Last weekend, I visited three major retail outlets in Shinjuku, Tokyo, to inquire about the purchase of a cell phone.

Though momentarily taken aback when I told them I’d never owned a mobile, all three eagerly introduced me to the latest models.

“OK, then,” I said, “What forms of identification will you need to see?”

“You live here, right? You can show us your Alien Registration Card.”

“Aha! But how about this, instead?” I countered, flourishing my Japanese driver’s license. I knew it should be OK, because a contact at one of the telephone companies had already advised me thusly.

My real purpose here was to make sure the commander’s orders had filtered down to the front lines, so to speak.

“Yes, that’s fine too,” I was told. I was impressed by the acumen of these young salesmen; they knew their business and were motivated to make me the proud owner of one of those esoteric devices.

Of course, not all foreign residents attempting to get set up with a keitai are met with helpful and informed staff and some confusion may have arisen of late since a new law, called the “Act for the Prevention of Illegal Mobile Phone Use,” went into effect from April 1 of this year making it neccesary to show I.D. when purchasing a pre-paid phone.

But to contract for a so-called postpaid (i.e., monthly billing) type of phone, as opposed to the prepaid type, I was told the following identification would be acceptable: Alien Registration Card; Health Insurance Card, submitted together with a resident card, or public utilities receipt, or government/public office documentation; Student ID plus Health Insurance Card; a Japanese (not International) driver’s license; a Basic Residential Registration Card; or Identification Booklet for the Disabled.

Previously the above could be waived in some cases by arranging for credit card payment; but with the new law in effect, customers identification is required regardless of payment method.

Likewise for prepaid mobile phones, which short-term visitors to Japan can buy using their passport as identification, as long as they also have a document of some kind showing their home address.

Japan, like Great Britain and the United States, is one of a relatively few countries in which citizens are not issued national identity cards.

So depending on what you wish to do, there’s a hodgepodge of methods for proving you are who you claim to be.

But the way I see it, I don’t need to prove I’m an alien; that’s fairly obvious.

Occasionally my unwillingness to show my alien card when I don’t have to results in run-ins. For example:

Store person: Look, what’s your problem? I mean, I know you’ve got one. So can’t I see it?

Me: Hey, look: the Foreign Registry Law, Section 13, Clause 2 states: “Foreigners, when asked to present their Cards for inspection by immigration investigation officials, police, coast guard, or any other national or local public official or group empowered by the Ministry of Justice acting in accord with the execution of their official duties.”

I even phoned the Ministry of Justice and was told that in so far as you are not a public official, I am not obliged to show you the card. So there.

Store person: Why are you being so obstinate?!

Me: Well, using my other ID gives me a chance to show that I can operate a motor vehicle; that while I’m a noncitizen I’m still a taxpayer and member of society in good standing.

Last Christmas I played Santa at the local primary school. Here, look; I’ve even got a photo to prove it (brandishes snapshot).

The law spells out my responsibilities; but — and this is important — it also accords me rights: the card, it says, is to be shown to the proper authorities on a need-to-know basis.

The Alien Registration Card we carry is an acceptable form of personal identification.

But it is not, nor should it be, the only acceptable form of identification, i.e., it is not issued for the convenience of banks, video rental shops or anyone who is curious to know if I am really who I claim to be.

In such cases, we foreigners do have the option of making our identity known using other documents. When and if commercial businesses insist upon it exclusively, they are out of line (the one exception may be when you try to borrow money).

So when it behooves me, I feel it’s worth the time and trouble to enlighten my hosts to this point.

Recently, I went to a bank near my house to open a new account. After drawing a number and waiting my turn for about 10 minutes, the young lady at the counter told me that I could not open an account without my alien registration card. I knew she was wrong — this was the second bank where this has happened — so I went home, phoned the customer service department at the bank’s headquarters, and requested this situation be rectified.

Ten minutes later, the local branch manager himself phoned me, apologetically, to tell me that I could open an account using any of the same ID as Japanese customers. That’s all I wanted to do in the first place. Was that too much to ask?

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