I’ve read that in ancient China, the idea of heaven was very different to the fluffy-cloud, angels-playing-harps notion that prevailed in the West.
Rather, the Chinese pictured a heaven that closely mirrored the structure of the imperial court. Heaven was full of gods acting as bureaucrats, who could intercede on behalf of mortals (or against them) if they felt persuaded to do so. Thus to navigate a successful spiritual life, a Chinese person was required to curry favour with a bunch of capricious, inefficient and often inconsistent celestial paper-pushers.
One of the best illustrations of this idea of heaven-as-bureaucracy is found in Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, popularised under the name “Monkey” by the dodgy, poorly dubbed TV show. The hapless Monkey is constantly making petitions to various deities to have his freedom restored. Some of them can’t be bothered helping, some of them want a quid pro quo, and some of them have clearly woken up on the wrong side of bed and just want to make life as difficult for everyone else as possible.
As a theory, you have to admit it seems to fit the facts of our existence more neatly than choirs of angels and a chilled out guy with a beard.
In any case, if the Chinese were right about heaven, then the Tokyo Immigration Office at Shinagawa must be the corresponding hell. Similarly, it is a bureaucracy without end, but this time with the overriding purpose of making life as miserable for people as it possibly can.
There are almost 1 million foreigners living in Tokyo. Any time any of them need to change any detail regarding their residency or their visa, they have to go to a single office located in the industrial port district of Tokyo.
1 million people. One inconvenient location
I’ve had to visit this delightful place three times in the last five months. Each time, it’s taken almost a full day. First, the closest station is about an hour from my apartment. Then, it turns out that the office is about a half hour walk away from the station, through the industrial badlands.They’ve put the sole immigration office for the Tokyo prefecture in the middle of nowhere.
Walking there, the swanky office buildings near the station gradually give way to factories and abandoned buildings. Dockworkers fall silent and scowl at you as you pass by. Smoke stacks tower upwards, belching sulphur, and dilapidated transport lorries crawl by on the roads.
Entering the building, there is no sense of relief at a journey completed. Instead, a weird miasma of despair and desperation creeps over those assembled. You can literally smell the suffering in the air. The place is packed with poor and huddled masses, waiting against all hope for the cogs of the giant machine to turn and spit out an answer to their pleas — any answer. Here and there, small children bawl. Everyone else only cries on the inside.
For my visit earlier this week, my mission was to change my visa type from a “working holiday” visa to a “specialist in humanities” visa. In order to do so, I needed to cancel an earlier application I’d made to extend my working holiday visa.
The Office is organised into a number of “counters”, each of which will provide “service” for a different aspect of the visa and immigration process. In order to complete the application for a visa change, I had to start at “S” counter, then go to “B” counter, then go back and get an additional special approval from “S” counter, then go back to “B” counter.
There is no way to short-circuit this back and forth between counters. It’s just a poorly designed work flow. The reason that this is such a problem is that you have to start at the end of the queue every time you change counters. Wait times at “B” counter usually exceed 2 hours. “S” counter is a bit quicker.
When you do finally reach the top of the line, you’d better hope that all of your documents are in order, because it would really suck if you needed to revise something (necessitating a departure from the counter and getting back in line at the end of the queue).
To apply to change my visa, I needed 18 different documents, including academic transcripts, certificates of admission to practice law, employment contract, etc etc; plus translations of each of these.
You would think that at the Immigration Office, there might be a few people who could speak a language other than Japanese. But you would be wrong. The people staffing the counters either cannot or will not explain anything in English. It’s kind of like an informal language test. If you know enough Japanese to muddle your way through the visa application and renewal process, you’ll be able to stay in the country.
To make matters even worse, you’re not even dealing directly with the government. The government has outsourced the running of the Tokyo Immigration Office to a private company. I guess when the government ran it, the Office was too efficient and helpful, coz, y’know, public servants are just like that.
You’d better be on your best behaviour, because if one of these contractors takes a dislike to you, they can boot you out of the country. By law, there is no right of appeal from a decision made by a frontline Immigration officer.
So far, I’ve managed to navigate this kafkaesque nightmare (albeit with a large loss of time and a small loss of sanity). In all seriousness, though, some people aren’t so lucky. For example, this article from The Economist details some absolutely disgusting treatment of a resident by Immigration.
It really does seem as if the Japanese government wants to make it as difficult as possible for foreigners to comply with their residency obligations placed upon them. That’s the government’s prerogative, I guess, but it sh#ts me when they then turn around and wonder aloud — as they do from time to time — why foreign visitor numbers continue to fall.
I really like Japan. 99% of the time I want to give Japan a high-five. But the Immigration Office is the worst thing about Japan. It makes me want to curl up into a little ball.