Friday, 28 August 2015

Japanese Bureaucracy

A month ago I was nervously sat waiting at a Japanese government building.* The International driving permit I came with only lasted a year, so I had come to exchange it for a Japanese license. UK citizens just have to fill in some forms and show that we have the required paperwork. Even so, negotiations are famously tricky. Just to be on the safe side I had a whole folder of supporting documents: 3000円 translation of my UK driving license - check. Proof of residence, passport, and foreigner card - check, check, and check. I even had photocopies of old insurance letters,  academic transcripts, and letters from past employers all translated into Japanese. What could go wrong?

I Know You Know What Copy Means

Even though my appointment was for 9, and I arrived at 9, and there was no one else in the waiting room, I wasn't seen till 10:30. They like to make you wait and sweat it out. Puts the power in their hands. Lets you know whose in charge. Either that or they overslept.

Finally a little bald man shuffles out from the inner sanctum of the Bureaucracy and calls my name. It is instantly obvious he dislikes me. I give over enough information for even the most amateur criminal to steal my identity and he checks them off the list piece by piece.  Passport - check. Foreigner card - check. Academic transcripts... ah whats this? Only photocopies... chotto... dame. Useless. His face remains the mask of serious professionalism, but you can see a touch of sadistic joy creeping round the corners of his eyes. He knows hes won before I even open my mouth.

I'm disappointed but hardly surprised. My friend's had warned me this would be a fight. I decide to play the tried and tested "Confused Gaijin" card.

Me: "Sumimasen, watashi no nihongo wa chotto.. heta desu... mondai wa..? "
(Sorry, I'm gonna act like I don't understand till you give me an answer I like better)

The Bureaucracy: "Kore wa kopi. Kopi deshou?  Dame."
(I know you know what copy means. Your documents aren't worth the paper they're printed on)

Me: "Demo...."
(But..  I used one of my precious holiday days, woke up before sunrise, drove 2 1/2 hours and payed 3500円 on motorway tolls to get this sorted.. there must be another way..)

The Bureaucracy: "Demo nai. Muri."
(No buts. Through years of training I have become numb to human emotion - Its impossible to get a license with photocopies.)

I want to change gear from "Confused Gaijin" to "pissed off and aggressive" but I don't actually know enough Japanese to express myself in an angry way, and yelling in English would have been pointless.

Honestly, yelling at all would be pointless. Arguing with The Bureaucracy is like punching your computer when it stops working. You cant reason with, beat up, or sweet talk a machine. I settle for moody and passive aggressive. We re-arrange for 3 weeks time and I promised to collect less useless documents for the little bald man to peruse. I then had the 2 1/2 hour drive back (plus another 3500円) to dwell in detail on the bitter rejection.

When I arrived back in Joetsu I went directly to the store to get a tire pump, because for the next three weeks I'd be riding my bike everywhere. In the height of Japanese summer. And with no showers at school, that little bald man wasn't just punishing me.  The whole faculty had to deal with my new found odor problem. It was a toss up whether I'd die of heat exhaustion or social embarrassment first.

Japanese Bureaucracy

I get it,  bureaucracy is a necessary evil in modern society. Things need to be standardised. At the top there is some committee of old Japanese men sat in a room together. They don't really know whats going on either, so they quickly choose some arbitrary checklist of documents and go for an early lunch break. The little bald man who shuffled out to process me is just a small front-line cog in the giant churning mechanism. He is given the checklist, and if the criteria isn't met, you can't proceed. I can't blame him, or even blame the committee of old Japanese men on their lunch break, The machinery of bureaucracy grinds ever onward.

At this point the expat thing to do is blame Japan. Why Japan? Why do you torture us like this? Why is everything so arbitrary? Why do you need an official record of my university marks to give me a driving license? Why can't you treat me like a human being? It must be the culture of Japan. This is a Japanese problem.

Except that of course is a lie. All over the world there are little bald men with equally arbitrary check lists who take delight in informing you you've got the wrong paperwork. Its just there is an extra level of difficulty pasted on top when you're in a foreign country and cant workout what they want from you. Bureaucracy generally follows an arbitrary set of rules, and if you learn the rules, you can navigate the paperwork obstacle course to get what you need. In the end, the only person I had left to blame was myself for not finding out exactly what I had to bring. Thinking that didn't help me calm down though. There is nothing more rage inducing than knowing there is no one to blame but yourself.

Dotting i's and crossing t's

3 weeks later I returned to the same waiting room. In the interim my fiery rage dwindled to smouldering resentment. Turns out I actually quite enjoy biking, and the exercise is an important counter to my current diet of fried things and rice. Although my appointment was for 9, and I arrive at 9, and there was no one else in the waiting room, I wasn't seen until 10:30. The same little bald man shuffled out of the machine. This time I'd dotted my i's and crossed my t's. Real documents, no photocopies.**

There was still the rest of the obstacle course to navigate. I moved to three different windows with three different queues to fill out 3 more forms, had my photo taken twice, payed multiple unexplained fees and prayed fervently for the sweet release of death. The real kicker of course was that they returned my original academic record. Turns out they take it round the back.. and photocopy it.

That's all behind me now. To mark my one year anniversary of surviving in Japan, I am now the proud owner of a Japanese driver's license. When I informed the office there was a general sigh of relief followed by the removal of medical masks.

*I was going to start by apologising for posting so irregularly, but after looking back at old posts I've realised at least half of them start that way. Its time I accept that a) I'll never be good at keeping to schedules or creating habits; and b) There isn't actually anyone sat anxiously waiting for me to post my next self-indulgent monologue. So there's no reason to apologise. I've put this as a footnote rather than the starting paragraph, because apologising about apologising too much is about as self-defeating as complaining that people complain too much. In fact, just pretend I didn't say anything. Sorry I wasted your time.

** I'd hate to have written all this, only for some intrepid gaijin explorer to stumble upon this and still be none the wiser on what documents they need to bring to get a Japanese License. For those of you who will never apply for a Japanese license please don't bother reading the rest of this footnote.

So the full list is as follows:
-Driver's license of native country (and paper part if applicable)
-Official translation of driver's license (called a Gaimen Kirikae)
-Juumin Hyou from your local city office (Basically a proof of residence)
-Your foreigner card
    -Here's the tricky bit. You have to prove you drove in your home country for at least 3 months after you got your license. Most nationalities can do this with their passport. However if you are from a country like the UK, they don't stamp your passport on departure or arrival. You therefore need original (no photocopies!) documents of some kind with an original signature on it to prove you you drove in your home country for 3 month. As far as I know, the following have been accepted:
        -Letter from past employer
        -Original academic transcript
        -Police Certificate
The following have been rejected:
        -Old insurance documents
        -Old pay checks or bills
        -Old council tax documents
The vital part seems to be that a) It is an original and b) it has an original signature on it

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