It is often sad when long-term relationships come to an end, but I have mixed feelings about the one I called it quits with recently.

I’m talking here about my relationship with the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, which I’ve been maintaining dates with on a regular basis since 2003. As I boarded the No. 99 bus from Shinagawa Station to that island in Konan, Minato Ward, in March, though, I wondered if it would really be the last time.

The Justice Ministry recently announced that from next month foreign residents will be able to apply for visa extensions, renewals and status changes online, partly to avoid the long lines and crowds typical of a day at the bureau and potentially deadly in the era of COVID-19. So for many of us, that trip out to Konan will no longer be necessary.

Still, while I was there, it struck me as a tad ironic that even though the bureau’s many purposes include admonishing, restricting, monitoring, rejecting and deporting people, it is still one of the most open and diverse places in Tokyo that you can go.

The bureau takes in all comers: the rich and the poor, the old and the young, believers and nonbelievers, short-term exchange students and lifers, dependent spouses and specialist workers alike. I mean, it’s not impossible that as famous a foreigner as Carlos Ghosn may one day have sat in that very room that I was sitting in, as he had one of his many passports checked. Though, more likely he handed the chore of visa renewal to an underling.

But if he did hand it to an underling, he missed out on a truly diverse experience. As I boarded the bus at JR Shinagawa Station, a lady with a Southeast Asian accent offered me her seat, and the people around me were chatting in Chinese and English.

Inside the bureau itself, carefree children were running wild and laughing, though there was an undeniable edge of tetchiness in the air as people waited for their number to be called, or they corrected and initialed flawed documents. I was reminded of 17th-century writer Oliver Goldsmith’s defense of the amount of time he spent in pubs and coffee houses, which gave him, “an opportunity of observing an infinite variety of characters.”

The thing is, humans tend to fall into cliques. Whether intentionally or through a combination of opaque factors such as educational attainment or perceived cultural norms, we often hang out with people who look and think rather like ourselves. But when everyone (or in this case, everyone who doesn’t have a Japanese passport) is required to visit the same spot, the cliques break down. I tend to hang out with native English speakers, or Japanese. So the hubbub of unfamiliar languages was a nice reminder of the diversity of foreign residents here.

One oddity you may notice at the immigration bureau is that for such a cosmopolitan place, there is little evidence of language assistance for those who may not speak Japanese. All announcements seem to be doggedly monolingual. This is odd, because so many other places in Tokyo have announcements in English and Chinese. Having been living like a hermit for the duration of the pandemic, I hadn’t used any JR train lines in quite a while and I found that the Yamanote Line was awash with English and Chinese. Indeed, the English recorded announcer sounded sonorous and enticing, like the guys who speak over movie trailers: “Coming to a platform near you, don’t miss the 9:46 train bound for Shinagawa!”

In contrast, the immigration bureau is filled with people speaking in all sorts of accented Japanese, trying their best to conduct the form-filling, identity checking and assorted rigmarole. Maybe that is the point in having no language support — show us your hard work! We may mollycoddle the tourists, but if you want to live here you had better buck your linguistic skills up. I hope the online system will be more linguistically friendly, since I find it easier to learn spoken than written Japanese.

There was a security check at the entrance. I was being led through the queues and checks by my wife, because I am blind. This seemed to cause a mild panic among the security staff, since there was one line for men and one for women. We picked the male line, and there was a minute of confused indecision when we got to the front. “What are we going to do?” said a male guard. “There is a woman who has joined the male line. Am I allowed to check a woman’s bag?” Since they didn’t pat our bodies down, perhaps the guard’s indecision came from a fear that he would find some women’s sanitary products in the bag? If Ghosn did pass through here, did he take note of these weak points in the immigration system’s armor?

The guy being served at the window next to mine spoke fluent Japanese. He was attempting to answer an irritated official, who was saying to him, “What are you doing coming here? You’re still supposed to be self-isolating!” I didn’t catch the rest of the conversation, as I tried to put a bit more distance between us.

I can imagine that, for some people, the immigration bureau has been the site of deep disappointment or frustration. For others, going there has been just an occasional chore. But the way I have come to see it, my trips there have been opportunities to observe an infinite variety of characters, a window on some of the 2.2 million or so foreign residents who have made Japan home.

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