The Art of Japanese Bureaucracy

Japan has over the course of many decades turned the traditionally mundane concept of bureaucracy into a polished art form. You can be sure there is more to the slow dance of paper pushing clerks than meets the eye. Behind the scenes, the system runs like clockwork to ensure maximum inefficiency, wastefulness and frustration.

What you might not know about Japan is that it’s home to a fearsome army of suited-up bureaucrats. These warriors play a crucial role in the country’s ongoing war against efficiency and practicality. They are here to stop heathens like yourself from using simple, digitalized tools to go about your life. They are here to make sure that every step of your visa application is as distressing as possible. They are here, and they are here in numbers.

As the saying goes, one lone gaijin does not a difference make.

Blue ink

“Hmm,” said the bank clerk, eyeing my signature skeptically.

“Hmm?” I replied, raising an eyebrow.

“Hrrm…” he muttered, sucking his teeth.

In my eternal stupidity, I had thought that registering a new address would be an easy standard procedure. But of course, this jerk—er, I mean, clerk— was here to prove me dead wrong. We had been humming and hawing at each other for the better part of an hour without getting anywhere.

“Valued customer,” he said at last. “Your signature doesn’t match the one you provided when you opened the account six years ago.”

Six years ago?” I echoed, sound every bit as annoyed as I was. “That is a long time ago. Is it an issue of identification, then?”

“The signature is not the same, valued customer,” the clerk repeated stubbornly.

Taking a deep breath, I bit back the first three replies that came to mind. Then another four.
“Okay.” Breathe. “Here, you can confirm my identity with these,” I said, slapping my passport and residence card down on the counter with entirely too much force.

He took the documents gingerly and spent the next five minutes looking constipated.

“Sorry, the signature needs to match the original one. For example, the “r” here doesn’t match the one you provided us.” He tapped the paper.

Now, there may be super humans out there who can produce perfect signatures endlessly, but I am most certainly not one of them. I would be hard pressed to replicate something I signed yesterday, much less six years ago.

“I don’t remember how I wrote it…” I said, exasperated.

“Sorry, we need an exact match, dear valued customer,” said the man unregretfully.

“Fine,” I snapped, biting the word off. I took out my pen and started scribbling down variations of my signature on a piece of paper.

“How about this?” I said, pointing at a signature with a snazzy cursive “r”.

He examined the r with such care you’d think he was cracking the Da Vinci Code.

“Yes, I think maybe perhaps this is all right, dear valued customer,” the clerk said, not quite daring to meet my furious gaze.

“Great,” I said tightly, scribbling down an overly cursive version of my name on the document.

“Ah, but dear valued customer!” he exclaimed as I put the pen down. “The ink must be black for the signature to be valid.”

I looked down at the blue signature.

“Sorry, dear valued customer, I will bring you a new 3-page form to fill out.”

And he was as good as his word. The takeaway? Sign official documents in Japan with a blue ballpoint pen at your own peril. Or just get a damn hanko from the get-go.

What is an “online” and can you eat it?
If you’ve ever tried doing Something Important online in Japan and failed, you are not alone. Japan’s favourite means of communication is fax, after all, and things like online banking and ward office registrations are lagging behind. So don’t be disheartened if (when) your digital application fails. You’re probably just using the wrong browser – a lot of the older systems only support Internet Explorer. Yes, you read that right. Internet Explorer.

Even if whatever service you’re applying for allows for use of modern browsers, chances are you’ll get a 404 error message anyway. Why? Because your foreign name is too foreign. Middle names in particular tend to trip up Japanese systems, as they simply don’t exist here. Even if you don’t have a middle name, your name is probably too goddamn long for the character limit. Or it might just have too many spëcíäl characters. Really, your best bet at getting anything done is just to bite the bullet and head to your Bureacracy Stronghold of choice.

After all, you have not truly experienced Japan unless you’ve queued four hours in the local ward office, getting shuffled around five different desks, signed 10 documents, and been asked to produce papers you currently don’t have, just to be sent off to another local office that, sorry dear valued customer, is only open 9-12 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The worst for last
Opening bank accounts, changing addresses, and getting cell phones all pale in comparison with the most vicious battle of all: The Visa Application. It is beyond ironic that the Ministry of Justice is in charge of this, as the entire process is as unjust as they come. The Shinagawa Immigration Bureau sets the tone by sitting on top of a detention centre where all the Overstaying Stupid Foreigners are held in sub-human conditions. If that is not grim enough, detainees sometimes die because of mistreatment.

Overstaying your welcome is serious business in Japan, and make no mistake, you are not welcome in the immigration bureau. The staff is there to make sure that you’ll have the worst experience ever in their facility. To top things off, nobody really speaks English.

I could go on, but the spectacularly soul-crushing experience of Getting a Visa really deserves its own post. It is a bureaucratic marvel. A true work of art. Maybe that’s why all the administrators are real pieces of work. Who knows.

Either way, it does take certain dedication to keep the wheel of bureaucracy rolling in the same track for decades. Well done, Japan! On that note, I feel it is only appropriate to end this post with a quote by Hyman G. Rickover:

 “If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.”

4 thoughts on “The Art of Japanese Bureaucracy

    1. Haha thanks! If you find anyone who *likes* going to the immigration office, I’d very much like to meet him or her xD

  1. I am always waiting for one of these to pop up on my feed. Still looking forward to the the day I actually make it to Japan. Reading your Blog prepares me for the worst 😅

    1. I am glad that someone is looking forward to my cups of bitter tea xD Thanks Ben. When you do make it over here though, you will be well prepared to face just about anything. So there is that 😀

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