Japanese Survival Guide Point 7 – City Hall and Bureaucracy

Winding down my Japanese Survival Guide now, with principally the third last post unless something else springs to mind, folks it’s time to prepare for the red tape that awaits the foreigner when you come to work in Japan as an ESL Teacher. The irony of it all is that Japan is a principally capitalistic country, you pay for health care, pension and most things you have to do, yet the procedural stuff that not just foreigners but Japanese people have to go through when they want to do nearly anything is something that would seem more in place 30 years ago in the Soviet Union.

If you want to move addresses, it seems like you need to notify half the government offices that exist, for example. And there are so many forms, and City Halls LOVE to keep your official copies of documents (like our marriage certificate for example). They can’t make a copy of it when you need it for say a Spouse Visa, and there should be something in my wife’s town of birth as well to that effect.

Ichinoseki City Hall

Ichinoseki City Hall

Luckily for the foreigner, the companies that employ you to teach are reasonably adept at the initial stages of red tape for the new arrival. They will often assign someone to meet you on your first day and take you from office to office as you open a bank account, officially take residency, organise a mobile phone and services for you flat and the like. And for the new arrival, despite the fact that these things can occupy a few days, it’s all kind of new and semi-interesting.

All forms need to be filled out, for the most part, in Japanese. And for the new arrival, you probably have no idea how to write your name in Japanese unless you’ve already studied Japanese before. As for your address, well, you could copy it I guess but you need to know where everything goes on the form which can be guess work.

What you will need, and your company may well sort this out for you, is a ‘Hanko’. What is a Hanko? Well, it’s a personalised seal, or stamp that pretty much every adult has in Japan that serves as your signature. As a foreigner it’s kind of cool at first, my company ordered a job lot of them for everyone and we spent a day Hanko-ing rental agreements and the like. The Japanese consider they are much better than signatures, however I have to disagree. People get a Hanko and choose whether the Hanko is their first or last name (middle names are not normal in Japan). So there are probably millions of ‘Sato’ Hankos out there for example, and although some names might have different characters although being the same name, the odds are that there are a lot of people in Japan with exactly the same Hanko.

The Hanko itself on the right, the case with a small circle of ink of the left.

The Hanko itself on the right, the case with a small circle of ink of the left.

Anyway, as a new resident to Japan you will need to get a Hanko (usually in Katakana for foreigners) and sign off on a lot of papers. You will need to visit City Hall in the town or municipality that you live too, and confirm that you live there. If you get a new job in Japan and have to move, then you will need to go to City Hall and notify them and they will probably calculate your taxes for you as well. Then you will need to visit your new City Hall and do the process again.

An-do-ryu in Katakana from my Hanko. Ink is almost finished.

An-do-ryu in Katakana from my Hanko. Ink is almost finished.

It can be pretty time consuming and if one character is out of place on your form, which may or may not have English on it, then sometimes a spanner will be thrown into the works. Check last week’s blog HERE for my experience with my bank account that had a minus sign in my name instead of hyphen because it was entered wrong! Quel Domage!

You’ll need to visit City Hall a number of times whilst in Japan. To put in pension exemption forms (rather important, it’s $150 a month otherwise), and for your medical insurance which is compulsory. Medical insurance is nominal over the first 12 months, at around maybe 20 bucks a month, then it skyrockets in your second year and is typically spread over maybe ten payments of around $220. For more details on the costs of living in Japan, see this post HERE.

When you pay for something at City Hall, you still use a vending machine!

When you pay for something at City Hall, you still use a vending machine!

Visas are another matter, and I think not too bad. Compared to say the Republic of Georgia where foreigners didn’t need any visa at all to teach English, ok, not so great, but compared to Australia pretty easy. I moved my visa from a sponsored work visa to a spouse visa after around 10 months, we did have to fill out documents and prove our marriage was real with a history of the relationship and photos etc, but it was done in a week or two and cost around $40. Visa centres are not so common from place to place so you may need to travel a bit to get to one.

Work visas has initially handled by your company, you probably will need to head to the office to renew after 10-11 months but your company should help you out. When I renewed my spouse visa I gave them the same photo I had on the previous one, and they caught me out! It was pretty funny. I found another passport-sized photo in my money belt though that was even older and they took that one!

Then there is the issue of the licence. Well, you may well, like so many people including myself, need to drive whilst in Japan and you International Driver’s Licence is only good for one year. Getting a Japanese Driver’s Licence can be ultra-frustrating. As I’ve mentioned before, Americans need to do the full driving test, Aussies, Brits, Canadians and New Zealanders just have to bring along a lot of paperwork. You need to prove you’ve been driving for 12 plus months, continuously, in your home country. They’ll want to know a little about conditions of learning to drive in your country in an interview. I was missing something and had to come back – and that was a 2.5 hour drive on the normal road!

Tax time can be a bit confusing too, and companies tend to spring a lot of surprises on you that you didn’t expect. When I left Japan, my company asked to see receipts for my final bills because some foreigners leave at the end of their contract and don’t pay their final bills. Don’t presume also that your company is following the exact letter of the law either – more on that next week!

Today, as usual, I have written a lot but just dipped my toe into the topic. There’s a lot of red tape, and usually there’s a small fee attached (‘processing’ I guess) with everything you need to do. So be aware. When you first arrive it just seems like part of a cultural experience, but it can get you down a bit after 12-18 months. Don’t let it! Remember all the great things about Japan, the students, the friends, the fried chicken!

Thanks for reading as always, next week I talk about the different companies you might encounter should you move to Japan to teach English! Tomorrow I am shining the Sunday Spotlight on a big city in the world’s most populous country. There’s a new ‘Short Journeys’ out too! Next week we have a new podcast episode, a thoughtful piece on selfies and a guest post as well! So it’s all happening! Do subscribe, and… may the journey never end!

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