David Chart's Japan Diary

December 11th 2006

I know this diary entry is a bit late, and I know some people actually care, so sorry about that. The primary reason was that, after I finished the rush writing project, I double-checked one that was, I thought, less of a rush job, and discovered that the deadline was not December 21st, as written in the initial email, but December 1st. So that suddenly became rather more urgent.

I got it finished on time, but it, unsurprisingly, pushed back the editing, and that took over time for writing diary entries, so I'm only getting round to it now.

There have been a few events worth reporting in the last three weeks. A couple of weeks ago two of Yuriko's friends came round for lunch, and got shown the wedding photographs and certain sections of the wedding DVD. The whole DVD is about one and a half hours, so friends, who were at the wedding, are not subjected to the whole thing. That was a pleasant day, which included looking at a flat for sale in our block, as one of Yuriko's friends is planning to move. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like they'll be moving in upstairs, although they might be moving to this area.

The next event was my visa extension. It came through in about a week, so I went to the immigration office to pick up the actual visa. I have a three year extension, which makes my life a bit more settled. I gather that renewing a marriage visa tends to be very easy; it is a little complicated first time round because you have to demonstrate that it's a real marriage, not something just for the sake of a visa. If you've been living together for a year, that's pretty good evidence that it's still a real marriage, so renewal is easy. You do have to be living together, though; no dual-centre international marriages in Japan. Then I had to go to the Ward Office to get my Gaijin Card updated; again, that's trivial and takes about ten minutes, although my card is now full. If anything changes before I have to renew it anyway, I will have to get a new one made. However, I don't anticipate any notifiable changes in that time, so I think I'll be OK.

Despite being largely a formality, we were happy to get official confirmation that I could stay in Japan beyond last week, so last Sunday we went out to celebrate. We had a meal together, and went to an eel restaurant. I know that quite a few Westerners don't like the idea of eating eel, but I really like it. However, it is both expensive and high cholesterol, so I can't eat it very often. Special occasions are, of course, a good excuse.

After the meal, we went to the cinema. The choice was between Casino Royale and The Devil Wears Prada. We saw The Devil Wears Prada. Guess who made the final decision. Actually, it wasn't too bad (although I have no plans to buy the DVD), and the system is that Yuriko decides one month and I decide the next. So, next time we go, I get to choose.

It won't be another chick flick.

Yesterday I went to the Open Meeting of the Kawasaki City Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. The Representative Assembly is a formally-constituted city body, the oldest such body in Japan. It's ten years old this year. Membership is limited to foreigners over 18 years old living in Kawasaki, but beyond that it's unrestricted. Of course, the definition of "foreigner" means that a fair few of the members were born in Japan. The current chairman was a Japanese citizen when he was born. He's now Korean, but I have no idea whether he's ever been to Korea. The largest group of foreigners in Japan, as I'm sure I have mentioned before, are Koreans who came over (or were brought) while Korea was a Japanese colony, and have lived here since.

At the beginning of the meeting, we were introduced to all the current representatives, and it was notable that, if you passed most of them on the street, you would probably not realise that they weren't Japanese. For some, of course, they even sound like natives; only the name gives it away. A couple of days ago, I read an article on the Guardian website about a visit to the whitest place in Britain. It sounds like the number of non-white people there is fairly similar to the number of non-oriental people here.

Of course, I live in one of the most international places in Japan.

There was one announcement at the beginning of the meeting, when a representative of the City Council spoke, that surprised me. Kawasaki is seriously considering given foreign residents the vote in local elections. Not just permanent residents, either; anyone over 18 who has been (legally) resident in the city for over a year, if I recall correctly. This is not yet the rule, but the Supreme Court has ruled that giving foreign residents the vote in local elections does not violate the constitution, and the proposal is, I think, going to the council to be voted on. So, I may get to vote in local elections here fairly soon.

The first part of the meeting was a discussion of the history of the assembly, with all the past chairmen, and the current chairman (yes, they were all men, although a couple of the vice-chairs, at least, have been women, including the current one, and the current assembly is about fifty-fifty). It seems as though the Assembly has achieved quite a bit, although there is still more to do. For example, it is illegal for letting agencies in Kawasaki to discriminate against foreigners, and has been for some time; that was one of the first things the Assembly pushed for. This is not illegal nationwide, and apparently a lot of private landlords do still discriminate, even in Kawasaki. I had fewer problems there, due to wanting to buy. There have also been a number of minor successes. For example, one of the first things that the Assembly pushed for was the creation of "Foreign Resident Information Corners" in all the Ward Offices, Civic Halls, and libraries. I've seen these around everywhere, so that obviously worked, and it is useful.

The Assembly reports directly to the mayor every year, and although he is not bound by its deliberations, obviously, it does seem that he takes it into account. If nothing else, it means that there is a formal body representing the foreign community, and pointing out problems. Minor things seem to get fixed fairly easily, once the city knows that they are a problem.

The second part broke up into three smaller meetings. I went to the one on society and everyday life, and tried to explain about my problem with the pensions. This was tricky; it is hard to explain to people that a list of places to contact about various things does not help with that problem. If you know you need to talk to someone about pensions, then it's very useful. But if you don't, you won't make contact, even if you should. Ideally, the various systems would talk to each other, but that would probably require major changes in national legislation. Failing that, it would be good if, when you registered as a foreigner, you were given a list of all the other offices you should go to, even if you don't think there is a problem. They do tell you to get your health insurance sorted out, but a complete list would be more help.

Anyway, after that there was another plenary session, where the results of all the sub-meetings were announced, and then a drinks-and-nibbles talk-to-people party. I was actively introduced to a number of current and past representatives, and almost without exception they asked me whether I was interested in being on the Assembly next time. The last one I talked to, a German lady who has lived in Japan for about forty years, explained the reason. The Assembly is appointed rather than elected, and reflects the composition of the foreign community in Kawasaki. They need a couple of Europeans, but Europeans interested in participating are, apparently, difficult to find. Thus, when a European who spoke Japanese spontaneously attended the Open Meeting, the immediate response was "Hey, you could be on the Assembly!". I've been on committees like that...

I am seriously thinking about applying next time. Anyone is allowed to observe the normal meetings of the Assembly, so I'm planning to go along to at least a couple of them, to get a better idea of what they're like. Yuriko also picked up the Annual Report from last year, so I'll read that. (Yuriko went to the first part with me, but then went off to see a museum exhibition. It was the last day of the exhibition, so it was yesterday or never.) The next Assembly starts from May 2008, so that's enough time for me to gather information and make an informed decision.

So, that's about it for this entry. It looks like Kawasaki is much more progressive in its engagement with foreign residents than most places in Japan, so I'm glad I moved here. I've been wanting to get involved in the local community in some way, and this looks like it may be a good opportunity. Of course, a city of about a million people is borderline "local", but that's where I live.