Visa Renewal, 2009

Sumiyoshi-ku (ku means city ward) is at the bottom of Osaka City, geographically. It borders the Yamato River, which has the dubious distinction of being both the most historical and the filthiest river in Western Japan. On the other concrete-covered bank is Sakai City, famous for knives and swords (in some circles). Nagai, the neighbourhood where I’ve lived for 6 years now, is in Sumiyoshi-ku, although curiously Nagai Sports Park, the only thing for which Nagai is famous, is not (that side of the street is in Higashi-Sumiyoshi, the adjoining ward). Regardless, Nagai is where I live, so Sumiyoshi-ku is where I’m registered as a foreign resident of Japan and where, every now and then, I must make my presence known to the authorities.

My work visa expires in May and needs to be renewed for another 3 years. In  the 90s, you had to take a day off every year to sit in the Immigration Office in Temmabashi (in a Ministry of Justice building) until they finally stamped your passport – you couldn’t leave once they’d taken it. For the past 8 or 9 years,though, the system was becoming fairly streamlined. Until recently, you went to the office, took a number and submitted your documents and passport, waited 30 minutes or so until your name was called, filled out a self-addressed postcard; when the postcard arrived at your home, some days later, you went back, got your visa stamp, and were free for another 3 years. I expected the same this time, but was unpleasantly surprised.

My company usually mails me all the paperwork (duly translated), which I fill out and take down to the Immigration Office, and this year was no exception.This time, along with my usual package of documents there was a checklist. All of the documents were there except a newly-required one, a kazei shoumei (課税証明,City Tax Report), but a handwritten note on the checklist read: “You can get this at your ward office.”

Now, the Sumiyoshi Ward Office was, until recently, a dumpy old building, which looked as though it had been built in the 50s (which probably meant it had been built in the 70s – postwar Japanese government architecture being mostly glum and Stalinist until fairly recently). It was nowhere near a subway station and the old Nankai Line train station nearby was not of much use to anyone who wasn’t going to Wakayama. It was one of those government buildings seemingly put up in an inconvenient place to give bus drivers something to do. On my day off, I bicycled down there. And promptly got lost.

Something was different – there used to be at least signs pointing to the general area of the office. But nothing. After 25 minutes or so, I realized I’d overshot the runway. I made the mistake of asking a resident for directions.  When I asked her where the Sumiyoshikuyakushou was, she gestured and said “mukou (over there somewhere), about 10 minutes that way.” The first part of her sentence was vague enough to be correct, but the rest was just her imagination (is there any other place where people know as little about their own city as Osaka?).

Eventually, I turned what I thought to be a wrong corner and drove right past it. It looked even more desolate than usual, more fences up. The gate was locked. I looked around for some explanation, and then I noticed a small, hand-drawn note on the fence. It turned out to be directions to the new ward office, but might as well have read, “Hey, Kenji, if you read this, we’re at the pub round the back – just follow this map – Toru”. By this time, I was getting cranky.
I followed the zig-zagging directions and finally found a huge, new, modern-looking complex. According to the sign, it featured the ward office, a kumin sentaa (区民センター,an auditorium for cultural events), and the Sumiyoshi public library. All inconveniently located at a neighbourhood nowhere near you. {Addendum, June 23rd, 2009 – that was a bit unfair. I got lost because I was coming from the old ward office and was disoriented. I’ve since realized that it’s not all that far from my place, and the new local library is small but very good, and the staff is helpful. The following comments about the ward office still stand, though.}

Anyway, there I was. I parked my bicycle. I made my way past a phalanx of furiously smoking civil servants at the entrance and entered an oddly empty atrium (there are always people milling about an entrance to a ward office – mostly old men who look confused because they saw all the wickets and thought it was a betting shop). Around the atrium were numbers and names of departments in Japanese and (surprisingly) correct English. I found the one I was looking for (ominously, number 13), and followed the arrow down one corridor.
I soon realized that the structure was the latest triumph of that great architectural firm, Kafka and Sons. The corridor curved, and along it were many locked doors. One office (water works?) with glass doors and peach-coloured walls, featured a desk, with a man in his fifties sitting in a chair, staring into space (when I left, he was sitting in another chair, observing space from a different angle). There did not appear to be anything or anyone else in the room.
I wondered what was behind all those closed doors in the corridor, but feared I’d turn into a cockroach or something if I looked, so I gave up wondering.
I rounded a corner at the end of the corridor. It opened up into a large hall. Now, in the old place, all the civil servants’ desks were jammed together behind a counter and supplicants stood in line waiting to be served. Here, in this great, expensive new building I saw…all the civil servants’ desks jammed together behind a counter while supplicants stood in line waiting to be served. It was as though they’d lassoed the whole lot of them and just rolled them down the road together.
I bypassed the reception desk and saw Section 13 (a sign along the counter). A man in his 50s (they all looked to be men in their 50s, even the men in their 20s) was staring vaguely into the middle distance, simulating thought (but probably just waiting for his co-workers to come back from their smoke break so he could go out for his). I asked him if this was the place to get a kazei shoumei. He gestured vaguely to some yellow forms on the counter. “Go fill it out over there,” he said, and gestured to the taller counters behind me. To my left, about fifteen people sat or stood watching a large TV, which had been placed there to placate the masses as, forms submitted, they waited for their number to be called (the motto of this country should be “Take a Number”).
I looked at the form. I could read exactly 1/3 of one side of the double-sided, kanji-filled page. I was able to find where to write my name and address and state that I was the head of my household. The rest would have taken me an hour with a dictionary. I looked up imploringly at the city officer, but he was in a reverie or self-willed trance. In fairness, since I didn’t know exactly what I was asking for, he couldn’t have helped me anyway. I grabbed a few copies of the form and skulked out, day wasted.

Next day, I went to the personnel section at my company headquarters to get the form translated and to sound the alarm before the next poor sap had the same experience. The woman in charge of foreign employees’ visas looked at the form, ticked three boxes, said, “Sign here and here, and write the date,” and handed it back to me. “That’s it?” I asked, stunned. All I’d had to know was which three boxes to tick (but I’d have to be able to read it all to know that). Amazing.

A few days passed. I went back to the ward office, eventually finding it after a few false starts (pigeons and ferrets having eaten the trail of bread crumbs I’d left on the previous occasion). I handed it to the same city officer (distracting him from his dreams of samurai glory), he called up the requested form on his computer, printed it out, took my 400 yen fee, and out I went. Time elapsed: less than three minutes. Feeling empowered, I decided to continue on to the Osaka Immigration Office. This had also moved since the last time I renewed my visa. Now, however,instead of a leisurely subway trip to Temmabashi, fifteen minutes away, I got on the train at Nagai, changed at Daikokucho, changed again at Suminoekoen to the New Tram, and chugged along the man-made island in Nanko (南港, southern harbour). It took me an hour, and it would take nearly anyone an hour. But I didn’t mind too much – I was on a mission, documents in hand. I’d turn them in, wait a few minutes, fill out a postcard, and go have a cup of coffee.

In my dreams. The new immigration office has nothing –nothing – around it, but it’s another nice new building with an atrium full of natural light. I took the elevator upstairs, the door opened, and a man was standing there with his back to the open door. I instantly realized that he was behind another man, who was behind two women, and on and on. The queue started at the elevator. It wound around a corner of the corridor, leading to the processing room. Ten minutes later, I was standing inside the room, and five minutes after that, an officer took my application and documents, slipped them all into a ziplock folder, gave me a numbered slip (matching the one in the bag with my documents), and told me to place them in the inbox on the long counter. I sat down. There were about 150 other people in the large room, four or five caucasians, two African couples, two Indic guys, and all the rest Asians of various origins (which is pretty much the make-up of the actual foreign population of Japan as a whole). I heard a lot of Korean spoken, and some Mandarin.

Because the numbers of the processed applications came up almost randomly, I couldn’t really concentrate on the book I’d brought (Everything Is Illuminated). Also, periodically, someone would come out from behind the counter and call the number of someone they wanted to get some extra information from, so I couldn’t really enjoy my iPod either. So I sat and waited. I waited for two hours and ten minutes. I estimated from the numbers called out that there were about 65 other people in front of me when I arrived, waiting for the same thing. No idea what everyone else was sitting there for. Finally, my number was called, my postcard taken, my passport and gaijin card handed back, and off I went, without a fine or anything. I took the Chuo Line to Hommachi (where my train pass kicked in), then repaired to the big Starbucks there and drank a much-needed cup of coffee. (incidentally, the total train time, minus the coffee break, for this alternate route took me…one hour).

The postcard arrived in the mail today, so back I go, cash in hand, next Tuesday. Can’t wait.

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7 Responses to Visa Renewal, 2009

  1. Orchid64 says:

    I checked the immigration office’s web site and there is no mention of a requirement for said tax form in their required documents for renewal information. It says documents mentioning income and tax payment (which are on the same document and always have been).

    I wonder if this was an arbitrary request or a new requirement that is not listed on the web site.

  2. Johanna says:

    Jeez, well I’m really looking forward to next year when I have to do the same thing just to be able to stay for 2 extra days. My Visa is valid until March 30th and I can’t leave Japan until April1st. Fun fun fun!

  3. nagaijin says:

    It’s a “proof of payment” of your city taxes. It might only be required of Osaka City residents. No idea, but the gov’t asked for it from my company’s employees, and the company complied. I’ve never had to do it before.

  4. Risa says:

    That’s interesting. I also work for your company and live in Osaka city, and I just completed the visa renewal process today. I didn’t need to get anything from my ward office, but I DID need to get a slip of paper from HQ that I had supposedly been given months ago but had never seen before. It was a “tax withholding” slip, so… I don’t know! Would it have been faster for you to JR it to Bentencho and then Chuo it from there? That’s what I did, but I live in Tennoji, so it might have been easier for me. It only took about half an hour, though.

  5. Kelly says:

    Jeez what a huu-haa!! Just for a visa renewal. They sure do make it hard.

  6. Orchid64 says:

    Since you wrote this, my husband renewed his visa in Shinagawa and they didn’t request the extra form. They only asked for the withholding slip that he has always given them (which lists federal tax payment, but not city taxes).

    Two points about this: 1) the immigration office has always had the right to ask for this sort of documentation if they want it, but they never have 2) it seems that this is either a “case by case” situation where they randomly request the form OR (and I think this is more likely) it depends on what city you live in.

    You mention that you live by a filthy river with a rundown city office. Poor cities may be specifically requesting that immigration badger their resident aliens to submit such forms, but those in less strapped cities aren’t being badgered… at least not yet. With changes afoot in the immigration process, this may become part of the regular process, but only time will tell.

    • nagaijin says:

      I guess I wasn’t clear about this – the national government asks for the same documents from everyone, but the form to *get* the form differs from office to office. The one for Sumiyoshi-ku, where I reside, was an omnibus form, and I only had to tick off one line to get what I wanted. Unfortunately, I had to be able to read the entire (completely Japanese) document to know that. I’ll know better next time, proving there is a next time…

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