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Ookini, Kyoto.

March 16, 2009

About a hundred years ago, I applied to the Monbukagakusho (the Ministry of Education) in Japan for a scholarship in order to do postgrad study here in Japan. I filled out forms, wrote essays, flew back to NZ for interviews, sat tests. And then waited about a year while the Japanese government sat around watching Noh, eating fish and refusing to contact me.

Finally, last month, I got word that I had been accepted! As of the start of April, I will be a research student in Waseda University in Tokyo. That’s awesome. But the good news was somewhat tempered by the fact that they gave me NO information. With only a month to go, I had to somehow get myself into the University. And they were not helpful. They did not contact me, they contacted me through the Japanese Embassy in New Zealand. Which means that everything took longer than it should, and I don’t know if there was miscommunication somewhere along the line in the game of Japanese whispers, but answers I needed never seemed to come to me.

I was told that I had to get my Visa changed to a student Visa. I asked how. They didn’t know. They told me to check their own website. I did. The English version of the website opened with the following phrase:

By connecting Japan and the world through proper immigration control services under the motto “Internationalization in compliance with the rules,” making efforts for smoother cross-border human mobility, and deporting undesirable aliens for Japan, the Immigration Bureau, the Ministry of Justice makes contributions to sound development of the Japanese society.

Below that is a picture of a surly looking officer begrudgingly handing over a passport to an incoming foreigner. At no point on the site does it ever say anything along the lines of “Welcome to Japan”. It said I needed two things: a letter from the University saying I had been accepted, and a letter from the government saying they would be paying the costs necessary.

I emailed the Embassy-Government, and the University, asking for the documents. The University later emailed me back, saying that they would send me the necessary documents. The Embassy told me that the Government makes it policy not to issue such letters. Despite the fact that their own damn website insisted on it. The Embassy agreed to write me one in their stead.

I asked everybody about more information about the course I would be doing. What day did it start? Where was the campus? How would I go about enrolling in papers, or anything like that? It’s all well and good to say, “you’re in”, but I kinda need a little more information here.

The Government told me nothing, except that they expected me to attend a pre-departure orientation in New Zealand to prepare for departure to Japan. I managed to convince them that since I was already living in Japan, that was neither reasonable nor necessary. It took some work. The University, after several backs-and-forths, told me that I needed to be there for a test and orientation on April 6.

Since I had heard nothing for so long, I had booked flights to Vietnam and Laos, to come back to Japan in the first week of April. I did not know if I would be going to Uni or not, but since classes generally start mid-April, I figured I would be safe either way. Turns out I arrive back in the country (in Osaka) the same day as the test. I voiced my irritation at the late notice for the test, and got a sucks-for-you reply. I asked the travel agent if I could put my flight back a day. They said it would be possible, for an additional 30,000 yen. That’s a bit crazy, but I had no choice, so I said yes, please. A week later, I had no reply. I asked again. A few days later, I asked again. This time, I got a reply. The price which was available a week or so ago was no longer available. If I wanted to come back a day early, it was gonna be an extra 60,000 yen. I can’t afford that. Why couldn’t you get back to me sooner. Sorry, just saw your email. Too bad for you.

I searched, and found a flight direct from the airline, which leaves Osaka shortly after I arrive, and lands in Tokyo a few hours before the test. So my current plan is to fly back from Laos after backpacking for two weeks, land in Osaka, go through immigration, get back on a plane and fly to Tokyo, get off, find my way to an unfamiliar place in a giant, unfamiliar city (complete with backpack and sweat), and sit the test. Perfect conditions. Then I can worry about finding where I can get a shower and sleep for the night.

In amongst all this, my employer (Interac) emailed me to tell me that I had to get out of my flat the day after my contract finished. What’s that all about? Turns out that since Japan, as a rule, won’t rent to foreigners, we need guarantors, and Interac took that role for me when I signed up. However, it also means that Interac signed a host of clauses that I never saw. The official contract, unbeknownst to me, is between Interac and the real estate agent. I’m just the guy who happens to be living there and paying all the rent and bills. And Interac have made the contract so that I have to be out the day after my working contract with them ends. Oh, and also, I need to give two months’ notice if I’m gonna move out, or else I’m going to have to keep paying the rent for those two months, even if I’m not living there. Even though I can’t live there past that date anyway, even if I pay the rent. They told me this about two weeks before the day I have to be out. And seeing as they pay my salary two months in arrears, that’s all very nice for them, isn’t it.

So, while trying to organise where I’m going for the two days between my contract ending and leaving for Vietnam, and what I’m doing with all my stuff, the letters from the University and the Embassy arrived. I took off to the Immigration Bureau to change my Visa status. I took a day off work, waited in line, filled out my forms, and was asked for the letters. I handed them over. They asked me for the letters. I said I had already given them to them. They said no, these were not the right letters. The Embassy one is OK, but where is your University acceptance letter? I pointed to it. The man looked confused. Yes, this says that you are entering the University, and yes it’s signed by the University, but this isn’t the right letter we need. It’s on the wrong paper.

Surely that’s not important? And surely, when the University is asked for a letter of acceptance in order to get a Student Visa, if there is a special type of paper needed for such a request, the University should know to use said paper? Apparently not. This letter is unacceptable. Go back and try again. I refuse to go back and try again. This is ridiculous. I enter University in two weeks. I need my Visa. The man is actually incredibly obliging for a Japanese office worker, goes away and, I think, rings the University directly. The kind of not-in-the-guidebook behaviour which you don’t see here. He came back and said that they would accept my letter. They had told the Embassy that the change of status would take about a week. They told me that it would take one to three months. I have two weeks. Why didn’t I apply earlier? I only got word that I was even going to University, let alone gathered all the necessary documents, a month ago. And how the hell is three months for a Visa status change justified anyway? They already have all the necessary information, their own bloody government is the one who authorised this is the first place, I’m already living here, what more is there to do than simply change the part labelled “status” on the computer from “Instructor” to “Student”? But then again, these guys took a year to even accept me in the first place.

I leave for Vietnam this Sunday. I have to be out of the apartment Friday. It’s Monday night. I’m trying to pack, but I have accumulated so much rubbish over the last couple of years that it’s mindblowing. Things are slowly starting to come together, but I hope it all gets sorted by the time I need to leave! Before I came to Japan, I had bought into the image that this was an efficient country. But I can assure you, as can anyone who has lived here for any amount of time, that nothing could be further from the truth. This is easily, by far and away, the most disorganised and inefficient place I have ever seen.

I’ve had goodbye parties all over the show, from friends, teachers, students, and girls. It’s been nice, and makes me feel like my time here has been pretty worthwhile. I think I have made a lot of connections with people that hopefully I can build on over the next few years. Unfortunately, most of the people I got on well with have left Kyoto throughout the time I’ve been here, either going back to their home countries, other countries, or other parts of Japan. But now, it’s my time to leave, too. I’m going to leave sleepy old Kyoto with its sunny Kamogawa, and enter Insanity Central further up north. They even talk different. Less subtle shades of brown to complement the olde-style feel of the city (even McDonald’s is banned from using red in their signage), more 10-storey tall flashing neon signs. Less hunched over old ladies leaning on their shopping trolleys for support, more teenagers dressed as anime characters. Less musicians calmly practicing guitar or saxophone on the banks of the Kamogawa, more stuff that’s barely passable as music being screamed from some androgynous being in Harajuku.

Kyoto’s been nice, calm, pleasant and interesting, if just a touch boring after a while. Tokyo’s going to be a whole other bowl of rice.

Assuming I get there.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2009 6:30 am

    oh god-are you a sucker for punishment or what!
    i admire your fortitude–your description of entering japan,and the surly customs officer-made me laugh,he was much friendlier than the one i encountered, mine spat out demands at me ,and it was left to me to say 'welcome to japan' which i did.however after that initial offputting arrival man ,everyone else we encountered was much more pleasant. lots of good luck and best wishes for the next step in your adventure-it appears you will need it!!!!!

  2. March 17, 2009 7:28 am

    oh congratulations! I hope you can sort out all the tortuous paperwork!

  3. March 17, 2009 6:40 pm

    You lucky bastard. You lucky, lucky bastard. Here I am, stuck in idyllic weather in sunny Queensland, most days stuck near the river, coffee in hand, while I pore over my course notes. Birds singing, flowers blooming, and nature generally conspiring to be as good as it gets. Meanwhile, yoiu're off having adventures in The Land That Sanity Forgot.Good luck with it all, mate.

  4. March 17, 2009 7:03 pm

    Thanks catlady and Chandramoon! Yeah, the "face of Japan" could do with a bit of a makeover.That sounds like hell, Borgy. Glad I'm not you right now.

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