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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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[DC notes to self and others in brackets]

Chapter 25


February 17, 1989   -   LEARNING THE BUREAUCRACY


If I've learned anything in my stay in Japan, it is how to deal with bureaucracy.  It's not the hardest thing in the world to get the knack of - it just takes time, experience and patience - maybe some courage too.  Friends at the temple and savvy Ishitaki around the corner guided and advised Elin and me while Hojo-san made our stay possible by protecting us under the wings of the temple.  But no matter how much help we got, there came those inevitable times when we were on our own, face to face with The Man.

Often if Elin and I didn't pick up on the right way to turn at a fork in the maze, a kind official would give a hint.  Sometimes the hints were very clear.  A case in point:

Elin and I used the temple address for official business because it emphasized that hallowed relationship and made it obvious to an official looking at our identification that we were good, upstanding noncitizens.  We had put some savings in an investment company and learned they were required by law to send all our mail to the address on our registration cards.  We didn't think it tactful for the penniless monks at the temple to see that we were receiving mail from the largest mutual fund in the world, so we rode our bikes over to City Hall and said hello to the familiar people behind the desks at the Alien Registration Office located next to the section for handicapped City Hall workers.  I have read letters to the editor complaining about our designation as "aliens", but I like the concept.  As I walk up toward the sign, I imagine that I am an interplanetary visitor registering at City Hall.

A short man in his thirties with horn rimmed glasses and medium length black hair walked immediately up to the counter apologizing for keeping us waiting.  He recognized us from previous visits and seemed happy to see us.  Elin explained that we needed different addresses on our Alien Registration cards.  He went and got a form for us to fill out.  One line of the form was for the moving date to the new residence.

"What should we put here?" Elin asked him.

"Have you already moved?"

"No," she answered, "I mean, yes."

He looked at her quizzically.

"That's where we live,"  she explained.

"The moving date has to be within the last two weeks,"  he said.

"But you see, we've always lived there," she said.  "It's just next door to Daianji.  We used the Daianji address at first but now we want to use this one."

"Within two weeks."

"You don't understand, sir," I broke in.  "We haven't moved.  We just want to change our mailing address from Daianji, to our home."

He leaned over and in a low, firm voice said very clearly and slowly in English, "PRETEND."


Then there's the blank stare.  When you ask a question and people start staring down blankly it's a sure sign that they can't give you something you've just asked for and they feel bad about it. 

Once in Kamakura, Elin and I asked if we could change the destination of our train tickets.  It turned out they couldn't do anything about it because we'd bought our tickets in Tokyo and they'd already been punched for the first leg of the trip.  They could have just told us, "Sorry, there's nothing we can do.  No substitutes on already-punched tickets."  But it was too painful for them to tell us so.  Together they looked our tickets over carefully.

"So," I said clapping my hands and speaking in a positive, cheerful tone, "What's the difference in cost?  We don't mind paying more."

The two blue-uniformed men in the railroad office didn't answer me.  They just stared at the tickets, occasionally turning them over to look at the other side.  They said "So desu ne," and other sorts of noncommittal utterances.  One of them sighed and the other said it was a difficult problem.  Then they went back to staring at the tickets.  They really didn't want to say no and they would have liked to say yes but they couldn't.  Finally we caught on and said it was fine, really, and thanks so much - and they were begging for forgiveness and bowing as we left.  We were not so much disappointed that we couldn't get what we wanted as puzzled by their behavior.  In time we learned that when one meets the blank stare it is best to say thanks and go on one's way.


Sometimes special favors may be granted if there are extenuating social circumstances, if it's not just for little you who should grin and bear it, but for your obligations to others.  It was my first tourist visa extension.  An Immigration clerk told me indignantly in the very busy Tokyo Immigration Office when I was begging him to take care of me so I could get out of there, "I am not a mindless, uncaring bureaucrat.  I am doing my best.  Look at what we are dealing with!" and he gestured toward a room full of hundreds of foreign students, people from every possible country, dancers and bar girls from Thailand and the Philippines, lots of Anglos who were largely English teachers, and other assorted business people, laborers and tourists.  He looked at me intensely.  "These people have been waiting up to four or five hours and you've only been here for thirty minutes!"

I apologized to him and told him not to worry about it.  I said that I could tell that he was working very hard and that I'd come back on another day when he wasn't so busy.  I said I'd be happy to stay and wait, but my Japanese hosts had invited guests over to meet me and I'd rather be late in extending my visa than embarrass them.

He looked down for a minute, then leaned over and whispered to me, "I'll have you out of here in ten minutes."


Sometimes I'd get the brick wall.  No hints, no stare, no mercy.  The first time I met that was in the Department of Immigration in Shizuoka.  Elin wasn't even in Japan yet.  Hoitsu Suzuki drove me to the office.  Since he was my original teacher's son, it seemed it would be appropriate for him to be my sponsor in Japan.  I thought Hoitsu could just go to Immigration and say this guy wants to study Zen and Japanese culture and a cultural visa would be granted - I needed it for an extended stay in Japan.  He didn't know what the rules were either and, looking back on it, I realize how I asked him to do the impossible, imposed on him and put him in an awkward position - a repeated theme of my stay in Japan.

The Immigration man we talked to was not friendly.  His eyes were hard and his lips thin.  He looked at me with contempt and spoke sternly to Hoitsu.  He said "no way," in a number of ways.  It was a bummer and a shock.  All three of us were getting out of sorts.  He said there's no such thing as a "cultural visa," and you can't get it for studying Zen anyway.  But maybe I could get the "4-1-16-3 visa" if I wanted to study one of the martial arts, like maybe Judo.  That pissed Hoitsu off.

"So Judo is more important than Zen?" he said with his voice tensely raised.

"Maybe he should go to Eiheiji," the public servant suggested.

Hoitsu stared at him in disbelief.  "You're telling me where he should go to study Zen?  I am responsible for him and I say that he should go to Maruyama."  In spite of how poorly my future was faring in the course of this conversation, I couldn't help but enjoy hearing Hoitsu assertively stand up for me.  But after a while I just wanted to get out of there and let him off the hook.

Before we parted, the Immigration official explained that they were under pressure because of all the Southeast Asian bar hostesses and dancers that were in Japan on these so-called "cultural" visas.  They'd been getting a lot of press for "selling spring," which is the literal meaning of the kanji for prostitution.

"Do I look like a Thai prostitute?" I asked him.

Hoitsu nudged me sternly.

The bureaucrat went on and made it clear that, regardless, I would have to get my visa in Maruyama, where I was going to live.  Hoitsu could not be my sponsor.  Period.


And then there were kind, helpful people like Miyake-san.  Elin and I had to go to the local Immigration office in Ozu, the same city where I was going to teach English for the shipyard.  My visa was running out and soon hers would too.  Not yet knowing quite what to do about getting "cultural" visas, we went for mere tourist visa extensions.  That was in November of 1988.  We were new and afraid and there was a real meany there to meet us.  He was thin, not too short, and had a severe attitude - looked like he'd never smiled in his life.  He asked us what were we doing in Maruyama and I said studying this and that at Daianji and studying the language and calligraphy.

"You shouldn't be studying on a tourist visa," he said coldly.

Oh no, I thought, we're going to be deported.  There I go mouthing off again.  He wanted to know all sorts of things before he'd even talk about extending our tourist visas.

He's the guy who asked us for proof of marriage.  After we'd failed that he asked sharply just why we were interested in Daianji and when I told him we'd studied Zen in America he just said, "Documents please."  I feared the brick wall, but just then another employee walked over and said hello to us and smoothly took over for mister prison-camp-guard on the pretext that he (the new guy) spoke a little English although we just continued speaking in Japanese.  The friendly fellow's name was Miyake-san.  He spoke softly and had a pleasant smile.  Is this going to be the nice guy/bad guy routine? I wondered.  He'll get us to confess everything and then the other guy will deport us.  But I'd soon forgotten such fears in the warmth of his good will.  The tourist visa extensions were duly granted.


Some months later we went back to Ozu, disappointed and dejected.  In the intervening months we had meticulously gathered the many documents, testimonials and certificates needed to get our visa status transferred from tourist to cultural.  Miyake had met with us and advised us several times along the way.  I applied for the cultural visa and Elin for a spouse visa.

"He's the pro," Miyake had said to Elin while gesturing at me.  "You won't have to prove anything on a spouse visa.  It's easiest that way."

We felt sure that our efforts would be rewarded, but when the answer came back from the regional office, it came back negative.

"It's those Philippine and Thai dancers again," I told Elin in the train on the way to Ozu.  The heat was coming down on Immigration and it put a squeeze on the whole cultural visa thing.  It was ridiculous to begin with.  Southeast Asian women are an integral part of the night-life of Japanese men, especially the guys that run the show.  No one had any intention of keeping those women out.  The visa screw-tightening was just the twitches of the bureaucracy running interference for the hypocrites talking out of both sides of their lust.  There's a saying here: "Edo no kataki Nagasaki de utsu."  It means to avenge Edo (old Tokyo) by attacking far away Nagasaki.  Taking it out on us, in other words.

Miyake explained it like this:  "You got tourist visas - that means you wanted to be tourists.  So be tourists.  That's how they look at it."  (He said they - I loved him.)  "If you had wanted to study, you would have gotten 'student' or 'cultural' visas in America.  Maybe they think you're trying to pull one over on them."

I replied, "How the heck are we supposed to get all these papers together and find sponsors and teachers and schools and do all that from America?  I had to come here and look around.  I wanted to visit people and check things out.  You don't pick Zen teachers out of catalogues.  Our calligraphy teacher and our language school are local and there would be no way we could..."

"Japanese just don't do things like that," he said.  "They save, they plan, they lay it all out.  They just wouldn't do it like you have.  To them it looks irresponsible.  But listen, don't fight it.  We tried that route and it failed."  He spoke with the kind voice of experience.

"So we just have to go back to America and apply from there?"  Elin asked despondently.

"We can't afford that."  I said.

Miyake is a calm and deliberate man.  He told us not to worry - everything was okay.  "Just go to Korea and get your cultural and spouse visas there."

"What?" Elin said.  "Korea?  But won't Japanese Immigration have the same reservations there that they had here?"

"No," he answered.  "You can get it in a few days.  There will be no problem."

"It won't look bad?"  I asked.

"No.  That's doing it the correct way.  They'd see you decided to come to Japan to study these things and that you prepared properly and that all of your papers are in order."  Then he pointedly advised us not to bother to apply for permission to work.  He thought maybe that had hurt our case and said they would expect us to bring enough money to support ourselves for some time.  We nodded in nervous agreement.

We were flabbergasted.  Korea was very close and there was a cheap ferry.   We wanted to see it anyway.  We looked at each other with renewed hope.

Miyake knew we'd need some time to prepare the proper papers all over again and was making out new tourist visa extensions.  I was trying to figure out an advantageous time for us to go.  We wouldn't have to miss classes or lose income if we went when everyone else was on holiday.  I looked at a calendar on the wall.  There were some free days at the end of April and, ah! there's Golden Week, the first week in May which has three national holidays in it.  I quickly calculated we could take a two week vacation if... but that was two months away.

"Uh," I said,

"Yes," he replied, halting his pen.

"Maybe we could leave a little later like in oh say, late April?" I threw out.  He looked at me.  Was it with suspicion?  No.  I don't know.  Oh god, what am I going to say?  Why do I want to stay till then?  My mind raced around.  I  remembered the chant we said in high school.


When in trouble, when in doubt,

Run in circles, scream and shout!


Let's see, I thought, dental appointment, Mother's visit, responsibilities at the temple.  My mother has a dental appointment at the temple?  No...  But before I could tell a lie, Miyake had already given us extensions till June.  That was nice of him.

"Don't want to rush things,"  he said.

I got the distinct feeling that he knew everything: our schedules of classes and the number of students in them and their names.  Like the good Nazis in the movies, he's trying to help us, I thought.  I appreciated it.  We had spent so much time being nervous about teaching illegally and working on getting the right visas.  It was important to us.  Very important.  We wanted to keep living in Maruyama.  I was just paying some pressing debts and we were developing friends and teachers and we didn't want to be thrown out of the country.  We wanted to stay and our friends and the folks at the temple wanted us to stay.  But it was up to the serious public servants at the Department of Immigration as to whether we would be able to stay or not.


When we got home in the early evening I called Bop in Kyoto.  He said not to worry, it was all just a matter of time.

"English teachers are part of national security," he said.  "They need you as much as the Thai hostesses and the illegal laborers from Bangladesh and the Ag students from Nairobi.  It's just their habit to keep foreigners out.  They don't want to lose control and have riots and muggers in every alley.  So at least you have to be initiated."

"Initiated?" I asked.

"Of course, they don't let you do anything in this country without being initiated.  For us it's a snap - they make it much harder on each other.

"Look at it this way," he said and he told me a story about a society in the South Pacific where young people are forbidden to show an interest in each other.  It's a serious taboo and two people in love have to escape to another island.  Their fellow islanders will indignantly chase them and furiously try to kill them on their exit - but they won't be followed in boats.  After the elopers have been gone for a year, they come back and everyone joyously greets them with open arms.

"All you have to do is go to Korea and when you come back, Immigration will greet you with smiles and the appropriate stamps on your visas."


          We had stood in the Immigration office earlier that day and smiled and bowed goodbye with Miyake.  Behind him, the stern and scowling bureaucrat who Miyake had saved us from back in November stared icily just over our heads.  I hoped he wasn't thinking,  "I'll get you yet."  I hoped that he was just showing a strict facade as a coverup for weakness.  I hoped he would go to a ramen shop after work and drink himself into a stupor with his chums and forget about us permanently.