Coming to Japan for the first time can be a very strange and frustrating experience in many cases. Further, if you start living here you will find more things that definately will surprise and upset you. That is why I intend to present to you a series of posts describing things that probably will frustrate you upon coming here, or starting to living here long term for the first time. For some of the things I can offer workarounds and tips on how to ease through without frustration, but in many cases you just have to accept the circumstances and have patience! (The inspiration for writing this post came from a thread over at the Outpost Nine forums regarding Japanese vs. American customer service.)
The Immigration Office
If you’re going to stay in Japan for more than three months, you will encounter the dreaded Immigration Office. This is where all visa and residence status issues are handled, and you will probably have to go here at least once a year if you’re staying in Japan for a longer time. If you’re leaving Japan temporary for a trip (vacation for example), you have to go here to get a “Re-Entry Permit” (i.e. permission to re-enter the country without nullifying your VISA) and that is probably the most common reason for people having to go here.
First of all, if you have never been to the Immigration Office, if you can, go scout the place out first! It is located a ten minute bus ride from Shinagawa station. (Here is some information in English.) The first floor has an information desk (they speak English; probably the only people in the whole building who do, which is strange seeing as these people cater only to foreigners!) where you can ask questions on how to proceed with your specific case, collect forms, and get some quick counselling. There is also a convenience store here, in which you can buy food, drinks, or snacks to keep you happy during your wait (and you WILL have to wait). The second floor contains the actual immigration counters, and they are divided into sections depending on case type: re-entry permits, work visas, permanent residence, etc. As I said, if you can, go ahead of time to scout out the place – find the desk you need to go to, get the proper paper work, fill in as much as you can ahead of time, and most importantly: buy the necessary tax stamp at the convenience store on the first floor BEFORE you line up for your case on the second floor! Yes, all tasks will cost you money, and due to some unknown reason (maybe it’s a hassle for them to handle money elsewhere than the store) they will not accept payment at the actual immigration counter, but you have to purchase a stamp at the convenience store and affix it to a certain immigration form. Whatever you do, don’t forget this! I have seen many newcomers line up, wait for 30 minutes, only to find out they have to go down and buy a stamp, and get back in line (from the beginning!). Also, don’t forget that they do stop their services at noon for an hour lunch break!
Now, if you have prepared well by getting the forms, scouting out which desk you should head to, and bought the stamp (or you can buy the stamp while you wait for your turn) then it’s time to do your business! Arrive early in the morning, about ten minutes before they open! (Whatever you do, never, ever go on a Friday afternoon, it will be packed!) When they open the doors, walk briskly (or what the heck, RUN) to the counter in question, and get a queue number. In some cases you can just go up to the counter and get a number yourself, but in some cases you have to first line up to get a queue number from one of the staff! If you were fast, then you will only have to wait a few minutes, but if you were slow, you will wind up having to wait for 30 minutes or more. If you arrive later, you may have to wait over an hour for service! The work visa department is probably the worst one, so be prepared! I believe the Immigration Office in Tokyo is probably worse than average, because the one in Kobe (the only other one I have had experience with) was not too bad or crowded.
As I stated earlier, the staff at the Immigration Office are not very good at English, so if you have questions to ask regarding your case, be sure to brush up no your Japanese, or bring a Japanese acquaintance! The staff at the counters are not unfriendly in any way, but they are under a lot of stress due to the extreme amount of cases they have to process quickly, so they can be perceived as not very helpful. You have to deal with that! Don’t get upset at the staff at the counter if you feel frustrated about filling out a certain form you had forgotten, or having to go to the convenience store to buy a revenue stamp – it’s not their fault! Also note that getting a re-entry permit, or simply moving your visa from one passport to another is not an ordeal at all, especially the re-entry thing, since there is a special section for that which often is very quick and smooth.