Recently, my husband and I have been through a pretty stressful experience related to some elements of the bureaucracy in Japan. All countries have their red tape and rules, of course. The difference in Japan is that the rules are so vastly different for foreign folks compared to the average Japanese person and it can be confusing at best.
If you want to do everything right and get everything straight as a foreign person in Japan, you have to make a concerted effort to find everything out and even then you might fail to get it right. The tendency of most people in Japan due to communication differences is to simply tell you only what you ask to hear rather than enlighten you about an overall situation. If you fail to ask the right question, you may not learn what you need to know.
There are a few reasons for various problems that foreign folks have in dealing with the red tape here. One of the reasons is that most Japanese employees are of a different status than most foreign employees. That is, most are "company workers" and we're considered "temporary workers". The point of making us "temporary workers" is to stop companies from having to fork over the benefits to us that they pay Japanese employees like supplemented health care payments, pension benefits, etc. Since most foreign folks remain in Japan for a short time, I don't have too great a problem with this. Most of them don't really need those benefits or would likely lose any money invested in such systems should they be hooked into them, though I don't think the companies care at all about saving us money. They do it mainly to save themselves money.
The real problem arises because company employees get a wide variety of bureaucratic tasks completely taken out of their hands. For instance, most Japanese people don't file their own taxes or manage their payments. The company's accountant just takes care of the whole thing. When I ask Japanese people about filing their income taxes, most of them have no idea how to do it, when to do it, or what they're even paying. The average Japanese person can offer me no advice on such things. The average American, on the other hand, can tell you plenty about taxes and how they need to be handled and when they need to be paid because the responsibility is equally in every person's hands.
Such is not the case for the vast majority of foreign folks and the people at the companies we work for often do not tell us anything about what we should be doing. The best you can generally hope for is some vague notation with your salary statement that you may owe additional tax and are responsible for paying it, but with no guidance about what those taxes might be above and beyond the income tax you already have paid or how you should go about finding out what they are. Sending newcomers to a foreign country out into the wild blue yonder in search of random taxes to pay isn't really the best way to handle things in my opinion. The fact that the companies know full well what taxes need to be paid and could tell you what they are, where to go to handle them, and how to make sure you are sent the proper bills indicates that they are either too lazy or indifferent to offer guidance or that they don't want you to know about those taxes because the bite out of your paycheck (10%) may make you think twice about working for your current salary. My vote is on lazy and indifferent.
During my first few years in Japan while working at Nova, I was never told that I needed to file an income tax return. I don't even know to date if I could have filed and gotten some of my tax money back or if I owed money, though the latter is almost certainly not so. The issue simply did not exist for me because I was completely unaware of this need. My husband's school, which was a much better place to work, took care of the tax filing for him so I figured this is what all places of employment did. In retrospect, it may have been what Nova did for me, but I have no way of knowing 18 years on. Certainly the idea that I was failing to act properly never even occurred to me.
Foreign folks get criticized a lot for not following the rules, not paying their way, etc., but the truth is that there is no organized system in place to help us do so. You learn piecemeal, if you learn at all. There's absolutely no reason for this to be the case. We're all registered at our local government offices and they have our addresses. They could send us tax forms to remind us that we have to pay, but they don't send them to you until you first file of your own initiative. In other words, you have to first find out that it is necessary and do it of your own volition in order to receive a reminder. If you assume that the company handled it for you (as is so often the case for the majority of people), no one is going to tell you this is even necessary in your particular case so you blithely go about your business. Most foreign folks are not even aware that their cases are different from that of the Japanese when it comes to such things.
The part that aggravates me about this situation is that critics (mostly the "Uncle Tom" foreigners) will state that you can't expect to be treated differently simply because you're a foreigner. The thing is that the problems stem from the fact that you are treated differently already because you're a foreigner. You can't automatically place the vast majority of foreign folks in different working conditions than the norm (the norm being the company handles such things) and then expect them to figure out that they need to do something differently and then criticize them for not doing exactly what the Japanese do (which is nothing). In other words, you can't have it both ways. Either they are treated the same and expected to do the same or they are treated differently and offered guidance to assist them in their particular situation. The aggravating thing is that the solutions are relatively simple, but no one takes responsibility for implementing them. Nobody tells you how to be a good citizen, but they're all ready to get in line and condemn you when you make a mistake and fail to act like one.
Personally, I think the ambiguity is intentional. The government wants your money, but they also want to allow loopholes for certain groups of people. In Japan, they love nothing more than being wishy-washy. This may sound absurd, particularly in regards to taxes, but there is a level on which it makes sense. There are "temporary workers" who are Japanese as well as foreigners. The main difference is that there are very few company workers who are foreign. In fact, lately, the number of Japanese who are seen as temps is growing. These workers are cheaper for companies because they get no benefits and cost the companies less.
The ambiguity likely exists to allow the companies to continue to easily secure such workers because they are okay with working under less than optimal conditions (no security, no bonuses, no benefits) if they can keep more of their paychecks than company employees. It may sound absurd, but Japan is not a country that views contracts and rules of law as something to be adhered to strictly. They view such things as guidelines from which to consider each situation on a case by case basis. One of the reasons Western business and Japanese business often have problems working together is that the Japanese don't view contracts as something hard and fast, but Westerners do. If ambiguity and selective enforcement are seen as having an overall benefit to society, then they are left in place. This can be rather maddening for those of us who are accustomed to having rights and using the laws to let us know where we stand.
(As an aside: I will note that my views spring from the fact that there are some Japanese people who are "temporary workers" who willfully do not file their taxes even though they are aware that they should. I'm told that they don't do it because they are young and don't want to start paying into the pension system yet because they won't benefit from it for decades and that this allows them to avoid paying city and prefecture taxes. (For the record, most of us are taxed accurately or over-taxed on our income taxes so not filing means writing off a possible refund.) This is an entirely different topic, but I think their reluctance to pay into the pension fund is driven by the ridiculously low monthly payments and the fact that paying in more or longer has no impact on your benefits. In other words, they can spend 25 years paying into the system or 50 years paying in and they're still only going to get a flat payment of about 60,000 yen so they don't want to start paying any earlier than they have to.)
Fortunately for my husband and I, our issues appear to have sorted themselves out at this point in time. We won't know for sure for a few more weeks, but I'd say it's 99% sure that everything is okay and that nothing bad will come of the situation I've been stressing out over for the past three days. Being a nervous sort of person, I'm still losing sleep over that 1% though. And having a tendency to construct worst case scenarios, I'm still building mountains out of molehills. Chances are though, that it'll all be okay.