Permanent Residency

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I recently made the decision, with advice from my immigration lawyer, to apply for permanent residency in Japan. I realized that even though I have lived here around 23 combined years, I still feel like a guest of the Japanese government. Permanent residency, if I get it, is just that: permanent. Excluding the ability to vote, I will be treated like a Japanese citizen, no need to ask permission to start a business or provide a reason when I leave or enter the country. Applying for visas every 3 years isn’t that big of a deal to be honest, but it’s the mentality more than anything that bothers me. I have spent most of my life here but I could be denied a visa at any time. The life I built up in Japan could vanish at any moment at the whim of an immigration official having a bad day. Perhaps that is a bit dramatic, but that’s how entering the immigration office feels anyway.

Before they grant permanent residency though, they definitely do their research. They want to know everything… how much I paid in taxes, how much my parents paid, my Japanese language certification, my work history, my bank statements, my driving record, my school records, a guarantor, my pickleball credentials, recommendations letters, the list goes on. I even have to write an essay about why I want to live in Japan and how I am going to contribute to society. It feels a bit like begging but I have to remind myself that it’s all part of the process and that once I finish, I never have to do it again.

I will say though, if I am denied permanent residency I will have a seriously diminished view of the Japanese system. Japan says it wants to become more international by increasing immigration. And for both demographic and economic reasons, it desperately needs more people. If I am not the type of international who Japan would want here, frankly I’m not sure who is. The one catch is that typically permanent residency requires 10 consecutive years of living in Japan (I had to start over when I left at 16) but I am applying after 6 years because of exceptional circumstances. Not to toot my horn but I have lived here 23 years, have the highest level Japanese language credential, bought a house, pay taxes, have brought hundreds of people here and started a new sport in Japan. Also I’m not saying this is right but I am one of the “desirable immigrants” from Western countries, not a “suspicious character” from Southeast Asia, Africa or the Middle East. It sounds simplistic but it’s true. I don’t agree with categorizing people like this, but the reality is that it happens in all countries and I got a lucky roll of the dice for being born American.

Concurrent to applying for permanent residency, I am registering my house as a Japanese style inn or Ryokan and registering it on Airbnb. Why do I have to register as a ryokan? Great question. To prop up the hotel industry, the Japanese government basically cut the number of airbnbs in half a few years ago. If you aren’t registered as a hotel, you can literally only rent out the property for 180 total days a year. In addition, the local ryokan association in my town got together and decided to limit rentals on certain days when they make money. So rentals during golden week (early May), silver week (late September) and the entire months of August, October and December are not allowed. Since I can’t beat ’em I decided to join their ranks, which is why I am registering my house as a Japanese style inn. It’s more expensive up front, but I’m choosing to see it as a barrier to entry. Like many things in Japan, the bureaucracy makes it expensive and difficult to get started, but once you push through the crowd there are fewer players to compete with. I’m playing the long game, even though it means investing more up front.

All that to say, my life in Japan feels much more entrenched than before the virus. I enjoyed my globetrotting life before but I’m not sure it was the healthiest. In the last year I’ve started working out, eating healthier, and made more friends/business contacts in Japan than ever before. Like the permanent residency or the airbnb registration, circumstances are what they are so it’s better to make the best of them. Dealing with the Japanese bureaucracy is a practice in stoicism but there is a lot of good in it. I’m hoping to take some of the lessons from this pandemic into the post-pandemic world. Before, I tended to think of work as a sprint to make as much money as possible, saying yes to everything as a result. Being somewhat bored for a year, I have realized that I never want to retire anyway. I will go back to traveling the world and a busy lifestyle but I want to remember that it’s a marathon. The pace needs to be set accordingly, running but taking time to take it all in as well.

Team Japan

I often wonder what it is that drew me back to Japan. I grew up here of course and have that sense of belonging but so did my siblings and they are happily living in the US. What specifically made me want to come back and not them?

First, I can’t discount the influence of a single encounter. I was living in Colorado at the time when my sister told me about a ski resort that was looking for staff. Having nothing better to do I thought, “what the heck” and spent the Winter snowboarding in Shiga Kogen. I didn’t have any plans to move back to Japan until then and that single introduction probably changed my life. Who knows if I would have found a different path back to Japan (I have the feeling I might have) but when I spent that Winter in Nagano I knew I had to stay.

Now that I’m here though, there are a few specific reasons that I just like Japan better than anywhere else. First, Japan is an endlessly interesting place to study. Churchill’s riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma quote actually describes Japan better than Russia. There is a simultaneous depth of culture and weirdness that in my opinion is not found anywhere else. For example, any aspect of Japanese culture from its history, food (which has it’s own branches), art forms, religion etc. is a rabbit hole that you could spend years going down. As a guide, I’m constantly making new discoveries because of the sheer volume of things I want to know. After living here 23 years I’m still asked questions about Japan on every tour that stump me. Second, I relate to Japanese peoples’ personalities better. Most Americans are willing to bare their life stories within a couple of meetings but in Japan – as with myself – it takes some time. It’s not that Japanese people don’t open up, someone just has to be in the inner circle before they do. There are a few ways to get into that inner circle including alcohol and speaking Japanese so I often experience a side of Japanese people that someone who doesn’t speak Japanese simply can’t. And perhaps superficially, Japanese food is just healthier and higher quality than American food of the same price. It’s easy to eat healthy and feel good here whereas in America it takes a conscious, concerted effort.

Another reason I have stayed is that I feel like I have more to contribute than I would living in the US. Speaking English and Japanese in Japan is a valuable skillset whereas in the US it wouldn’t be a significant advantage. In the US the competition for everything from houses to jobs to venture funding is fierce whereas in Japan, there just aren’t as many people competing for the same resources. Macro economically competition is good so it’s the reason the US is so far ahead but as an individual, it’s nicer being in a small pond. I definitely have a competitive advantage here that I wouldn’t in the US. I stand out here and while I hated that as a kid, I realize that it’s valuable as an adult. It’s no exaggeration to say that everyone who meets me remembers me because I’m this weird white guy that speaks perfect Japanese and those connections often come in handy sometime later.

Finally, this is a bit simplistic but despite its issues, I fee like Japan is still one team. I hate to say it but being ethnically homogenous probably helps. And while I am not, as you may have noticed, ethnically Japanese, I do feel like I’ve been let onto the team. I feel like I have skills that can contribute to making a better society, to brining more business here and to diversifying Japan in a positive manner. That’s what makes living here interesting for me.

Back in Japan

After a month and some change in North America, I’m back in Japan for the Winter. Yes, like a few times before I have decided to write more this year, both on this blog and my new Active Travel Japan blog. So here we go.

Traveling back to the US and Mexico, it was nice to see family and the friends that I could, but the fact that nothing was open made it a different kind of trip. I’ve never sat inside so much life, or seen my family sit around for that matter. Everything was open in Mexico so the two weeks I spent there on our Camp Cabo Pickleball Trip were fun. Although back in Japan it’s some more of the same, I do have my backyard ski resort to alleviate the boredom. You can only snowboard so much though so I’m trying to find things to do, hence the writing.

My sense from visiting the US is that it’s no longer a country at peace. While Japan has its social problems, at the very least it can rally people around being Japanese. It seems that for many Americans now, political affiliation is more important than being American. Whereas during previous crises like World War II, citizens and politicians alike were willing to sacrifice personal interests for the good of the country, I don’t see that happening anymore. You can argue that Japan is more unified because it’s more ethnically unified, but the US has been diverse for its entire existence so that is nothing new. Its diversity is not going away so it must figure out how to unify people around being American. Even if you disagree with someone else’s views, at the end of the day you don’t know everything and both sides are trying to make America better so just work together. I know it’s not that simple, but that’s what I see looking at the US from the outside.

Like I mentioned previously, the hardest thing for me during the pandemic has been maintaining a sense of purpose. I have been fortunate financially because of the popularity of the Pickleball Masterclass, but that means I could literally sit in bed and watch Netflix all day. I haven’t done that of course, but it’s hard to do something today when there is absolutely no sense of urgency because no one is traveling anyway. I suppose it’s a good time to find purpose outside of work, but I loved what I was doing so I didn’t necessarily feel that need in the first place. I am in no position to complain, these are just my rambling thoughts.

Anyway, a new lockdown in Tokyo has cancelled my planned pickleball coaching next week. Last week people who were going to rent my house canceled as well. It’s just that kind of year. I’m less disappointed now, I feel more deflated. I have come to expect everything I plan to get cancelled so I’m not even surprised anymore. A couple of groups of friends are coming next week to ski and snowshoe though so at least that’s something. If it doesn’t get cancelled that is 😉

More to come, please stay tuned.