© Michael Troy Judd

Paper Alien

Translated by: 
Polly Barton

I don’t own a car, and I don’t plan to acquire one any time soon. Living in Tokyo as I do, I find that some combination of trains, buses and my own two feet always gets me where I need to go. If and when the occasion calls for it, there’s never a shortage of taxis around, and so it’s never crossed my mind that being car-less puts me at a disadvantage in any way. Whenever I do get into a car these days – not a taxi, but a regular, private car – the event takes on a slight sense of occasion.

But just a few days ago, your car-less author received a postcard from the Licence Management Division of the Police Department Driving Licence Headquarters. ‘Notification About Your Upcoming Driving Licence Renewal,’ the title read.

As it happens, I do actually have a driving licence. In the photograph, I look slightly deranged. It’s hard to think of the idea that I’m legally permitted to drive as anything but a bad joke.

I was in my third year at university when I decided it would be a good idea to get my licence. Get it now, I thought, and it will definitely come in handy further down the line. In fact, the use for it I had in mind was not as something that qualified me to drive a vehicle, but as a watertight form of ID. Years later, I am now the proud owner of that wondrous object, the Gold Licence. The reason I’ve been bestowed with this honour, signifying a faultless driving record, is that since passing my test I have not made physical contact with a single steering wheel. It stands to reason that I wouldn’t have had any accidents or violated any regulations.

In Japanese, the expression used for people like me is paper drivers: people who are qualified drivers on paper, and on paper alone. By law, paper drivers like myself are allowed to have a driving licence with their photograph on it – so long, that is, as they keep on renewing it every few years.

And so I hand over the renewal fee at the appropriate desk in the Driving Licence Renewal Centre, have my photograph taken as instructed, and am then directed to the conference room where I will attend the compulsory lecture on road safety. The room is lined with rows of metal chairs, but with about twenty minutes remaining before the lecture starts, there are only a handful of people in the room. I take a seat in the back row. Since it’s a weekday, it seems unlikely that the lecture room will get too full. Nonetheless, someone with fiercely erect posture has taken a seat in the very front row. His hair is light brown. He must be young, I think. Still, that’s a very laudable attitude, going straight for the front row. As all this is going through my mind, the man turns his head and I see the long, straight line of his nose, the deep contours of his face.

Ah, it’s a foreigner, I think immediately. Then I catch myself, and the ridiculousness of my own thoughts comes back round to strike me. After all, I remind myself, so am I.

It’s not something I go around thinking about much from day to day. In fact, it’s fair to so say that most of the time, I’m oblivious to the legal fact that in Japan, I am a foreigner.

I look down at my Alien Registration Card on the desk in front of me, with my name, my date of birth and my nationality printed on it. Just minutes before, I’d handed this card, issued to me by the district office in the area where I live, to the clerk behind the renewals desk. Glancing repeatedly between the card and her computer screen, she’d typed something into the computer. The procedure took less than a minute. Then she handed me a long, narrow slip of paper.

‘Could you please check this for any mistakes?’

I looked down at the slip of paper to see the words:


Name: Wen Yourou

Nationality: Chinese


‘No, no mistakes,’ I said, but my voice caught a little in my throat.


To read the rest of this story and everything else in Issue 34, visit our eShop to take out a subscription or buy a print or digital copy.

Already a subscriber? Then please sign in!


More Non-fiction

Please Register or Login

Register now for full access to News and Events, Web Exclusives, Blogs and Comments.

If you've already registered, please login.