I guess it’s fitting that I leave Japan the same way I arrived: unexpectedly.
My bedroom in Ibaraki is, at the moment, awash in the total inventory of everything I own in this world – minus what’s still sitting in an apartment building in Fukui Prefecture and minus what’s crammed into a Charleston, S.C., storage shed – all of it sorted into neat piles of what can go, what must stay here, and what will be gifted to my housemate, Will. (The first pile is by far the smallest.) Just a few hours ago, I was in the office of the Vietnamese Consulate in Osaka, filling out an application for an entry visa to a Communist nation 2,040 miles away. On my desk: a guidebook to Southeast Asia.
Last week, I mentioned that the previous weekend was remarkable for two reasons. At the time, the second item on that list was a little too much for me to grasp, so I zeroed in on the first, which had been traumatic enough for a month of weekends and still had me by the throat. But the time has now come to dwell on Reason Number Two.
During a routine visit to the Japanese Immigration Office Monday a week ago – one day after my encounter with murderous Yakuza thugs – I discovered quite to my surprise that I’m living in Japan as an unregistered foreign national. Since February 13, when my second 90-day sightseeing visa expired, I’ve been operating under the radar, so to speak. In other words, I’m an illegal alien.
It’s not enough that, as an American, I’m an ethnic minority here. Oh, no. I have to arrange it so that I’m a pariah, too.
The upshot, unlikely at it may sound: I’ve been given until June 3 to clear out of the country, either under my own power or with the helpful assistance of jackbooted Immigration officials. On Tuesday, therefore, I will board an airplane with my very small pile of things, spend the night in Taipei, Taiwan, and the next day become a resident, however temporarily, of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
This is not my fault.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, Oh, Patrick, c’mon. You can’t seriously expect us to believe that. Some of us know you, remember? But I promise, this time it’s not. Okay, look, remember my one-day trip to Seoul back in November, when I was still living in Fukui and teaching part-time at the American Club? Let’s revisit that trip for a moment – specifically, the reasons for it.
The American Club flew me to Seoul and back as a visa “refresher,” a common practice around these parts among foreigners who need to bump up their tourist visa’s credit limit by another 90 days. These kinds of trips are frowned on by Japanese Immigration, but they’re not illegal. The reason the school did this for me was because they had submitted an application for a work visa in my name several weeks before, at the end of October. On November 13 – the day my original 90-day tourist visa expired – Ministry of Labor functionaries were doubtless poring over that application somewhere in the bowels of a hideous government building in Tokyo. Nevertheless I didn’t yet have a work visa. Without which I would be living and working in Japan illegally. So the school rushed me off to Seoul and back to buy themselves, and me, another 90 days.
A month later, in mid-December, one of the school administrators handed me a manilla envelope and said, “Congratulations. Your work visa arrived today.” It was an impressive-looking document, covered from top to bottom with watermarks, official seals, illegible Japanese kanji, and a terrible photograph of me up in the left corner. I put it in a safe place and relaxed. And why not? After tourist visa number two expired on February 13, I’d officially be a working, taxpaying resident of Japan until December 25, 2008.
Except that, as I’ve recently learned, I wasn’t. And I’m not.
Is this too much information? Tough. I have to explain why getting kicked out of Japan is not my fault. Keep reading.
On Monday a week ago, I went to the Osaka Immigration Office to fix what seemed an slight irregularity with my passport. I had an official work visa, covered with embossed seals and hiragana chicken scratch, but there was nothing on my passport reflecting this status. Clearly, I needed to take this document to someone somewhere who could thump their big stamp on my passport and make this whole thing officially official. The nice lady at the Foreign Registration Desk at Ibaraki City Hall smiled and said this could be taken care of at the Immigration Office in downtown Osaka.
I didn’t see any need to rush. On the other hand, in July my childhood friend Andrew and his new wife Jati will be celebrating their marriage with an official Balinese ceremony in Indonesia, which I’ve been looking forward to attending for months. I knew I’d need to get things cleared up before I left the country for Bali, so – in a huge departure from my normal operating procedure – I decided better sooner than later, and on Monday I marched into the Immigration Office with everything I imagined they could ask me for: my passport, my work visa, my gaijin card, lots of photo ID, my personal seal, even my employment contract and a bank statement. I was official, and I wasn’t going to let anyone question it.
In very short order, I was disabused of this fantasy. Rigorously. The moment I lay down my documents on the counter, I saw in the eyes of the clerk before me that things were amiss – serious things, seriously amiss. Japanese people are the helpfulest people on earth, and even convenience store clerks and government employees will run – literally, run – to be of assistance for the simplest question, apologizing the whole time for taking so long. This woman did not run. She certainly did not apologize. Instead, she avoided eye contact and snapped at me: “This is not a work visa.”
Herein lies the crux of the problem. It was not a work visa. What the dunderheaded admins at my school in Fukui had unwittingly secured for me was a Certificate of Eligibility for a work visa – something of use to me only if I was in the United States and thinking about coming to Japan. Here in Japan, it’s utterly useless, of no more value to me than a square of toilet paper. Less, even. At least a square of toilet paper has some fractional worth. A Certificate of Eligibility in Japan wouldn’t even make good toilet paper. What this news meant was that not only had I overstayed my welcome, in the full legal sense, but I was working at the school in blatant disregard of the law. In the eyes of this woman, and of the Japanese government, I was, and am, a criminal.
Yes, of course I explained to everyone how this misunderstanding had come about, that they had the wrong guy. My school here even assigned me a mediator to help sort the whole thing out: Mr. Ikeda. And when I say mediator, what I mean is he was a fixer. Seriously, this guy was like a Japanese Michael Clayton, except smaller, and he looked nothing like George Clooney. But in all other respects, Mr. Ikeda was the real deal; his only mission was to make this thing better for me and the school, whatever it took.
Yet even with Mr. Ikeda’s full arsenal of fixes – mostly lots of running around and apologizing – he was all but helpless in the face of modern Japanese bureaucracy, the size and complexity of which would make Terry Gilliam’s head spin. Rules are rules, we were told by numerous faceless administrators, all of whom also explained to us that they understood my situation completely, and if it were up to them, I’d be granted a special dispensation immediately, but unfortunately it wasn’t up to them.
I was, of course, welcome to request a special dispensation – but the only person who could grant one was the Minister of Justice, and the handful of special dispensations that he has handed down in all his years in office have all gone to people with family members in Japan. The chances of him breaking with this precedent were slim indeed. Moreover, the decision could take anywhere from six months to three years, during which time I may or may not be held in detention at the Immigration Office. Regardless, I definitely wouldn’t be working. If the decision came back in the negative, as it most certainly would, I’d be deported from the country and forbidden from returning for five years. If I left on my own within two weeks, I’d be welcomed back with smiles anytime after one year.
So as you can see, the decision was kind of made for me.
Tomorrow morning, then, it’s back to the Vietnamese Consulate, where I hope they’ve not done a background check and found me to be a chronic abuser of travel visa privileges. If so, I’ll have to keep working my way down the list of third-world Asian nations who are throwing visas at American-trained journalists.
I wonder how the food is in detention.