“Are you sure this is the place?” our driver inquired.
Unsure of the building’s location on his map, he had got out of his car and followed us a few meters, reluctant to abandon us in the downpour.
“Hey, I see some foreigners, so this has got to be right place,” said Yoshiaki Miura, The Japan Times’ intrepid photographer.
Well, it was almost the right place. We had disembarked from the cab, in front of the building’s side entrance. A paper sign taped on the window, in Japanese only, read: “This is the entrance for processing illegal overstayers. For regular immigration procedures, please use the main entrance.”
One reason our driver was confused was that the new building housing the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau — which from February took over the operations heretofore handled by the office in Otemachi — is not conspicuously marked.
It does sport a low-slung sign in Japanese and English near the building’s southwest corner, but it’s engraved on black basalt and in pouring rain, as it happened to be on the day we visited, was about as conspicuous as a ninja night school class during a power blackout.
Fortunately, the building itself is imposing, and there are few other buildings in this warehouse area on the Tokyo waterfront that you’re likely to confuse it with.
The real question, which this reporter was eager to pose to the senior staff member of the bureau’s Administration Department who welcomed us into a spacious conference room upstairs, was, “Isn’t this place just a little off the beaten track?” But before I could confront him with the question, he actually beat me to it.
“We realize that it’s a bit out of the way,” was how he put it, with a resigned, but not quite apologetic expression. The number of foreigners coming to live and work in Japan, he explained, has grown exponentially since the Immigration Bureau set up shop in Otemachi nearly 18 years ago. The facilities scattered around the city just weren’t adequate to serve these needs. Hence a new 12-story building, on state-owned land, encompassing 36,115 sq. meters of floor area, or 2.4 times that of Otemachi.
The Shibuya Branch will be closing at the end of this month, and — with the exception of the small Tachikawa Branch in west Tokyo — henceforth the city’s foreigners will be obliged to go to this facility for all matters related to extension or change of status, re-entry permission, and so on.
While many will refer to the Immigration bureau as “Shinagawa,” its actual location is Konan 5-chome, Minato Ward.
But why such a huge building we wondered? In addition to space for processing a daily average of 1,500 various applications on the lower floors, and the administrative offices immediately above them, there are short-term holding facilities for up to 800 overstayers. Japan deported over 40,000 foreigners in 2001, of whom about 3/4 were visa overstayers. A simple calculation shows these took place at the rate of nearly 110 per day.
The “bright, clean and healthy” holding facilities upstairs, which the Japanese-language brochure explains are “revolutionary in their consideration of human rights,” feature an open exercise area on the roof with benches and tables. Detainees can make telephone calls and also receive properly screened visitors while in custody.
Touring the premises
Our host then guided us around the premises and, this writer must concede, once you’re inside the building, the amenities take some of the sting out of the bleak location.
We started on the first floor, which actually features decorations — reproductions of old historical pictures of the Edo waterfront — on the walls.
To the right of the entrance is an AM/PM convenience store selling revenue stamps, reading matter, snacks and IC telephone cards. (The exclusive use of IC-type phones strikes one as a subtle dig at certain groups known to hawk the other, easily doctored variety, on Shibuya street corners).
To the left is a smoking corner, waiting room to visit detainees, and reception counter providing information.
After your application has been submitted upstairs, you can come back here and take a seat in the small Delice’s restaurant, or sit in the waiting area, where a large display screen on the wall flashes the current applicant numbers for the various categories (business, student, re-entry, permanent, trainee), alternating the display language from Japanese to English, Korean, Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese.
The escalator in the entrance foyer leads to the second floor. As a nice touch, the various departments have been color coded: Yellow for re-entry permission; red for work-related matters; green for students; orange for merchant seamen; violet for permanent residents.
The first, second and sixth floors have “kids corners” for small children to romp, and partitioned enclosures where nursing mothers can breast-feed infants in privacy.
Meanwhile, the authorities are still making efforts to get the word out of the move to the new location, with mixed results. Part of the problem is that on a busy day, getting through by telephone can take hours.
“Actually right now (mid-March) is one of the busiest times of the year,” our guide explained.
“It’s at the time of the school break, and when companies bring in new hirees. Mondays and Fridays tend to be busier,” he adds.
He reminded us that to avoid the peak periods, applications for renewal of status can be submitted as far as two months in advance.
But why not streamline things further, we asked, by allowing some procedures to be handled via the mail? Or even use the Internet?
“It hasn’t come to that point yet,” he smiled. “But we certainly can’t rule it out.”
Many of the conveniences we foreigners enjoy today — such as not having to turn in your alien registration card each time you leave the country — only date back to Oct. 1, 1980, when several amendments to the Alien Registration Law took effect.
Some might find the current immigration procedures to be cumbersome and bureaucratic, but for this writer, who arrived in Japan in 1965, most changes in the system have been welcome improvements.
From 1964 to 1985, the Immigration office was in Konan 3-chome, only a couple of blocks away from the new location. (Nobody back then took the bus; in those days the taxi fare was much less, 120 yen or 150 yen).
You disembarked in front of a nondescript and rather shabby three-story structure and queued up in front of windows for either re-entry, extension of stay, permission to engage in activity not specified in original status, registration of a birth and everything else.
As often as not, the person in front of you shifted his feet nervously while chain smoking malodorous unfiltered cigarettes.
Application forms had to be submitted in duplicate. There was no screening of the documents on your arrival, so you waited your turn in line, sometimes only to find that you were missing a document and couldn’t submit your application.
In the old days, re-entry permits were usually valid for single trips only, and what’s more, each time you left Japan you had to hand over your little alien registration booklet (not a card) to immigration; then upon re-entry, you would have to go to your local city office within 14 days to reclaim it.
This writer admits he was almost ecstatic when Tokyo Immigration opened a new branch office in Ikebukuro’s Sunshine City complex in October 1980.
While he is the first to praise the streamlining of procedures over the years, he must admit immigration’s return to its old haunt on the waterfront fails to evoke nostalgic feelings.