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Red Tape Blues


Getting kicked out of Japan is no fun. Really, take my word for it.

I am strolling into one of those grayish, nondescript government buildings to apply for a work visa and not surprisingly inside there are rows of seats with foreigners waiting for their turn, their faces staring off into space. Some cobwebs and a thin layer of dust are covering some of them at the back.

Armed with my certification of eligibility to work and passport, I confidently glance at my watch and think of a nice steamy dish of yakisoba for lunch. When the immigration officer (Let’s call him Tanaka) is just about to put the stamp of approval on my application form, he suddenly stops mid-air and puts his nose deeply into one of the pages of my passport.

“Your visitor visa has expired,” he says.

I look at the date and yes, he’s right, it has expired now for six days. I tell him that I was waiting for my Certificate of Eligibility to arrive from the Justice Department, which had just arrived a few days earlier.

Tanaka calls his supervisor (Let’s call her Naomi) and tells her the situation. Naomi examines my documents and I can tell already from the way she grimaces that it’s not looking good for me.

She pulls out a form from the air like a magician pulling a coin out of a ear and informs me that I should have filled out the “Extension of Temporary Visa” form. She taps at it with her fingernails. Tap, tap, tap. I repeat to her the part where I was waiting for this other application to go through. My voice cackles and pops, sounding more like a guilty child who has just got caught with his hands in the cookie jar. That’s different she says. It’s not related to this expired date on your visitor visa. Her voice is strong and confident. She continues saying that I should take more personal responsibility. I am about to tell her I didn’t know but then I thought better of it. She must have heard that one from every loser reprobate that crossed her desk.

I am taken upstairs in a windowless waiting room, even smaller than the one downstairs. Tanaka tells me to sit down and wait. There are four rows of benches all facing a wooden counter with a green partition that blocks the view of an inner room that hums with electricity. Men and women are sitting here and there looking idly at the entrance and the counter. The plaque hung on one of the walls announces that this is the “Enforcement Control Department."

A dried-up, yellow parchment is taped on the wall near the entrance to the inner sanctum. Its edges are frayed and on it is written: “As we are very busy today, please be patient." It’s nearly three in the afternoon and my stomach grumbles for steak and potatoes.

A tall gentleman with a younger woman walks up to the counter and tries to get a human face to talk to but no one comes out. The only response they get is one corner of the parchment peeling off and flapping around from the overhead air-conditioning. Even the walls are sweating. They sit back down and the man consoles the woman, casting his eyes back towards the empty counter.

At times, groups of immigration officers bustle through the waiting room from downstairs and walk straight through the entrance behind the counter without a single word. You can tell they’re the ones who put the ‘force’ back in ‘enforcement’ alright because they all wear pistols on their belts covertly placed under their long dark jackets. They are pushing along the detainees in their custody by the elbow or shoulders. Some of the bigger-looking detainees are intricately tied up at the back as if they were on show in an S&M exhibit and led to the next set of audience by their avant-garde artists.

The sun is setting somewhere but I can’t see it because there are no windows, with the only light coming from the white fluorescent tubes on the ceiling. I am like Dave on a space station in the movie 2001 Space Odyssey asking Hal to let me out: "I'm sorry, Dave. I can't do that."

Finally a man (Let’s call him Tanaka 2) emerges from behind the partition and calls out my name along with two others. When we enter the inner sanctum, I expected to see cages lined up on either side of a long rectangular room like a kennel and at the far end, a human-size meat grinder with electrical cords running axially from the center towards its circumference to power this insatiable machine. But no, it’s just another office, a smaller version of the one downstairs, with people sitting at their desks, sifting through piles of paper and looking for the meaning of it all.

When Tanaka 2 sits us down, I soon realize he’s not the person to plead my case to. He’s a Processor: The one responsible for taking my photo, getting my fingerprints and telling me that we have to come back on a certain date for our hearing. When I am finally outside, it’s already dark.

The whole week before my hearing, I am looking for anything that I can save myself from being deported. When I scan through the information on the internet concerning Japanese immigration laws, I am disheartened to find that over-stayers are strictly punished. Ignorance is not an excuse. Images of the tied-up detainees continue to flash in front of my eyes. A Japanese lawyer who gives free consultations to foreigners at the International Center tells me my case is not so serious and that my hearing will probably clear everything up. Oh boy, was he wrong. I guess the adage of "you get what you pay for" is an international standard.

On the day of my hearing, with my boss Mr. Tokuda accompanying me. Someone has taped the corner of the Edo-Period parchment back on the wall, but the message is still clear: "As we are very busy today, please be patient."

I finally get my chance to defend my position: “It was a bureaucratic oversight for not applying for an extension on my visitor visa and if it was only a question of filling in a form to extend it so that it would give more time for the Justice Department to send me the certificate of eligibility with which to apply for a working visa, then I would have happily filled in that form. Please consider the mitigating circumstances of this case.”

The formal authoritative tone was supposed to mimic the language of the bureaucrat sitting across from me. In my mind, it actually went: “No, no, please, please. Oh God, no. Don’t send me away! Mama!”

Unimpressed, and perhaps bored, the woman (Let’s call her Nina) across the table listens with her eyes fixed on the documents in front of her. When she speaks, I know it’s all over. The visa and the certificate are not related she says like Naomi from downstairs a week ago. She goes on to say that I must take more personal responsibility. There must be a manual with a these set phrases at the back that all immigration officers must remember: "You must take more personal responsibility."

When I look around at my boss for any sign of support he, his silence gives Nina’s verdict a resonating authority. Nina tells me it’s not an official deportation and if I were to apply for a work visa overseas, I may be able to re-enter the country. In other words, no handcuffs and no armed guards to escort me to the plane.

So a week later, I am flying across the Pacific with the Certificate of Eligibility, thinking I’ve got one more chance. When I arrive in Vancouver, I go straight to the Japanese consulate without even a glance at the world-famous skyline.

Nope, it’s a beeline right to the consulate and in front of a serious-looking bespectacled Japanese clerk who is looking at my work visa application. This is the moment that would determine if I would ever come back to Japan or finally be repatriated back to Canada because of that one single application form that I failed to file, the one that started this whole insane chain of events.

The clerk tells me to come back in two days for processing. I stand there unbelieving, waiting for him to look closely at my passport, slap me in the face and then tell me he had made a mistake and that deportees like me had no chance in hell to return to the land of Shinto Gods. A part of me wanted him to say that. But alas, I returned in two days and there stuck on one page of my passport was the visa entitling me to stay in Japan for another year, positioned opposite the one requiring me to leave Japan in one week.

So I am on the plane recrossing the Pacific Ocean and heading back to Japan. A few days later, I am at work grinding out an English lesson on the past modal forms: could have, would have, should have.

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