Tokyo Immigration Office

An actual photo of the actual Immigration Office at Shinagawa

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 locations.

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.

The many faces of Tokyo public transport: a people spotter’s guide

1. The Go Go Grandma

These savage senior citizens will stop at nothing to get a seat on the train. They are not above pushing you onto the tracks if you look like you’re eyeballing one. Their preferred weapon of choice is a gigantic shopping bag filled with what I can only assume are the skulls of gaijin who have wronged them in the past. They will hip and shoulder you like a Port Adelaide full back and the worst part is that their hip and shoulder is in line with the average foreigner’s stomach and knees. Very painful. Plus you never see them coming. However, once they’re on the train and merrily ensconsed in a corner seat (prime position) they are relatively harmless and are content to mutter and shoot dirty looks at everyone. In the interest of fairness I should say that the Go Go Grandpa does exist, but he is rarer. Also he doesn’t seem to glare at the schoolgirls so much…

2. Snoozy, Sleepy, Slobbery

A lot of people who work in Tokyo don’t necessarily live in Tokyo so they have a long commute. Plus the Japanese are famous for working ridiculously long hours. Naturally, people sleep on the train. There are three subspecies of this category: Snoozy, Sleepy and Slobbery. The most harmless is Snoozy. They doze with their eyes closed, partially conscious and perfectly respectable. Not worth taking a funny photo of. No dramas here. Sleepy is the next evolution. This breed often falls asleep mid text or even standing up holding onto the handholds on the train and sways back and forth like they’re on a boat. They nod forward deeply or loll backwards hugely. May be snoring quietly. Will still somehow wake up and get off at the right stop. Lastly there’s Slobbery. This person often also fits into the Drunky McDrunk category but sometimes they’re just very tired. This subspecies breaks all the rules of sleep etiquette on the train. They lean on random people and maybe even dribble on you a little bit. They miss their train stops and wake suddenly wide eyed and panicky (this is fantastically fun to watch). They often craft a small pillow and blanket out of their bag and scarf. Kind of cute but you don’t want to be caught sitting next to one unless you like a damp shoulder.

3. Drunky McDrunk

Ah Drunky McDrunk – a staple character on public transport systems the world over. However the Japanese version is a little different to your garden variety Australian or American yobbo. The Japanese Drunky McDrunk often looks totally normal. Usually they are well dressed in business attire and they are all very well behaved and very jolly. The biggest giveaway is the thick fog of whiskey breath, that being the drink of choice for most Japanese hitting the bottle hard. The DMcDs often travel in packs because Japanese businessmen and women tend to go out drinking with their bosses and cowokers a lot – so when one of the group gets off the train there’s frenzied bowing, waving and giggling. Once they’re on the train, there’s only so much mischief Drunky McDrunk can get into. They are actually more of a risk on the platform. Combine drunken weaving and simultaneously attempting to text in Tokyo peak hour and you’ve got the equivalent of a dizzy three year old with a bouncy ball playing real life Frogger – in the busiest transportation system in the world. Also, as I mentioned, they tend to merge into an SSS. It’s not totally bizarre to see a full grown man in an expensive business suit curled up across several seats on the late night or early morning weekend trains. I can’t say I blame them; in the cold Tokyo winter, the heated seats are practically narcotic.

4. Baggage Barbie

Baggage Barbie is most commonly female (sorry for the stereotype folks but if you’ve made it this far through the post you’ve probably given up hope for a glimmer of PCness). Their main characteristic is the huge amount of stuff they are lugging. Shopping bags, suitcases, enormous handbags, small animals and sometimes skis. This is due to several factors: Tokyoites rarely use cars, they love to shop and there is a social convention of bringing back enormous amounts of souvenirs from every trip (omiyage). The BB takes up way more than her fair share of space on the crowded trains and escalators and incurs the wrath of those who are just trying to get to and from work. Partly because they get in the way, and partly because the BB has just come back from or is going on holiday and the rest of us plebs aren’t. The BBs tend to wander aimlessly in large groups with their baggage through the station – mouths agape, looking for the right train. They are also frequently ridiculously dressed up which slows them down. I’ve seen some hauling huge handbags, a wheely suitcase and shopping bags full of souvenirs. All in filmy stockings, a tiny skirt and Lady Gaga heels and sunglasses. It’s really too impressive to be annoying sometimes.

5. Schoolgirls

Tamago assures me this category deserves it’s own number. All I can say is that no matter how cold it is, skirts are still alarmingly high. And even if you don’t swing that way, it’s very difficult not to stare. Truly, Japanese women were blessed with thighs that Westerners can only dream of. Despite a considerable amount of “innocent” leering on Tamago’s part, bag placement and skillful knee position have ensured that neither Tamago nor I have seen anything above the tiny hemlines. Amazing.

6. Gaijin!

Foreigners, to me, seem to fall into two main categories: they’re either doing their best deer in the headlights look or they have lived in Tokyo for a sufficient amount of time to look composed and smug on public transport. The Deer Gaijin often look totally lost and frequently flock to the enormous subway maps to fruitlessly study the candy-striped hell that is the Tokyo Metro. If the Nonchalant Gaijin is feeling charitable they might mosey on over in their Tokyo power suit and stop to lend a hand. However a part of them kind of enjoys watching the Deer struggle and secretly hopes they might give up and go home, because the more Nonchalant Gaijin there are in Japan, the less special they feel.

7. Maybe She’s Born With It: The Maybelline Girl

This species is a close relative of the women who put their lipstick on sitting in their car at traffic lights. The Tokyo Metro Maybelline Girl is able to stand in peak hour Tokyo traffic in precarious high heels, hold a hand mirror in one hand and apply flawless liquid eyeliner with the other. All without stabbing herself in the eye or falling over. For those of you who haven’t attempted it, applying liquid eyeliner with two feet on solid ground is no mean feat on it’s own! The natural enemy of the Go Go Grandma, the Maybelline Girl’s main strength is her ability to ignore everyone else on the train staring or, in the case of the GGG, glaring at her. She is usually stunning and exquisitely dressed. Tragically, in my opinion, the whole effect is ruined a little because the MG doesn’t usually need makeup, plus it shatters the illusion of effortless beauty to see the behind the scenes primping taking place on the crowded 9am Yamanote line. Also, I live in constant fear of being a witness to a tragic eye stabbing accident.

8. Siberian Cranes

The Siberian Crane is one of the rarest birds in Japan. It’s critically threatened according to my speedy and super reliable Google research. Siberian Crane individuals are the rare characters that are only occasionally spotted in the wilds of the Tokyo public transport system. Siberian Crane species one: Harajuku Girls. The ones that made Lolita a fashion style all on it’s own (see here for examples). It’s not especially strange to see one, particularly around Harajuku on a weekend, but they are rare enough to warrant a double take. Triple points for seeing a pair of Lolitas, one Gothic and one Sweet. Another Siberian Crane is the Woman in a Full Kimono. Again, they are a little more common on the weekend, but to foreigners in particular, it’s super exciting to see one! Often you can hear them coming in the train station before you see them as their shoes and famous two pronged socks require them to shuffle a little. Lastly, the Hardcore Punk Crane. Apparently in Japan, punk is not entirely dead. You can see sickly-looking skinny men dressed in head to toe black leather, with pink hair, chains and enormous combat boots strutting their stuff through Shinjuku Station from time to time. Yes there are punks back home but I have never seen a comparable level of commitment anywhere else.

If you’ve made it this far through the post I’m incredibly impressed. Please feel free to suggest any weird and wonderful types I’ve missed!

Parallel Universe

On Sunday night we went to a “Hub” pub — one of a chain of British-themed bars that are all the rage here in Tokyo.

Entering a Hub is like stepping into a parallel universe — one in which the Japanese have recently invaded Victorian-era England. The furniture and decor is a fairly faithful reproduction of a Victorian pub but, well, everybody is Japanese, and the menus are in Japanese. I kept expecting someone to burst through the door and shout (in perfect Japanese) “The Stephensons’ horseless carriage has made the journey to Liverpool in under three hours! Truly the power of steam shall change the face of England!!

Of course, in this parallel universe there are plenty of long island iced teas. For about $5 you can get one of these bad boys which, in the Japanese interpretation, are essentially tall glasses full of straight spirits and a little bit of lemonade. Great value, surprisingly great taste, but a terrible idea if you have Japanese class early the following day (as Moon Tan and I did).

To combat the inevitable hangover, I drank some “Ukon no Chikara” before I hit the Hub.

Ukon is like the Berocca of Japan, and is apparently made from tumeric extract. The theory is that it stimulates the liver, so that it can process alcohol more quickly. About 50% of the Japanese people I speak to think that it’s indispensible. The other 50% think that it’s a placebo. Naturally I was intrigued!

I can tell you that — like Berocca — Ukon doesn’t win any points for deliciousness. It’s similar to a 50:50 combination of tasty cough medicine and earwax (or so I imagine).

Several long island iced teas and a lousy night’s sleep later, I wasn’t feeling fantastic as we headed of to Japanese class. I can tell you that Ukon is no magic bullet. I felt sleepy and a little bit nauseous. On the other hand, I had no trace of a headache, so maybe the Ukon took the edge of what would otherwise have been a horrendous morning after?

In summary, the test was inconclusive, and will no doubt require repetition in the weeks and months to come.