Onigiri and Immigration: Tales From Shinagawa

Onigiri and Immigration: Tales From Shinagawa

Japan does not know what to do with immigrants.  They need immigration.  They want immigration.  But, Japan is a habitual half-stepper when it comes to both immigration policy and the day-to-day business of integrating foreigners into Japanese society.   This is a major problem.  Japan is aging rapidly and those who are not aging are not having babies. By 2050, it is estimated that Japan will only have 96 million people and no way to keep industrial production in line with its public debts. The clear answer to this looming problem is an active pursuit of an immigrant population.

I am an immigrant here.  I have it pretty easy because I have a spousal visa — this means no one is going to kick me out of the country: I can work, have access to medical and other social services.  However, it does not mean that I can avoid the total shit-show that encapsulates going to Tokyo’s immigration bureau in Shinagawa.  Shinagawa has always been a traveler’s hub.  In the distant past, it was the first postal station that one would reach when setting out from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Tokaido Highway. In 2020,  Shinagawa Station is a huge rail hub, linking high-speed trains from around the country to Tokyo.  It is surrounded by huge hotels, malls, a not-yet-bankrupt Dean & DeLuca and a variety of corporate headquarters.  If you are an immigrant — a traveler in all ways — you are directed away from those glitzy spots with signs guiding you to a “special” bus to the immigration bureau.  This bus, as if adding insult to injury, is more expensive than a normal Tokyo bus, and seemingly more decrepit.  It is a sad bus with a grumpy driver, who is perennially annoyed at non-Japanese speakers being confused about the pricing.  As soon as the bus pulls away from the station, Shinagawa becomes grim.  The land is all reclaimed swamp.  Huge, drab buildings and concrete overpasses abound.  No one is on the street; you can’t see any restaurants; much evidence of port-life: shipping containers, slow-moving rivers glistening with a sheen of engine oil, warehouses that look like prisons.  You cross a bridge onto an island made of landfill and are dropped off at a building that has all the charm of Riker’s.  Mormons and Christians have stands set up, offering free Japanese classes and hints about the end-of-the-world.  You have arrived at the Tokyo Immigration Office.

I have often stated that Tokyo is perhaps the most “put-together” city in the world.  By and large, the population is uniformly showered, coifed, well-dressed, laundered, made up, neat and, of course, 95% Japanese.   Well.  Not so at the old Tokyo Immigration Office.  It is the Japan that you rarely see: a gaggle of ethnicities (Chinese, Mexican, Arab, Nepali, African, Eastern European, Vietnamese, even a Hasid!); a certain stain of poverty in the cheap suits, weirdly colored ties and mass-produced Chinese clothing echoing unknown fashion trends.  People living in shared housing with crowded bathrooms emit the subtle aroma of hard work, limited wardrobes,  hasty showers and shirts washed in the sink.  There are reams of paperwork to fill out, none of it translated; photos to be taken and glued onto various applications; revenue stamps to be purchased.  The lines are huge and slow-moving.  Rows of plastic seating taken up with applicants waiting until their number is called.  Endless bored children being shushed by anxious parents and grandmothers.  Like some form of rare, migrating cranes, impossibly tall, slender Russian models flit through the crowds, led around by their cooing Japanese agents.

I led a privileged life in the US.  It was rare that I ever had to deal with government bureaucracy.  A good thing, because I have a deep aversion to authority.  A bad thing, because in Japan, I am unsuited to the demands of the Japanese Immigration Office.  I feel strangled by the air, panicked at my lack of understanding, hostile that no one recognizes that I, in my deeply egocentric mind, am special and deserve treatment benefitting that “special” status.  Instead, like everyone else, I have to wait in endless lines, be scolded for having the wrong documents and slump in uncomfortable seating looking at a digital readout blinking “49” when the ticket I hold reads “287.”

A visit to the Tokyo Immigration Office is a day with X through it.  There will be no joy.  There will be no respite. A day to be handed over to unpleasantness and quickly forgotten until the annual date that you have to return.

But…I have found one positive note in the bowels of purgatory: Guilt-Free Conbini Lunch.  Conibi are Japanese Convenience stores.  There are 3 big ones: 7-11, Lawson and Family Mart.  They stay open 24 hours.  They provide a range of services from bill payment to package delivery.  They have clean bathrooms.  They stock a dazzling amount of goods from Muji T-shirts to seasonal varieties of Oden.  There are fine wines for sale, special whiskeys and perhaps 50 varieties of canned coffee. You could easily live a life based solely around Conbini — they are the social-commercial hubs of Japan.     Plus, the food they offer; the snacks they offer; the candy they offer are all at a level of quality that far exceeds any American chain.  In general, I avoid Conbini food. No matter how good it is, it is still junk food; that said, I have ended more than a few drunken evenings guiltily clutching a Family Mart pork bun or a 7-11 potato korokke.  However, at the Tokyo Immigration Office, I am free of guilt.  There are no other choices on Landfill Island when it comes to lunch.  Actually, that is wrong.  There is a Family Mart in the actually Immigration Building, but across the street, away from the feeling of being in an ICE holding pen, there is a Lawson, my personal choice.  The last time I was there, I carefully concocted a lunch: Two onigiri (stuffed rice balls),  a cup of coffee and the last-minute indulgence of a piece of fried chicken.  I sat myself down on an overturned crate in front of the shop and savored some freshly brewed coffee. Around me, three men chatted in Arabic, smoking cigarettes and laughing loudly as one pantomimed the stern face of an immigration officer.  Conbini Onigiri are a feat of engineering.  The dual wrapped packaging is designed to keep the seaweed dry until one is ready to eat. Ingeniously, you open a tab, pull the plastic from both sides and voila! You get wonderfully moist rice, wrapped in a flavorful, crunchy wrapper of nori and stuffed with, in my case, tuna & mayo and salty plum.  I then ate my moist fried chicken, subtly flavored with garlic and a not so subtle shake of MSG. Still hungry I went back inside and got another onigiri — this one made from 15-grain rice and stuffed with pickled mustard greens.  Back on my crate, enjoying the textual variations of the grains contrasted against the sharp crunch of mustard green stems, I began to gaze around at the crowds milling about, smoking cigarettes, sipping drinks or, like me, enjoying a bite to eat.  Weirdly, no one else seemed to embody the stress that I had been feeling — they actually seemed loose, chatting, laughing, happily chomping away on a variety of Nipponese snacks.  There was a spark in the eyes.  A commercial glitter, a promise of a better life. A different kind of guilt began to wash over me: For all my gripes about the Tokyo Immigration Office, it must be so much better than what many of my fellow immigrants came from — there are no armed guards clutching M-16s; there are no officials with their hands out, expecting bribes; there is not even the air of powerful suspicion that invades every crevice of the US Department of Homeland Security.  There is simply confusion; an uncertainty of how to integrate a much-needed population into a heterogeneous society that has survived and thrived with shared cultural ideals, manners and behavior patterns.   But, I watched as a young Somali guy (I know this because he introduced himself to me), popped his own onigiri in his mouth — “very fresh!” he told me — finished his canned coffee, and carefully separated his refuse into the appropriate receptacles.  Hope is the thing with feathers.

7 Replies to “Onigiri and Immigration: Tales From Shinagawa”

  1. Thanks for taking me on an excursion to Tokyo Immigration Office, which I will never get to experience – but Antoine soon….! Your post is such a joy to read every time! Big up!

      1. Oh my! This is beautifully written and spot on (I, too, lived in Japan for years and hated the Shinagawa run, but Sho Ga Nai eh?) Sadly I never took a closer look at Lawsons. Next time. I do hope these writings on Japan of yours are to appear soon in book form?

      2. Oh my! This is beautifully written and spot on (I, too, lived in Japan for years and hated the Shinagawa run, but Sho Ga Nai eh?) Sadly I never took a closer look at Lawsons. Next time. I do hope these writings on Japan of yours are to appear soon in book 📖 form?

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