Back in Tokyo 東京の帰り

Currently: Watching TV and looking at Tokyo Sky Tree out my window.

It’s been a busy month. The short version is I had to go back to the states for a planned few weeks, and then back to Japan to start work.

The longer version requires a bit of hopefully-not-boring explanation of the visa process, and then I’ll have some random pictures at the end for those who suffer through. Let me start by saying I’m not really sure how the US immigration system works. The Japanese system is pretty logical- it was mainly the timing of my situation that made it a little hair raising. I didn’t have a visa for my previous trip to Japan. Many developed countries have a system defined by treaty in which tourists can go to the other country for a period of time (usually 90 days) without getting a visa. This is how I was able to come into Japan (as well as Singapore and Malaysia) without getting pre-approved. Americans can more or less just show up with your passport and get a ‘landing permission’, which allows you to be in Japan for up to 90 days as long as you aren’t getting paid to work in Japan.

Since I was able to land a job, I could apply for a work visa, which is a 2-step process. The harder first step is getting a Certificate of Eligibility (CoE), which basically is proof a) that I can do the job the visa is giving you the rights to, and b) that I have an employer. Once the CoE is granted, then the visa itself is pretty much just a matter of them creating the stamp and putting it in my passport- no other documentation is required, and it just takes a few days. The two problems were that a) Japan is currently re-doing their immigration process (more on this later), and that I was doing a fairly non-traditional route. Usually people get visas before they come to Japan, and I was already here so I had to be very careful to not overstay my 90 day landing permission, and also that I had to go home to the states to get my visa after obtaining the CoE. We weren’t exactly sure how long all the processing was going to take due to all the changes in the immigration process, but luckily for me, the CoE came in before I went back to the states, and the visa itself was done in like 3 days. It was certainly a matter of preparing for the worst and it all worked out for the best.

My trip back to Japan was fine. Long, but fine. Most of my time in the states was in the Tampa area, and I had planned my itinerary around issues that might come up with the visa than making sure I got to my destination quickly, so my trip from Tampa to LA took most of a day, and then had to get on a plane the next afternoon for Tokyo. I took Singapore Air for the first time- Singapore Air is known as one of the better airlines in the world, and my flight was still about the same price as other airlines flying out of LAX. The only real complaints I had were that getting to the gate at LAX and from the gate to immigration in Tokyo takes forever. I think that’s a function of having giant planes, and needing a separate area for those waiting for flights and those who haven’t gone through immigration yet, but it’s still a bit of a pain. The flight itself was as good as sitting in coach for 10 hours can get- good food and snacks upon request, movies, available Wi-Fi, etc. I think a really nice side-benefit of flying LAX to NRT on Singapore Air is that because the flight continues on to Singapore and maybe 50% of the people on the plane continued on to Singapore that there was next to no line at immigration. I took the train back, which took a while because not many trains run later in the evening, so I had to wait a good 20 minutes for the next one. It still probably took about the same amount of time as the bus would have, and it costs less.

I actually slept most of the night on my first night back- I woke up a few times, including at the traditional jet lagged 4am, but fell back asleep until 8 or so. I was determined to get some stuff done this morning, specifically get my alien registration card in process. The alien registration card is the equivalent of the a green card in the US. I can’t get a Japanese cell phone number, a Japanese bank account, a lease on an apartment, etc, until I have an alien registration card, which in turn requires a visa. I can’t say that my experience in Japan earlier this year was fully positive, and most of the negatives were due to not being eligible to work and not having an alien registration card, so that was my first stop today.

A bit of an interlude here to explain how registration works and the immigration changes. Every city (or in the case of Tokyo, ward) has their own municipal (ward) office where among other things, people go to make changes to their family register. Family registers document entire family trees, and are amended for births, marriages, and deaths — which make for interesting political dynamics when talking about things like feminism, because in Japan, to be officially married, one spouse must change their last name to be added to the family register. Family registers are very Asian- it shows respect for the family line. You don’t need Ancestry.com to trace your family roots, it’s all right there in the city office. I have a friend who told me she looked up her family, and they’ve been in Tokyo for over 400 years.

The municipal office is also where foreigners in Japan for longer than 3 months are required to register themselves. Any time one moves from one city to another, a foreigner needs to show up at the municipal office and let them know they have a new address. The way the system used to work is that the national immigration department handled visas, and the local city offices would handle the alien registration cards. But for a number of reasons, starting next month the national immigration department is taking over most of the functions of issuing registration cards. This is along with a number of other changes in visas, which made me wonder whether CoE or visa processing times would take longer than normal. At the immigration processing station at the airport, they gave me a helpful handout telling me what my next steps were, so today I went up to the Nakano ward office (the ward where I’m going to be living for at least the next few months) and applied for my card. I’ll actually have to pick it up at the Immigration office down in Shinagawa, but if/when I move in the future, I just need to make an appearance at the local city office to let them know. I don’t get to pick up the actual card until the end of July (??), but they gave me a few paper certifications that I can use to set up a bank account and a cell phone, etc, which are the main reasons I wanted to get the card set up in the first place. The only other nice bit is that once I have the card I’m no longer required to carry my passport around with me everywhere.

Here’s a short list of things I’ve learned through the visa process:

1. Japanese authorities love photographs. I wondered aloud earlier whether the Japanese government owns part of the franchise on those passport/resume photo booths that I see near just about every train station. I had to turn in a photo when applying for the Certificate of Eligibility, a photo when applying for the visa, and 2 photos when applying for my alien registration card. Oh, and each of those are different size photos. I’ve also heard that most job applications in Japan require photos attached. My application for the Japanese language school did, too (although they used that photo for my school ID).

2. Japanese authorities love stapling stuff in my passport. When you enter Japan, they staple part of the card you fill out (embarkation/debarkation card), and then remove it when you leave the country.

Interesting side note: I just realized this time around that in the US I don’t go through immigration to leave the country the way I have so far just about everywhere else.

When I applied for my visa, they stapled the entire A4-sized Certificate of Eligibility document folded up inside my passport — thankfully the visa itself is a full passport page-sized sticker that they affix to the passport — and then they thankfully removed the CoE document when I went through immigration on my way into Japan. Then today when I applied for my alien registration card, they stapled some random A4-sized form that tells me the time period I can pick the card up and tells the immigration service who I am, because I guess my passport isn’t enough. I’m assuming (hoping) that’ll get removed when I pick the card up, because it doubles the thickness of my passport. Aside from the embarkation form, which will be the cross I have to bear to be in Japan, hopefully that’ll be the end of my passport immigration origami experiences for the time being.

As promised, I’m prepping some Tokyo pictures, but I’m having issues with getting them resized before uploading. I should have that done tomorrow and have a new Photo Barrage posted.