Going postal

With the arrival of our second child we’ve yet again mired ourselves in the tedious administrative circus of registering the birth and applying for a passport. We learned the first time round that living abroad makes everything that bit more stressful as you need to send original birth and marriage certificates back and forth between you and the UK. Living abroad as a diplomat family further complicates things as you need to apply for a UK diplomat passport as well as a normal UK passport plus, in the case of Australia, a visa. Living abroad as a diplomat family where one parent is Japanese – well, you get embroiled in a small mind-fuck.

In Japan, to register the existence of your child, you need to get her added to your family registry document (‘koseki’) where your family history is recorded. The koseki is typically located at the local council of the place your family comes from – in my case, a village 300km west of Tokyo where I’ve never been, the village where my paternal grandfather grew up before one day deciding to run away to the city to become a journalist. To move the koseki to your current place of residence is apparently so much of a ball-ache that no generation since has bothered to do it. This has meant that when our kids were born, we needed to first get the birth certificate issued in the country of birth, then take it to the Japanese embassy who sent the details to the office in my grandad’s village, then ask our parents who live in Tokyo to contact my grandad’s village and get them to send the new version of the koseki, now with the child added, to Tokyo. From there, my parents would send it on to us by international mail, and with the document in hand we would go back to the Japanese embassy in order to start the passport application process.

Where we’ve currently come a cropper is waiting for the koseki to land in our little battered postbox down the drive. My parents were told at the post office in Tokyo that it should arrive in Canberra in 7 to 10 days – but what the Japanese end, ever logical, ever punctual, failed to accommodate for is the whimsical slowness of the Aussie postal system. Every day at around 10.30am the postman in his fluorescent yellow Australia Post jacket meanders up and down our quiet street on his little motorbike, and pops in our postbox a leaflet from the vets addressed to a previous tenant, a notice informing us that the house opposite is due to be knocked down, a hospital letter about an appointment we’ve long before been told of via text – anything but the sodding koseki. Since there’s no way of bypassing this stage of the process, I’m currently in schemes to persuade my parents to send off to my grandad’s village again for the koseki and this time post it to Australia by the most hideously expensive means possible.

What all this has impressed on me is the ease and speed, by contrast, of our other daily international transactions, all of which can be done online. We organise month-long, multiple-location trips to Europe from our sofa. We conduct family conferences across three continents over WhatsApp, break news to friends over Skype, send Christmas presents via Amazon and use VPN to watch Japanese TV. Hell, we even bought a house in the UK over email. One click of a button and our entire lives are set up – all except for the boring, crucial things like births, marriages, passports, medical rebate cards, driving licences – that seem to involve obtuse forms that need to be filled in by hand, in-person visits to crowded offices and frantic searches in bottom drawers for original copies of documents. Since DD and I still cling on to the last threads of the umbilical cord, relying on our parents to store important paperwork and become points of contact for complicated administrative processes, we end up involving them in the stress too and testing their heart conditions.

Maybe the fact that our identities are tied to documents and locations is a reaffirmation of our physical existence, anchoring us against the transitory, elusive nature of life. Or maybe it’s the government’s way to keep us little people in our place. Or maybe it’s a reminder that for all our ability to lay cables across ocean beds and fly delivery drones in the sky, humans have yet to invent a system more reliable than paper to act as proof for the most fundamental things that happen in our lives. Or maybe it’s a way of giving people like me, obviously with not enough else to occupy the mind in the middle of a Thursday afternoon, something to get excited about. The latter, I confess, is the most likely.

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