Immigration Center

I’m taking a break from talking about my upcoming novel, Sand, Sea and Stone, and its indiegogo campaign to relate a tale of living in Japan. Enjoy.

Yesterday was one of those days that all of us immigrants have to face over from time to time. A nice little visit to the immigration center to handle some paperwork. For me, the goal of this time was to turn in my application for permanent residency.

Now, for all my griping about gathering said paperwork, I have to be up front that the listed required documents aren’t actually that difficult to prep. The hardest part is actually finding the list of those documents. In both English and Japanese the layout of the governments immigration sites are pretty awkward. In English I could never find a complete list of the necessary paperwork. In Japanese, I could sometimes find the correct page. Other times I had to ask the Mrs., a native speaker, to find the correct page for me and even she had a hard time finding it.

After making sure I had the list ready, I needed to make a trip to the ward office here in Shinjuku to get proof of residence, a family registry (since I am married and have a kid), and proof that I paid my taxes. Each form cost a about $4 for anyone keeping track.

From my workplace, I needed an official proof of employment. Getting that was simple. I basically just had to go to the HR area and ask. No problems.

Other than those all I needed to prep was a basic two page application form, form of guarantee from the Mrs., passport, residence card; simple stuff. I’m pretty sure the rules of what is necessary has been somewhat relaxed. I could be wrong, but I remember when I looked into it a few years back I was expected to also provide an essay in Japanese about what I would provide to the country. Also, since being married is one of the reasons I am here, we would need to provide proof of relationship through photos and the like. Entirely possible I am just getting things confused. Also possible I might be asked for those things later.

Any way, with papers in hand and a day off of work, it was off to the immigration office.

In my 13 years in Japan, I have been to two immigration offices. The one in Takasaki, while not overly convenient, was somewhat close to the station and kind of tiny and on a single floor in an older building. My main memory of it was that for some reason they placed the building’s smoking pit right in front to the door to the immigration office. Every time sometime would come for a smoke, and being Japan it was pretty frequent, the stink would fill the office. Still, the smallness of the office meant that if you got there either first thing in the morning or just after lunch it was possible to get out within 30 minutes.

The Shinagawa branch here in Tokyo is a little different. First off, Shinagawa just feels like it is just outside the main part of Tokyo. That could totally be on me, since I have no reason to head out that way, and it is almost on the opposite side of the Yamanote from where I live. What isn’t really up for question is that the Immigration center is out of the way.

You get out of Shinagawa station and you are in a pretty fancy area. But don’t get used to it. Because you will either need to hope on a bus or walk the over 2km to get to the office.  Either way you chose, before you even pass the halfway point, all the fanciness dies away and you notice you are in a more industrial area. An industrial area that specializes in shipping.

Yes, all around the immigration center are huge shipping crates. Crates that specialize in removing materials from the country. I always think about the message that sends: “Cause problems and we can easily ship you out of the country.”

The building itself is rather large, but most of us will only ever visit the main two floors. The first floor has a small convenience store where you can make copies, get some snacks and buy the revenue stamps needed. You see, almost everything in the immigration center has a price tag, but they can’t actually take money. Instead you have to go buy a stamp, that looks exactly like you imagine a stamp, that is worth $40. Be careful not to lose it.

The second floor is where you go to deliver paperwork and (hopefully) pick up you visa. It is always crowded. It isn’t uncommon for all the seats to be taken in the waiting area, but you can generally find a seat. Colored lines wind their way across the floor. Although there is an explanation board, it is hard to understand which line you are supposed to get into. The explanation is in multiple languages, but none of them are very clear. You eventually learn where to go by repeat visits rather than any clarity of use. Yes, there is an information desk, but the line to get to that is almost as full as every other line. You have to ask yourself is it worth it to take take the time to find out where you are supposed to go, or just take a guess and hope for the best.

So, you line up in the line to get your number. Yesterday I was lucky and arrived just before a wave of people. So, I only had a 15 minute wait. If I had been five minutes later, it could easily have been 45 minutes.

I get to the front of the line. My papers are examined. I’m told they look correct, but that since the time on my current visa won’t cover the inspection period for permanent residency, I’ll need to apply for a visa extension as well. All things considered, I was lucky. They let me just submit photocopies of my PR documents as long as I filled out an extension application. Also, they gave me my number for submission. Still, I needed to fill out the application and come back to pre-submission, although in a separate, faster line.

Making the copies, taking another ID photo for the paperwork, and filling out the forms took about an hour. I was further lucky that a friend had business at the immigration center as well, so we were able to chat as we waited. He was also willing to help hold papers during the photocopying. Which was nice. Space is limited and juggling so many documents can while people behind you are staring and wishing you to go faster isn’t that pleasant.

So, I go back to presubmission. I get cleared. Now, I have to wait. To me, this is the most annoying aspect of the basic immigration center process. You go in one line. An official checks all your paperwork and gives you a number. You wait for that number to be called. You give your already checked paperwork to another person who checks it again. You are given an estimated waiting period.

But even after two people have checked your paperwork, there is still a decent chance that you will be contacted with a request for additional documents. I always think, if two people are checking it, why can’t we be told any other needed documents then? Or, if there is going to be a greater examination of the papers later, why not just end it with the first person checking and then taking the paperwork from us? Really, our only purpose in the process is to move a stack of papers from point A to point B. And for that we are waiting for hours on end. Now, I am sure this two officials are doing different things with the papers. What I don’t understand is why this process can’t be simplified to eliminate the need to have hundreds of people waiting around.

From the time I was given a number to the time I was called was about 2.5 hours. My friend and I started taking with someone who got through that first listen about 15 minutes after me. When we left she still likely had another hour to wait.

One thing I can say about yesterday was that every official I talked with was very pleasant. The final person was down right friendly. And while I have had friendly officials before, by no means is it the norm. There have been plenty of officials who have just glared and growled at me, almost to the point where I wondered if they just enjoyed being rude. After all, most people going for a new visa talk about how arbitrary it is. You can ask for a 3 or 5 year extension and easily only be given one year. Most everyone I know tries to put on a pleasant, or a least a neutral, face so as to not risk having to start this process over again in 10 months.

But, as for me, I managed to get all my paperwork turned in. But I don’t know what will happen. I could easily be contacted telling me that i need more documentation for either my PR application or for the visa extension. It is just as likely that I will be contacted to pick up the visa extension ($40) and to wait another month or two before being asked to come pick up my PR card ($80). I’ve heard of people getting PR in as short as 4 months, but as I turned in my paperwork I was told to allow between 6months and 1 year to hear anything.

Either way, it looks like I should expect to have two more visits to the immigration office in the next year.

But, if the end result is having PR, it’ll be worth it.

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