TOPTokyo LifeRomaji vs Katakana: Japan’s Vicious Residence Card Conundrum

Romaji vs Katakana: Japan’s Vicious Residence Card Conundrum

Have you ever had a postman arrive at your place with a new credit card only to put it back in his bag and leave you empty-handed? It's probably because your name appears in the wrong alphabet.

By Shivdeep Dhaliwal

Shakespeare was dead wrong when he said, “What’s in a name?” A rose spelt in katakana is not the same as a rose spelt in romaji. Allow me to explain. The Japanese writing system is made up of hiragana and katakana (phonetic syllabaries), kanji (Chinese characters) and Latin script – which is known as romaji in Japan.

Introduction to the Zairyu Card

The complexities of the writing system can cause troubles that transcend the literary realms. Here is my story… I moved to Japan in 2019 and was promptly issued a zairyu card (residence card) at the airport. This is an identification issued to non-Japanese medium-to-long-term residents in the country by the Ministry of Justice.

Non-Japanese who live in the country use the zairyu card as a primary means of establishing their identity and it is often required to open bank accounts or even to walk on the streets. If you are found to be not carrying your card by law enforcement, you can be fined up to ¥200,000.

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The Joys of Applying for a Japanese Credit Card

Fast forward a year and I decided to get myself a Japanese credit card. After a couple of customary rejections, I succeeded. Hey presto! I was now a trustworthy foreigner in the eyes of Japanese bankers.

When the card was finally at my doorstep, the delivery person asked for a piece of ID. Complying with the request, I flashed my residence card, but the credit card promptly went back into the mail carrier’s bag. The credit card company had put my name on the envelope in katakana and my name appears in romaji on my residence card.

A few phone calls later, the problem was fixed and the card was dispatched again, this time in an envelope with romaji. No worries there. One would think this would be the end of the tale, but I applied for another more premium credit card the following year.

Again, the card company — this time a different one – played the same katakana roulette with me, but when I could not receive the card, they not only canceled my card and made me reapply, but also rejected my application altogether. Thankfully, diligent pursuit brought about an amicable resolution to the matter. It only took about eight weeks in total.

Birds of a Feather Still Can’t Figure Out Their Own Name

Surely, this would be a non-issue if only zairyu cards carried names in both romaji and katakana. Brazilian IT worker Leandro Eidi says not only would that eliminate “problems” but also allow for the creation of a “true” version.

Eidi ran into troubles while applying for a credit card at a department store a couple of years ago.

“This process was already a little complicated, since the self-service machines couldn’t handle romaji names and I had to look for an attendant to complete the registration process,” he says.

His card was issued the same day, but when the company offered to upgrade him to a gold version, he chose to have it delivered to his residence.

“When it arrived, the mailman refused to give me the card since my name in it was in katakana, while all my documents with my photo were in romaji,” says Eidi.

Not even showing his bank passbook convinced the delivery person, since it did not have his photo on it. This sowed a seed of worry in Eidi about future instances where he would need to prove himself.

The Postman Rings Twice – Then Takes Away Your Mail

Kareece, originally from Australia, is an English instructor in Shinagawa, Tokyo. She had a similar experience with an online shopping parcel that came to her doorstep a few years ago.

She says, “The delivery guy was a bit hesitant at first to give me my parcel, I just said, ‘it’s the same name! I’m the [foreigner]!’”

“He paused a minute, then just asked me to sign in katakana.”

Claire Youmans, Tokyo-based author of the Toki-Girl and Sparrow-Boy series of books, says she has both katakana and romaji on her mailbox.

“My zairyu card, my insurance card and my My Number card all are romaji, but my ATM card and a couple of other non-official things are in katakana,” she says.

Youmans told me that whenever she has encountered an issue with deliveries, which has perhaps happened twice, she just keeps showing the delivery person “things.”

“Somehow, it seems to work out,” says Youmans.

Don’t Make the Same Mistakes as Me

I put this question to the Tokyo Expat Network, a forum on Facebook and people narrated their delivery experiences. While credit card deliveries caused grief, some people also had issues with Mericari and online registrations and verifications.

Then again, some never experienced this problem even after staying in Japan for a long time, but your mileage may vary. If you are bold enough to go on an adventure of your life by settling in Japan for any length of time, make sure to be careful when opening new bank accounts or applying for credit cards.

In order to avoid trouble, insist that your name is written only in romaji if you do not possess any other form of photo identification that has katakana on it.

As for me, it is too late, I am still trying to figure out a way to get an acceptable photo identification which has my name in katakana. Perhaps the next step is to explore having an alias put either on my driver’s license or on my My Number card, but of that struggle I will regale you some other time.