Ah, May. What a wonderful month. The seasonal rains wash away winter, it’s finally warm enough to sleep without a hat, and I get to enjoy renewing my Japanese visa. That’s how I know spring has come.
Unfortunately, unlike going to the Japanese doctor, or being arrested by the Japanese police, there’s no apparent redeeming quality to visiting the Immigration Bureau. It’s crowded, you have to line up for hours, and unlike the rest of Japan which is full of nice, clean Japanese people, it’s packed full of foreigners. Eeewww.
My Employer, My Sponsor, My Friend
Exactly a year ago, in May, I went through the same process. And the moment I got the visa renewal paperwork from my supervisor, I noticed something concerning.
“I’m looking at this ‘Period of Work’ field,” I said gently. My supervisor is a Japanese woman, so I try to be a little more charming, by using my bedroom voice.
“Yes?” she said.
“You see, it seems you wrote a ‘1’ here,” I said huskily, “which means a one-year visa, and I’d have to go back again next year.” I tried to smile.
“Yes, that’s . . . correct,” she said.
“The thing is,” I said, “you could write anything, you know. Like, say a ‘3’ or a ‘5.’ Five’s a nice number, don’t you think?”
“Sorry, but your contract says one year,” she said. And now she tried to smile.
“I, uh, don’t actually have a contract,” I said, grinning a bit wider. “Just a job description, in English. There’s nothing signed. And really, every other company writes a ‘3.’”
“I’ll have to check with HR,” she said.
“Yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” we both said. That’s Japanese for, “Please don’t screw this up.” But it sounds polite, so that makes it okay.
But right then, I knew it was over. Check with HR? You might as well check with Jesus. And sure enough, I only got a 1-year extension, which is nothing, since a year in Japan passes with the speed of a month in the U.S. To prove this, I hung out my bath towel this morning, and it was dry in 30 minutes. Explain that.
And so now, a year later, here we are, and again the same conversation. And again, she writes a “1.” And we smile at each other.
Now, the thing about Ken Seeroi is, nothing phases him. Like I could be on a golf course in the middle of a thunderstorm with lightning all around, and I’d be holding a nine iron like, Where’s everybody running off to? Like freaking Ahab on deck in a typhoon in Moby Dick, with like a harpoon or something. Just brandishing the thing. I mean, assuming I golfed. You’d look at me and be like, Ken Seeroi, you my friend, have nerves of steel. You should’ve been a brain surgeon, or an army sniper, or a whaler, or at least a golfer, instead of an English teacher. And while I’d appreciate your saying so, I’d know that really, inside, I’m actually not so cool with lots of stuff. My nerves are more like gummi bears, or I dunno, some other soft object. Like when people call me a gaijin or gaikokujin. See now, that bothers me. I don’t know why, exactly. Hand me the English menu. Oooh, that really bothers me. Renew my visa for 1 year? Are you effing kidding me? Just write down a damned “3” for Godsakes. If I had a pen, I would have stabbed her in the heart. But because I’m so cool, I just grinned and said, “Thank you.” Grrrr. I really gotta get a pen.
This threw me into a tailspin. The whole visa process seems designed to reinforce the message—You don’t actually live here, remember? Like the difference between a jazz bar, and your house. You get all comfy on the sofa with some mellow music, a gin and tonic, maybe some pretzels, until suddenly the lights come on and some big guy makes you leave. That’s not okay. I started to consider my options. If I have to do this every year, I thought, Screw that, maybe I’ll just go back to America.
Back in the U.S. of A. No more being stared at, no more salarymen clamoring to speak to the white guy. Nobody telling me how well I use a fork. America. That’d solve everything. Except for the fact I’d have to live with a bunch of gaijin. Okay, so that seemed like kind of a drawback. And the food, ah, jeez. How would I subsist, without my fried octopus balls and okra with fish flakes? On a diet of hot dogs and corn flakes? No, screw that, I thought, I’ll get married. Visa? Fixed. Instant family and social circles? Done. Get an apartment, a car, and somebody to read all that stuff in my mailbox. A wife. That’d solve everything. Well, except for the part where I’d then have a wife. Jeez, there’s always some little detail that complicates my genius plans.
So this year, again, when I filled in my portion of the visa renewal form, I wrote a “5” in the field for “Desired length of extension.” And again, I refrained from writing “inches” after the “5,” which I felt showed great restraint and maturity. Not that the Immigration Bureau noticed last year, seeing as they gave me a disappointing 1-year extension. Sure, one extra is better than nothing, but five’s what I really wanted. Heh, a total of 17 inches. Now that would be awesome.
The Japanese Immigration Bureau
Sorry. I’m so juvenile. Back on track. So this year, again with the whole visa thing. I went to the Immigration Bureau, which took hours, because I had to ride the train, then ride the bus, and then walk. Very tiring, all that using of the legs and all. And on top of everything, the renewal cost 40 bucks, only in yen. That’s like 4000 yens, which sounds even more expensive. Then when I handed in the form, the Immigration lady said in Japanese, “Oh, you need some other documents.”
“Other documents?” I said. Whenever I don’t know what to say in Japanese, I just repeat the other person’s last words.
“Yes, you need to go to City Hall and get this tax information.” She handed me the world’s longest and most complicated Japanese tax form ever. It was like a haiku crossword puzzle.
“This tax information?” I said. “You do realize I can read exactly none of what you just handed me.
“Then mail it back to us in this envelope.
“So I need to go to City Hall, get some documents I don’t understand, and mail them to you in this envelope?
“That’s it,” she said.
“I don’t suppose you could just call City Hall and have ‘em faxed? My visa expires this Friday, you know.” I was pretty stressed on this point, because I’d, uh, kind of put off the whole visa thing for about a month too long. I guess that was kind of my fault.
“Just mail everything when you can,” she said. “No rush.”
I stared at her. No rush? This is the country where the entire subway platform starts committing ritual seppuku if the train’s 30 seconds late. Since when did Japan turn into Jamaica? No rush? Nobody in the history of the nation’s ever uttered that phrase. People here get jailed and deported for overstaying their visas. “Oh, I can do that,” I said. “No rush happens to be my best thing,” and walked away trying to focus my eyes on the tax form.
Overstaying a Japanese Visa
I went home and spent a few days deciphering what documents I needed, all the while hearing her words, which seemed to acquire more of a Jamaican accent as time went by. “No rush, mon.” Then it took me a almost a week to make it to City Hall, and by that time, I was officially overstaying my Japanese visa big time. I tried to picture what I’d say to the police when they showed up at my door. “Ya but da Immigration Lady she say’d be no rush, one love.” They’d never buy that. Then right on cue, a couple days after I’d mailed the documents, my doorbell rang. Holy God, nobody ever rings my doorbell. I stayed absolutely still. Actually it was pretty easy since I was laying on the floor drinking beer and watching YouTube clips about army snipers. Man, do those guys have nerves of steel. I paused the video and waited a few minutes before I felt the coast was clear. Then I belly-crawled to the fridge and got another beer.
Due to Golden Week, it took almost two more weeks before a postcard came in the mail from the Immigration Bureau.
The Fateful Day
I knew this meant one of two possible things. One would be that I’d get a 1-year visa extension. The other would be that it was a sting operation to catch foreigners who’d overstayed their Japanese visas. I stuffed a change of socks and underwear into my bag, just in case. Ken Seeroi knows what’s up. Gotta be prepared.
So before I left, I stopped at Starbucks to say goodbye to everyone, then went to my neighborhood shrine, to ask Japanese God to watch over my aunt who’s recovering from heart surgery, plus my Japanese friend with cancer. And my American friend with cancer. And my American cat with cancer. Jeez, Japanese God’s gonna be mighty busy. Hope he’s got a sled like Santa or something to help him get around. And although it seemed petty and self-serving by comparison, I asked Him for a visa extension. I mean, since I was there and all, I figured why not sneak it in.
Then I rode the train. And I rode the bus. And I waited in line until they called my number and then handed the Immigration lady the postcard, and waited some more. I took a little nap. Then they called my number again and I went back to the window. The Immigration lady gave me back my passport and my old gaijin card, with a hole punched through it. Then she gave me a new card, with baby blue stripes. Centered on top, in small letters, it said “Residence Card,” and down below, next to “Period of Stay,” the number three. She smiled. I couldn’t believe it. Barack Obama only got 4 more years, and he’s the leader of the free world. I smiled back. The card had a shining Ministry of Justice hologram, practically radiating hope. The Ministry of Freaking Justice loved me. It was the most beautiful card I’d ever seen. I walked outside feeling like sunbeams were lighting my way. Which was a good thing, because actually the sky was a sheet of gray and everybody was walking around staring at their phones. But ah, springtime in Japan, and I wasn’t in prison. It was lovely. I went straight to Starbucks, where it’s always sunny and the staff and customers crowded around and agreed how beautiful my new Japanese residence card was. Then back to the shrine, where I realized everything was again right in the world. Well, at least for three more years. Thanks a bunch, Japanese God.