Photo/IllutrationThe Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, located on the fringes of Shinagawa along Tokyo Bay, serves foreign residents and long-term visitors to Japan. (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

About a 10-minute bus ride from Shinagawa Station, near the waterfront and surrounded by container yards, there is a building familiar to just about all non-Japanese who reside in central Tokyo.

The doors are open to everyone, but I’d venture to say that 99 percent of Japanese Tokyoites have never set foot inside the building, or for that matter, never even thought about the existence of this place. It’s the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau.

The United States of America, where I hail from, is a jus soli country, which means that anyone born in the U.S.A. is granted unconditional birthright citizenship. Japan follows the principle of jus sanguinis, so if one or both parents is a Japanese citizen, then the child can be born on Mars and will still automatically have the right to a Japanese passport.

I know several mothers-to-be from jus sanguinis countries that have traveled to the United States to give birth, thus giving their child dual citizenship that might lead to more opportunities in the future.

Foreign residents in Japan must have one of 27 visas, officially called Status of Residence. I started my life in Japan on an Instructor Visa, as I was teaching English at a public junior high school.

I remember I was offered a lucrative two-day interpreting job (for which the pay was more than I made working a whole month at the school), but I had to turn it down as my visa only allowed “instructing.” My status is now Permanent Resident, which permits me to do anything, within the law, of course.

We non-Japanese go to the immigration office to do various things like get residence cards, change or extend our residence status, and get re-entry permits.

If you’re a Japanese citizen who has not been there and done that, how about doing something different and visiting the immigration office?

Nowhere else in Japan will you see such a diverse group of people all in one place. Do a bit of eavesdropping and you might find your assumptions and stereotypes challenged, as individuals who “do not look respectable” according to Japanese standards are anything but!

It’s somewhat like that young foreigner who works at your local convenience store or hash house--he or she is getting firsthand language and culture education, and that bilingual or trilingual individual could very well in the next decade become a distinguished ambassador or CEO of an international Fortune 500 company.

You never know, and you just might find yourself humbled.


This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the Dec. 3 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.