How-tos | LIFELINES

A primer on navigating your ID landscape

by Louise George Kittaka

Contributing Writer

A number of changes to Japanese ID registration systems have been implemented in recent years, some of them for everyone in Japan and others pertinent only to foreign nationals. The ins and outs can be a bit confusing, particularly for those who have been used to living under the old systems for many years. Here is a summary of the various IDs and what they mean for you:

Residence card (zairyū card)

Introduced in July 2012, this replaced the old alien registration card (colloquially known as “gaijin cards”) for non-Japanese with “mid- to long-term residential status” (basically longer than three months). The three-year grace period for swapping over has come and gone, so we hope there are no Japan Times readers out there thinking the alien registration card is still valid. The plastic laminated cards, which bear your photo, can be renewed at your nearest immigration bureau or obtained at the airport upon arrival at the airport if you’re getting one for the first time. The name on the card matches what is in your passport. This is the primary source of ID for non-Japanese residents and by law you are supposed to always carry it with you.

Resident record (jūminhyō)

Along with the adoption of the residence card system above, from 2012 foreign nationals have been included in the national resident registration system, just like Japanese citizens. New arrivals who are issued a residence card at the airport are required to register an address in Japan at their local municipal office (shiyakusho) within 14 days. Similarly, if your address changes, you must notify the municipal office in your new location, again within 14 days. A copy of your resident record may be required in certain cases, such as when applying for a mobile phone, and one can quickly be issued upon request for a small fee at the municipal office. It comes in the form of a sheet of embossed paper.

Basic resident registration card (jūmin kihon daichō card, or ‘jūki card’)

This was an early attempt by the government to have ID cards issued for everyone, but it was replaced by the My Number system in January 2016. However, jūki cards issued before then can still be used as ID. Previously, one incentive for foreign residents to get the jīki card was the fact that one’s “alias” (tsūshō) in Japanese could be included on the card, along with the name in romaji (Roman alphabet). Although the old alien registration cards also allowed the inclusion of a tsūshō, the current residence cards only allow romaji. This move was potentially problematic for those whose name is in Japanese on other ID, such as their health insurance card or bankbooks, and thus getting the jūki card was a sensible precaution to ensure everything matched. Fortunately, My Number also permits a Japanese tsūshō to be recorded. (More on the tsūshō below.)

My Number (kojin bango)

Launched in October 2015 with a white rabbit as the official mascot, My Number is also sometimes referred to by the rather cumbersome title of “Social Security and Tax Number System” in English. All residents of Japan, including foreign nationals with a residence card, have been issued their own 12-digit identification number, which were sent out by municipal offices. Once you have received notification (a small green piece of paper), the government would like you to take it back to your municipal office and use it to create a more durable plastic My Number card (photo optional).

I made the switch in preparation for this article, figuring that a plastic card is easier to keep track of than a flimsy piece of paper. (This, however, is still optional and response has been lukewarm so far — I was told that only about 10 percent of residents have switched in Tokyo.) My Number cards can be used for official ID purposes, whereas the notification paper cannot, but the 12-digit ID numbers are on both, along with your name in romaji and in Japanese if you have a Japanese alias registered.

According to the government, the purpose of My Number is to streamline and unify administrative procedures for taxation and social security, and aid in the prevention of such crimes such as tax evasion and wrongful receipt of welfare benefits. However, many people have expressed concerns about the privacy and security of their personal information.

On April 21, the welfare ministry said it will allow the My Number card to be used in place of the national health insurance card from fiscal 2020. The ministry hopes the measure will increase acquisition of the identification card because the insurance card is used more frequently.

Health insurance card (hokensho)

If you have a residence card, then the government says you must also be enrolled in the domestic health insurance system. For students, freelancers or the self-employed, it will be through the national health insurance system (kokumin kenkō hoken), while full-time employees are generally enrolled in social/employee health insurance (kenko hoken) through their firms. Dependent spouses and family members are also covered and every person, including children, has their own health insurance card.

An unscientific survey of about 70 foreign residents of various ages and durations, some of whom have taken a Japanese partner’s last name, reveals a mixture of ways to record the bearer’s name: All in katakana, a mix of kanji and katakana, all in English, with or without furigana (small characters placed above the main script to aid with pronunciation)—sometimes even with katakana “helpfully” placed above a name already in katakana. Some people reported being specifically asked how they wanted their name to appear, while for others it was taken from their passport or issued at the whim of their company with no input from the bearer. Hokensho can be used as ID in many cases, which is perhaps surprising given the range of ways in which names can be written.

Alias in Japanese script

As mentioned earlier, a tsūshō is the version of your name in Japanese script recorded as an officially accepted “alias.” While the Japanese government requires non-Japanese to have romaji ID in the form of the residence cards, most of us soon work out that this isn’t very convenient for everyday life. Foreign names get put into katakana for leases, contracts, work and school-related ID, bank accounts, health insurance, pension-related documents and so on. Some people end up with more than one version of their katakana names, or something not of their own choosing.

Having an “official” version of your name in Japanese can be helpful in ensuring your ID match up. You could offer a residence card with the name in romaji and a health insurance card in katakana and be rejected because they don’t “prove” you’re the same person. Incongruous as it sounds, foreign nationals have reported similar scenarios when trying to close a bank account or get a new mobile phone. For those who have taken a Japanese partner’s last name upon marriage and may be raising children, the tsūshō also provides cohesion and a sense of unity with all family members having the same style of appellation.

Although you can’t have a tsūshō on a residence card, if you used one previously on your old alien registration card, it should have been transferred over and will appear on your resident record as well as your My Number card.

If you have never had a tsusho and would like to get one, you should first visit your municipal office and apply to have it added to your resident record. This is not a particularly easy process, and things have tightened up with the inclusion of foreign nationals in the resident registration system. The important point is to prove you have been using the Japanese alias in daily life and that it would make your life “easier and more comfortable” to have it officially recognized. Examples of ID where you use your Japanese name, such as company documents, bank accounts and insurance cards, will be required. If you have married and have taken your spouse’s last name, you probably have a stronger than average case. My local city office has a special form to fill out, so this is presumably also the case elsewhere.

In an attempt to get some more concrete tips on the tsūshō process, Lifelines called the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and eventually got connected to the Administration Reform Department in the General Affairs Bureau. This resulted in an interview the following day with three earnest officials, who dutifully arrived with a stack of books and folders — none of which were cracked open during the interview. An hour later, this disgruntled Lifelines writer left with nothing much to show for her efforts. “Basically, it is up to the municipal office, on a case-by-case basis,” said manager Machiko Ito. And there you have it.

If you have recently applied to add an alias to your resident record, please let us know how it went: community@japantimes.co.jp.