Several weeks ago I shared an account of heading over to the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau over in Shinagawa. As anyone who has gone through this particular dance it takes a minimum of two visits to renew a visa. The first is to drop off the paperwork and the second is, hopefully, to pick up the new visa. Luckily enough when my postcard came in the mail it indicated that I didn’t nee to bring any additional documents, but that I could just pick up my new visa.
Once again I was off to the outskirts of Shinagawa, passing the familiar sights of the shipping district and ending at the dusty, grey Immigration Bureau (IB). As strange luck would have it, i had accidentally purchased the revenue stamps needed last time, so i was able to hop off the bus and immediately line up. I told myself that with my extra time I should pick up a new stamp for when (hopefully) my permanent residency comes through in a few months. The merit being with everyone hopping off the same bus, I won’t have to wait in line for the stamps and then wait in line again to get the PR.
So I’m in line. It is a surprising sunny and warm November day. The type of day where you can get away with still walking around in just a t-shirt as long as you are in the sun. But, it is November and custom dictates that this is the time for the heaters to start being turned on. Now, I can’t say for sure that the IB had the heat going, but I can say that when you are in a crowded floor, especially in a cattle line five rows deep waiting to turn in your paperwork, you can’t help but wonder about the swampy conditions on such a pleasant weather day.
The line to turn in my paperwork moved quite quickly despite all the people waiting. Yes, I used the stopwatch function to time my experience. Partly for this write up and partly out of a mixture of curiosity and boredom. This first stage of my journey, lining up and getting my number, took a little over 14 minutes. I drew number 386. They had just called someone in the 140s. That was my fault for getting a late start. Maybe.
My ticket did have the time stamp of 11:00am. Still, the one time I busted my hump to arrive as soon as the place opened it was to join a morning rush on the trains and a crowd of people waiting outside the building. And while I was early, many people were earlier and it still took hours of waiting. Getting there early was the conventional wisdom when I lived in Gunma. I don’t think it matters in Tokyo. At least not in Shinagawa.
So, I waited. mostly I walked around outside. That area of Shinagawa is not exactly a pretty area. It is just rows and rows of semi trucks and shipping crates. Also, at least today, it was hard to enjoy the beautiful weather because everywhere I wandered seemed to be full of idling trucks smelling of exhaust or full of smokers puffing away in such numbers you could smell the cloud about half a block away.
In the end, I found a little stoop outside to sit and wait. I listened to podcasts and music and tried to read. I’d check my watch and regularly stroll upstairs to see how close they were to calling my number.
It’s interesting to compare this center to other government buildings I’ve been in. As I was preparing my paperwork I had to go into the main city office in Shinjuku. This might sound crazy, because obviously Shinjuku is a much larger area, but that building reminded me of the city offices of the other, much smaller towns I lived in, Maebashi and Kiryu.
In those government buildings, you walk in and right in front of you is the help desk. Most of the staff are quick to notice customers and talk in that overly polite fashion to show they are ready to help. Sure, you are going to find grumps and unenthused workers as well, but there does seem to be a uniform veneer of friendliness (as long as you are asking the typical questions). Also, things tend to be rather clean. There always seems to be an elderly janitor, perhaps in toothpaste green or baby blue, pushing a cart that is just finishing up a pass or about to start one.
This time, at the IB, I didn’t see any janitors. I also noticed several dust bunnies drifting across the floor. I remember the because I kept seeing them roll across the floor in the corner of my eye and doing a double take thinking it might be a roach scampering away. But no bugs, just dust and dinginess. As for the staff, they are perfectly perfunctory. My last visit, I was struck by the clerks pleasant demeanor. This time, there were no pleasantries. Not that anyone was rude, but there were no smiles. Everything was short. “Form.” “Take your number and wait.” “Number.” “Here.” You could almost call it efficiency if it weren’t so cold.
The immigration is in dire need of something to humanize it. I don’t know if this means actually having the staff treat the foreign patrons with the same level of cheerful politeness that city workers use, but something should be done to turn the IB’s image around. I started wondering what would happen if they actually made some type of PR video to explain what was happening behind the scenes. Maybe if we actually knew what was being done that necessitated waiting around for so long, it wouldn’t be such a pain. Because today’s wait was 2 hours and 8 minutes and more a few of the times I walked upstairs to check the progress it seemed there was only one person manning the outgoing counter.
Now, on closer inspection it does seem my new registration card and visa is dated from today. So, part of the wait is getting the physical card made. And since I also needed to turn over my passport, I imagine that the IC chip also needed to be updated. While that is neat and all, I’m sure there has to be a solution that makes turn around simpler.
Maybe I’m just being fussy. The slow speed of bureaucracy might just be a universal poison. But there is just something about how things are done at the IB that feels different from the other city halls I’ve visited. There is something distasteful about it. Honestly, I don’t want to lump it down to a simple “us vs. them” mindset. I want to give people credit that there has to be more to the story. But sometimes it is hard to imagine what that story might be.