Immigration. What better reminder that you hate living in a foreign country and that they hate you living there too? I’ve never visited the American Immigration Bureau, but I like to think that any American public servant, whether they be government staff, bankers, mechanics, or waiters, approach those whom they serve with a general attitude of human frankness, for better or worse. Personally, I believe that it works out for the better more often than not. You get your occasional scheister or Joe Q. Notmyprobleminsky, but in general there tends to be an understanding that humans should be treated like humans–no more, no less.

In Japan, humans are treated like gods at the gas station and donut shop, garbage at the government office. It’s not just an Immigration thing, although surely Immigration is one of the worst places one can go, but any place where people have a secure job regardless of the satisfaction of their patrons, you can be bet on having an unsatisfying experience, whether you’re a foreigner or not. Chalk it up to human nature and forget everything you’ve heard about Japanese people putting the needs of others before their own. You could be a Japanese guy trying to figure out your taxes at the City Hall. Better prepare for a bad day, Japanese guy, because it makes little difference who you are. And it’s as simple a matter as the presence or absence of incentive. The donut shop guy’s grotesque, overwhelming obsequiousness has nothing to do with anything like genuine gratitude. All it is is the grease on a single cog in an enormous money-making machine.

The sallow-faced folks down at the Gifu Prefectural Immigration Office don’t need a machine to make their monthly paycheck because it’s paid for by the immigrants themselves, and other taxpayers. Hence, no grease. Evidently they also don’t need any specific degree of competence, because I encountered none on my visit.

I’ll be in Japan until maybe July, but since I first showed up in February, my visa’s about to expire (word has it no matter how many times you apply for the three-year visa, they’ll never give it to you until the year you happen to be leaving). The day I visited Immigration, my boss had already graciously prepared all of the documents necessary for applying for a visa renewal. It should’ve been a clean execution of leg one in what is theoretically a two-leg process. I was feeling optimistic, so I didn’t even mind that getting to the office, which is in Gifu City, required passing through Kani, my nemesis town.

Passing through Kani, an intense, non-blinking man in probably his thirties sat down across from me, strange considering the ample supply of seats not directly in my face. He stared at me until getting off the train much later, bolstering my disgust for “life” in Kani and its satellite regions.

Gifu City has a wonderful, gigantic, sparkling train station. The station has a donut shop with obsequious, toe-kissing staff, and a Vie de France, which is distinguishable from all other Japanese bakeries by its Vie de France logo. Gifu Station is the best part of any trip to Gifu City.

A small hop away from the station looms the Immigration office, gazing down upon you from its third-story spot in the Nippon Izumi building, foreshadowing the condescension that lies within. In the lobby, a mother and her toddler waited for the elevator. The great thing about toddlers is that they express everything that adults must keep to themselves for fear of being treated like toddlers. This toddler fidgeted with the elevator’s up and down buttons, pressing both of them. The elevator came down and they boarded, waiting a tick for me.

“I’m going up,” I said and the doors closed immediately. As the elevator descended the woman could be heard screaming at the child. “Why you gotta fidget with the buttons?! God!” An instant later the toddler’s ascending yelps of anguish rose back up to greet me. I supposed she had beaten her son out of concern for me, or rather, how I would judge her for letting her son fidget wildly. Clearly she wasn’t a government worker. I remained awkwardly silent during the brief elevator ride, but to be sure, I shared the toddler’s anguish. Above us, the Immigration office waited menacingly, licking its chops and tapping its fingertips together like a hungry beast with fingertips.

Things could have gone so easily. There were two parties ahead of me, and one of them had already been helped once (typically a trip to Immigration requires multiple waits, not to mention multiple trips). This is about as rare as being one of three parties at the DMV, so I suppose I might be forgiven for mistaking fate’s grimace for a smile just this once. I took my number.

I was soon called up by a guy I’d never seen before. At first glance, he lacked charisma. He wore glasses that screamed “I work at a lowly government position in Gifu Prefecture, famous for being next to Aichi Prefecture, famous for housing Nagoya, famous for being a great transfer hub for traveling to other places far away from both Aichi and Gifu. He was underweight and wore a haircut that was genuinely bad; you can call Japanese haircuts outdated, you can call them misguided, you can even call them tragic, but this was just a bad haircut, like the kind you might see on a high school freshman in America when that freshman is deeply immersed in a rousing session of Magic: The Gathering. Was it the influence of his constant interaction with foreigners, or was he just a social derelict? In this country, hair is really the first sign of a social derelict. That and the presence of facial expressions. But if he had any of those he could never have made it as a civil servant.

I presented my Visa Renewal Application form, my company’s yearly fiscal report, my passport, my official gaijin membership card, and a variety of pamphlets proving my company’s existence (yes, this is required). He glanced over the application and I was overcome with an ocean of dread. I don’t know whether I’ve developed a sixth sense for impending disappointment or if I’ve just come to assume it’ll make a flashy appearance at anything involving Japanese bureaucracy (not sure I even need the “Japanese” qualifier), but haircut boy was about to be the harbinger of it and I knew this.

He asked a series of questions, his speech impeded by his own mouth. I nearly mistook him for a gaijin!

-Did you fill out this application yourself?
No, my boss filled it out and I watched.
-Have you been in Japan awhile?
Almost three years, or you could check my visa that you’re currently holding with your hands.
-How long have you worked for your company?
Since April, 2008.

A little more third degree than I usually get, and I once got my visa renewed working for a woman I didn’t even trust, whose company had three other employees, all of them Nigerian (to be fair, the Aichi Prefectural Nigerian Laborers Coalition is a pretty great group of guys, but that’s a whole separate post). And this despite my picture being on the official company flier. What doubt could he possibly have?

“You don’t have your company’s seal on the last page.” He pointed to the exact spot that I had held under suspicion and confirmed with my boss the day before. “I don’t need a signature or anything here, do I?” I had asked my boss. “DO I?!” “No, not if you submit the forms yourself,” she had told me. And she was right, for all we could’ve known; she had gone through this process at least three times a year for the last four years. But haircut boy had a different story to tell.

“You gotta get your company’s seal, or we can’t process these forms.”

“But that’s the exact spot I confirmed with my boss.” I objected futilely.

“Sir, don’t be a toddler,” he didn’t say. But he could have.

“Can I at least send the documents by mail next time? This place is an hour and a half away from my house.”

“No, you have to come back. Also, you need to bring your last four pay statements.”

“My pay statements?” I asked. And then something very strange happened. Haircut boy replied with the following explanation, of which the one emboldened word was what he apparently thought was some kind of autonomously effective English explanation:

“Yes, your pay statements. Essentially, a pay statement is the PAPER upon which your monthly salary is enscribed.”

Thanks for the smashing simultaneous interpretation, Donald Keene*. Sure glad I’m a taxpayer in this country. Now why–oh why–would a man even bother trying to explain something in English to someone he’s already conducted a full goddamned interrogation with in Japanese, when the only English he actually knows is the simplest, most irrelevant word in the sentence? Let’s assume I didn’t understand Japanese and that the conversation up to that point had been an uncanny series of lucky guesses, like in that SNL sketch with Chris Farley. “WA-KA-SUR-PEE-NEE-KU?” I would stutter frantically and somehow make it to the next round. Supposing this was the case, what on Earth would possess any man, horrible haircut notwithstanding, to complicate matters with random spewings of English vocabulary? To Farley-Greg, the conversation went like this:

“Wah-pee-ku-kee-no-jo-hee-ho-ka?!”

“Uhh. . .Gu-shee-ba-ra-mu. . .ka.”

“Shi-chi-ho-jo PAPER mo-te-ku-ri-na.”

I don’t want your sympathy English, asshole. Just give me the damn visa stamp and I’ll get back to paying your salary.

Ultimately, though, I left empty-handed. My boss was quick to call them up and ask why everything right was wrong. Whoever answered the phone was kind enough to reveal that the company seal had become a requirement as of January 2010, and that the pay statements were only necessary in the case of a new employee or something (any employee who’s already been paid four times in Japan couldn’t possibly be that new). Why hadn’t the website been updated to tell people about the new requirement? Most people use a sick day to go to Immigration, traveling long distances at costly rates. Why had the man mistaken me for a new employee when I’d told him moments before how long I’d been working there? Why did he ask me that question in the first place if he wasn’t going to listen to the answer? The explanation to all of these riddles is that, simply, nobody there cares. Nobody’s responsible for bringing in profits, and there’s no threat of going under since, sadly, we need them, these so-called civil servants. We need them because we are required to need them, and they know this. If making up an answer is the quickest way to make a visitor disappear, you better believe they’ll do it without once being interrupted by their own conscience. Surely it must take a certain special degree of snakelike callousness to become a civil servant, to claim yourself a servant of the people while treating all of them as subhuman.

A week later, I came back with the company seal and even brought my pay statements since you never know what story you’re going to get the next time you show up. This time I was served by a woman whom I had recognized from last year. Her sallow countenance lacked Haircut Boy’s Napoleon Dynamite-style pathetic immediacy, instead favoring the flower-trampled-by-humanity-and-wilted-by-age look. She could’ve been sweet once, but lord knows she’d probably been ordered around by more than her fair share of Haircut Boys.

I was pleased and surprised to discover she had remembered me from the previous visit. “Did you get the seal?” she asked, not bothering to use polite Japanese. This relatively rare occurrence doesn’t tend to bother me much since, as an American, it comes off as friendly when people act like they don’t owe you anything, but by principle of it being Japan, I had the right to be angry already. Then she asked me this:

“Did you get your tax forms from your city hall?”

I wondered for a moment if by “tax forms” she meant pay statements, and if by “city hall” she meant the mountain of crap on the desk in my living room. Even if she had meant that, I had already been informed that I didn’t need the pay statements, so I cut away this favorable possibility with the ever humbling edge of Occam’s Razor–the simplest explanation is usually the right one, or in the case of Japanese bureaucracy, feel free to chance “simplest” to “most infuriating”. I’ve heard of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing, but at Immigration, the right hand doesn’t even know what the right hand is doing. Meanwhile the left hand has a shitty haircut.

As you’ve likely deduced, I also needed some tax forms from my city hall. In Tajimi.

“No,” I finally answered.

“Okay, you can just mail ’em in,” she said. How novel, thou trampled flower. To think, we’ve come to live in a day and age where paper can be delivered from Point A to Point B by way of some sort of paper-delivering middleman. Okay, so here’s my theory: when presenting documents to Immigration, one is free to mail them in instead of taking the day off work and wasting several hours if the following conditions are met:

1. The clerk is having an okay day.

That is all. Although in retrospect, being white may also be a factor. Even in the Land of the Straight-Laced, our reputation precedes us. We’re not as good and wholesome as the natives, of course, but still more wholesome than non-white, other foreigners. I think it all traces back to Josh Hartnett somehow.

At any rate, I thanked the trampled dandelion woman and left, this time with a stamp in my passport declaring that I was at least trying to get this done. It would keep the feds off my back for the time being.

Later on, Yoko and I visited the local post office to inquire about the cost of sending electric guitars and the Sega Saturn back home .

“Certainly, sir,” said the cheerful-but-professional clerk. “There are several available options available when sending large parcels overseas, sir, but if time doesn’t happen to be of the essence, you can send them for as little as 7,000 US dollars per fluid ounce. It’ll take up to twelve extra years for your items to arrive, but it’s the best option if you’re in not in a hurry.”

“I’m not sending them to Saturn.”

“Oh.”

Once the confusion had been cleared up, the clerk was quick to give us all of the information we needed in a thorough, respectful manner. She was clear and concise, yet personable. She was everything you could ever want in a post office clerk, and more.

“The post office employees sure have gotten friendly ever since the post office went private,” Yoko said on the walk home. Her voice, like the word of God, echoed through the streets of Tajimi, through all of Japan, and across the entire world.