The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Oh, Japan

Sometimes this country can be incredibly frustrating, and later the same day, incredibly gratifying.

Today, I had to get my re-entry permit. This is Japan's way of squeezing 3,000 yen (about 30 dollars) out of every foreigner who'd like to leave the country and then actually get back in. I imagine most other countries have a similar "bureaucracy tax", i.e., a pointless fee you have to pay for something which, in principle, costs the country nothing. So I'm not really complaining about the permit itself.

The first set of hurdles came in the form of an inscrutable procedure, involving standing in line, getting a form, standing in another line to get a number, waiting for your number to be called, finding out that you are in the wrong line, going to a different place, getting another number, having someone look at your form, and then hand it back to you.

While I was filling out my forms, there were a few blanks that I didn't know how to fill out, exactly. I decided that, rather than fill them out incorrectly, I would leave them blank, and the staff could write in the correct information for me.

Well, it doesn't matter how trivial it is, it seems that paperwork in Japan must be completed by the applicant. Even if it's just checking a box, they won't do it for you, they always seem to hand the paper back to you, point, and say, "Check here".

It seems that there must be a rule; clerks are not allowed to fill in any information that should be filled in by you or me. Perhaps this is the result of a past incident; maybe somebody was asked, "Do you waive your rights to blah blah blah?" and not fully understanding the question, said, "Sure, okay." The clerk ticked the "I waive my rights" box for the customer, but then later, the customer must have changed his mind, and as an excuse said, "Hey, I never checked that box! I've been swindled!" And hence the rule.

Once you've got your form filled out, you need to pay for your permit. Rather than do something sensible like, I don't know, giving the clerk some money, you have to go to a separate place, and buy a "stamp" which costs 3000 yen, and then stick that on your form. God knows why they need to do this little sidestep. Presumably there is a rule that they are not allowed to handle money directly.

It reminds me of the whole Pachinko nonsense. Gambling is basically illegal in Japan, so the way Pachinko gets around this is that you buy little metal balls, and use them to play a game similar to slots. If you win, you get a whole bunch more balls! Whoopee! Of course, the balls themselves have no monetary value (ahem ahem) so it's not gambling, as such ... but it just so happens that, beside every Pachinko parlour, there is a separate-but-I-strongly-suspect-somehow-related business that gives you cash for those little Pachinko balls. So it's a ridiculous little extra step that gets around the rule, and everybody has to do it.

Later in the day, I discovered that bureaucrats are not supposed to talk to one another directly, for some reason. I had an issue with my tax refund. The problem was that I was living in one place, (which was supposed to issue my refund) but then moved to a 2nd place. The first place didn't know that I had extended my visa, so hadn't issued me the refund. The 2nd place knew that I had extended my visa, but couldn't pass that information on to the 1st place. When I phoned the 1st, they told me to go to the 2nd. When I went to the 2nd, they said it was a problem for the 1st. Typical bureaucratic runaround. When I asked people at the 2nd place to get on the phone to the people in the 1st, they explained that I would have to call, that they couldn't do it. So, I got on my cellphone, and then handed it to the slightly shocked woman behind the counter, who talked to her counterpart in another ward office, and they worked it all out between them. Amazing! What is the purpose of that rule? Japan is full of them.

And you'd better believe that Japanese people love their rules. In the west, I think we're pretty good at looking past a rule, seeing the guiding principle behind the rule, and then breaking the rule (when it suits us) as long as it doesn't violate the fundamental principle. Here's an example. You might have a rule that says that, in principle, employees should wear a shirt and tie to work. Why? Because it looks nice and impresses the customers. But if you had some employees who didn't come in contact with customers, or who were working without air-conditioning in 35 degree temperatures, you'd relax the rule, I'm sure. After all, if you're drenched in sweat to the point where you dress shirt is translucent and is sticking to your body, you really don't look that impressive. But here in Japan, despite the fact that some of our classes don't have air-conditioning, and we have no contact with "customers," AND the fact that the other professors at the school can wear jeans or sportswear if they like, we are required by our company to wear ties at all times, even (technically) when commuting to and from school. My habit of taking off my tie the moment I get on the bus is actually against the rules.

So the Japanese are rule sticklers. It can be extremely annoying, but it reflects an attention to detail which occasionally serves them really well.

You probably already know that Japan is one of the cleanest places in the world, because the people who are paid to go around picking up garbage actually do it with an incredible attention to detail. Service, even in a 7-11, is outstanding. The trains run on time because the drivers actually watch the time like a hawk, and close the doors when they are supposed to, and get moving when they are supposed to. Food is tasty, and meals are cooked properly, because the guy doing the cooking is actually paying attention to what he's doing. In Canada, the bored teenager behind the grill couldn't care less about what he's doing ... and if you're really unlucky, he's already dropped your steak on the floor once, or (maybe) spit in your burger for kicks. My friend worked at a GM plant for a summer, and told me stories about workers getting drunk and stoned on the assembly line, or sleeping in the cars they had just assembled, while their foremen covered for them. Somehow, I don't think this happens much in Japan. Nobody need wonder how Japanese cars came to beat American cars in terms of build quality.

I had to have some of my belongings stored for me while I go back to Canada this summer. The company had arranged to come and pick up my things sometime between 6 and 9 pm - kind of a wide window. After my ordeal at the immigration office, and then at the ward office, I was just anticipating problems. Things couldn't possibly go smoothly, could they? But no, the man showed up promptly at 5 minutes past 6, with his cart; he loaded all my belongings into his truck (wearing nice clean white gloves, of course), counted my receipts, counted my boxes, thanked me for my time, and was off like a shot. I have every confidence that he will unload my belongings with care, and that they will be stored safely until I need them back.

Contrast this to Canada/the U.S. In Chicago, I personally witnessed a hulking mental-deficient flinging suitcases off of a baggage carousel with a dim-witted glee, trying to damage them as much as he could in the process. My luggage was subsequently lost, and delivered to me at the most inconvenient possible time, at 4:30 a.m., 3 days later than they had told me, and about 2 minutes before I needed to leave to catch another flight. The man who did eventually deliver my bags was using his family minivan, crammed to the ceiling with suitcases randomly piled in the back. The airlines obviously find it is more cost-efficient to use "freelancers" than to hire a reputable delivery company.

So which is worse: anal-retentives who won't bend a rule, no matter how absurdly ill-fitting it is? Or people who don't give a shit, and do the absolute minimum with no regard for standards? I don't have the answer, except that there must be some sort of happy medium - a place where people do their jobs with pride, but have enough common sense to bend the rules when it might actually help somebody. Simple enough, right?