, being shipped back to a detention center, and then being deported.

    It seems like what to do is entirely at the discretion of the official directly involved. I really wish we could have some more transparency, and that some central agency could be directly accountable for all decisions. Time for an immigration agency anyone?

  • Is it only me or the very idea of Alien Registration Card with “No permission to stay” written on it is really surreal?

  • So any Japanese citizen or even a foreigner could go to the Ward Office, say they are staying illegally and the Mafia stole their passports with a ‘foreign accent’ and get a bogus card from the Mother Teresas at Ward Offices with a new nationality and name to blame their Japanese crime on. It really doesn’t make sense that Alien Registration is done outside of the Immigration Bureau.

    — No, it’s not that simple. You have to show some proof that you are who you are. Obviously these people have passports, or they wouldn’t get into Japan in the first place. It just doesn’t mean you have to have a valid visa from the GOJ.


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