Monday, June 8, 2009

The Joy of Immigration

This morning the CH and I made what will (hopefully) be my second to last venture to the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau for an extension on my visa. For those who don't know, you need a special stamp in your passport giving you permission to remain in the country and there are various types. The first year you're here, they usually allow you only a one-year stamp. After awhile, they'll grant you one that lasts three years. I think that they used to be much more reserved about the longer duration visas than they are these days.

When we first arrived in Japan, we had to go to an ancient building in Otemachi for visas and it was an all at once process which wasted the entire day. You went there, stood in line, offered documents, and then waited literally for 6-8 hours and at the end you got your visa stamp. Now, the process is broken in half and we go to the new office they built in Shinagawa.

The old office wasn't too far from central Tokyo, but it was clearly too small for the load and had no air conditioning. The newer one is two floors and large enough to deal with the increased load. It's also out in the middle of nowhere (literally). To get there, we have to take two subways, then a taxi or a bus from the station. The taxi ride takes one past areas piled deep and wide with shipping containers (we hope to take a camera next time to memorialize our last trip). It's the sort of area where there are neither shops nor residences, and no nature or beautiful sites. It is essentially a place where ugly things are kept including a garbage dump and bland grey buildings abound.

The trip there takes about an hour and requires a lot of standing and walking around. Believe it or not, I haven't been on a train for about 3 years since I quit my former office job. I had forgotten about the cacophony and overstimulating hassle of the trains in Tokyo. Passing through Shinjuku station provided a teeth-gritting reminder of why commuting is so awful. People are walking every which way and they don't look where they are going so that they don't have to take responsibility for moving out of anyone's way. Most of them meander about in a dream-like state. Some of them are in a hurry to overtake you and walk in front of you, but as soon as they get around you, they immediately slow down and block you.

The noise is also overbearing. Japan has to have more noise pollution than almost any other developed country. When you walk along the train platform, you hear the trains themselves, a constant flow of automated announcements, and buzzers, tunes, and beeps notifying people of things like the trains are coming, going, or their doors are closing. All of these things can't be helped, but the worst part of it is that over the unavoidable din there seems to be the near constant shouting into loudspeakers by platform and train personnel. Essentially, they are repeating what is already being said or cued through automated means and they do it several times and at high volume. The layers of unpleasant noise start getting to you after a very short time unless you've managed to turn into one of those meandering zombies.

People traveling in their own world aren't a problem in big, open spaces, but they are a problem in fairly crowded ones. That doesn't stop the Japanese from abdicating responsibility for showing courtesy toward others. When we were walking down a set of steps from the platform, a man in front of us, who surely knew he was in the middle of a throng that exited the train when he did, was making a slow descent while staring at his cell phone screen. Eventually, he just decided he'd stop about 2/3 of the way down and mess with his phone regardless of the fact that he'd jam up the rest of us.

At any rate, once at immigration, we found that the system had changed or was different in the morning. When my husband went in the afternoon, he took a number and waited. We had to go stand in a line, have my paperwork looked over quickly, and then were given a number. The office opens at 9:00 am and we arrived at 10:05. My number was 62 away from the one that was currently being served.

Things at this point were looking good. The man who already inspected my documents would have said something if everything weren't in order so I expected smooth sailing. I also knew that we likely weren't going to end up blowing the whole day there because chances were I'd be served in about an hour. They tend to deal with about one person per minute. While I waited, I read a book and my husband went off to another section to get re-entry permit for when he visits home later this year.

When my number approached, we stood up so we wouldn't take long to get to the counter and it ended up that the woman dealing with me was right in front of us when the number rolled around. I handed her the paperwork and she riffled through it then started asking for other things. I checked, double-checked, triple and sextuple-checked the requirements and the fellow who did the preliminary check didn't seem to think anything was missing. The first thing she asked for was my husband's tax form. I figured that wasn't a big deal, though it shouldn't have been necessary according to the requirements I'd read on-line, and handed it over which satisfied her.

Next she asked for something which neither my husband nor I recognized but he later remarked was essentially a "5-kanji" (Chinese character) version of a much simpler word that he would have recognized. At this point, I was a little freaked, but calmer than I would have expected given how nervous the whole process had been making me for the last week. I knew nothing else was on the list of requirements. When we didn't get it, she asked if we had a "company paper" and I thought she wanted one of those sheaths of papers that you submit when you get your first work visa that has all sorts of information about your company like the number of employees, president's name, number of branches, gross income of the whole shebang, etc. Note that this is not a typical requirement for renewing a straight on "work visa", let alone a spouse's "dependent visa" (which is generally a simpler affair).

I intuited that what she must have meant, despite my initial thought about it being a huge company description, was a copy of my husband's contract, which is certainly required. The main reason this wasn't the first conclusion I'd reached about what she wanted was that the contract was already in the small pile of papers I'd submitted (only 4 pages). We told her it was already there and she looked again and found it. She apologized and I mock wiped my brow and said "phew", so we all had a good laugh. It seems a lot less funny now, but I wanted to make a joke of it at the time to mitigate any embarrassment she might have felt at her error. I know that her job sucks and she certainly doesn't know that she is dealing with a foreigner who is incredibly paranoid and nearly psychotically nervous. Things happen. Papers get stuck together.

That's step one of the process finished now. After they accept your paperwork, they give you a postcard which you write your name and address on. When they are finished processing your application, they send you the postcard and you go back for stage two where you stand in a different, similarly long line and get the visa stamped into your passport. Usually, the postcard shows up in less than 10 days (my husband's came in a mere 5), though it depends on how busy they are. Once they accept your documents, you're generally home free though so the vast majority of my stomach-churning nerves have passed. Now, all I have to dread is the second trip back and all of the hassle involved with that.


badmoodguy (Бадмўдгуи) said...

It seems significantly more complicated that I thought. At least you only have to deal with it on occasion rather than daily.

The person that was helping you must have an interesting job, meeting people from all over. It would have to be aggravating at times, though. You guys had your ducks in a row, but how many others come in that don't?

Orchid64 said...

Yes, one of the many reasons I was inclined not to get irritated at all about her mistake was that I realized she probably comes across a lot of clueless people in her work.

Unfortunately, the interactions they have with people are very limited and not really enlightening. It's got to be a really soul draining sort of job. Collect papers, look at papers, check papers, communicate that everything is either okay or that something is needed and then NEXT! Repeat hundreds to thousands of times and probably work overtime and not get paid for it.

All that being said, one of her coworkers had already checked everything, but she may not have complete confidence in them. ;-)