Oldie but Goldie: How I got to stay in Japan for 7 years

This is a text that I wrote 7 years ago, about the moment I entered Japan with the determination to stay there. I just read it after years and it’s still funny, but my language is kind of…. exalted. But please read, it’s actually entertaining…

The first time I visited Japan I stayed from the day of my 33rd birthday in 2006 for over 7 months on a tourist visa that I got exceptionally extended twice (3 months each). After this first stint in Japan, I flew back to Germany to tell my parents that I just came to get some of my stuff and that I must go back to Japan immediately. It was just too weird there, I needed more of it, I was hooked. I packed my stuff and went off again. Upon my return to Tokyo’s Narita Airport with one of the last planes arriving from Europe in the evening I naturally encountered problems with immigration.

The white-gloved immigration officer sitting in his glass-box at the point of immigration looked through my heavily used and tattered passport and explained drily that I had already overstayed my last visit and that it’s impossible to grant me another re-entry into Japan. It did not come as a complete surprise to me as I knew the Japanese immigration laws already back and forth, but sometimes they just don’t care. This gentleman obviously cared and wanted to do his job well. I was unlucky.

He called an attendant who led me into a huge neon-lit waiting-room with maybe 200 orange plastic-chairs on polished green lino flooring facing a long simple white front desk. Three middle-aged uniformed immigration-officers efficiently processed through documents that piled in files and folders in front of and around them on the desktop.

A few other mainly male Western and Asian immigrants were sitting around, looking lost and displaced, unshaved and tense. Most of them were alone, placed on seats that each of them had carefully chosen to keep the farthest possible distance to any other applicant. This was not the right place to make new friends. No unnecessary word was spoken.

The sound of dry fingers turning pages, stamps hitting documents and passports, footsteps echoing between hard surfaces, now and then a suppressed cough. The humming of electric lights and the sweet smell of floor wax: bureaucracy.

I tried to avoid looking into anybody’s eyes and took an inconspicuously looking seat in the last row. I waited. I stared into the flickering reflections of the ceiling-neons in the swamp-colored linoleum-tiles of the floor until I got bored and found a curious interest in examining the minuscule white labels that were glued on the back of the chairs.

Each seat had a tiny handwritten number beneath the silk-screen-printed Japanese brand name. The chair in front of me had 27-s. My own chair was 27-e. The chair next to me was 42-g. This did not make any sense!! I did neither understand the concept of their numbering or if there actually was a concept behind it at all, nor could I decipher the name of the chair-manufacturer that was printed on the aluminum sticker in matte-black Kanji-characters. My focus shifted and I started to pick little dust particles from my pants that I collected in the hollow palm of my left hand, then I formed a little ball from it that I carefully discarded in the back pocket of my jeans because I just did not dare to throw it on the highly polished floor. I tried hard to suppress the urge to pick my nose.

Occasionally names were called out and one applicant after another stepped to the front desk to be questioned and reviewed. More than an hour passed until I finally found myself alone in the room with the officers. Everybody else either got approved or maybe deported, I don’t really know. They just disappeared.

It was getting late and I was tired. The officers looked as if they wanted to finish as soon as possible as well. The initial busy formality had already given way to the slow casualty of a late-night office-shift. One of them had taken off his dark-colored uniform-jacket, his white shirt-sleeves rolled up to his elbows.

He called my name and I stepped to the front desk. Mister Whiteshirt asked me why I would want to come back into Japan when I knew that it would not be possible to let me in again. The two other guys to the left and right sorted their files. I knew that game: any implication from my side that I’d want to apply for a work-visa after entering Japan as a tourist would have been a fool-proof way to get a free seat on the first plane back to Germany in the morning. This had to be avoided at all costs.

The strategy that I had already laid out in advance as a possible response to this not completely unexpected question was that I was a practitioner of meditation and that I would like to continue my studies of Zen in Japan. The beauty of this statement was that it sounded so harmless and naive and at the same time so absurd that for the unknowing listener it must have some truth to it. The more absurd something sounds the truer it probably is.

A similar concept had worked before for my second tourist-visa-extension, which is allegedly absolutely impossible to get. I do not know of any other case that would have received a second extension. My trick was to go to the immigration-office and when the friendly Japanese attendant told me that it’s legally not possible to extend the tourist-visa past 6 months I told her that I must stay in Japan until the cherry-blossom. At that time it was only 3 more weeks until the trees would blossom. I told her that I’ve heard that it’s incredibly beautiful and that I must see it and that I could not leave the country without admiring the cherry blossom. In reality, I did only marginally have an interest in cherry-trees, but I knew that there are two things that the Japanese love more than anything else: good food and cherry-blossom. She looked at me and smiled and gave me a stamp for another three months. That was easy. Three weeks later I got insanely drunk on Shochu under a cherry-tree in Shinjuku-Gyoen, the central park of Tokyo, while little pink blossoms kept raining all over me. I had never expected that it was as beautiful as everybody told me. I was drunk on my own life.

This time would be more complicated, cherry blossom time was long over. While it’s true that I had practiced meditation for a longer period of time in my life and count myself as a deep admirer of Buddhist ideas in general and the teachings of Zen in particular, I did not really return to Japan to meditate. Problem was that I could not possibly tell them straight out that I foremost came to work and party as hard as humanly possible and that any religious bliss that would find me on the way was welcome but of secondary interest at that very moment. It was a good idea to play the bluff. There’s no harm in a student of Buddhism. I put on my Zen-face and tried to look as honest, humble and enlightened as I could while I watched myself saying: “I am a practitioner of meditation and I came to continue my private studies of Zen Buddhism in Japan”. I crossed my fingers, hoping that he would not ask me for the name of a Zen-master because I did not know anyone but D.T.Suzuki, but he was in San Francisco. And dead. Since 1966. Hell: I could not even think of any name of a Zen-temple at that very moment. The immigration officer looked at me with a puzzled expression. I kept smiling: please just give me an approval, dear immigration officer-san.

He turned to each of his two colleagues to tell them about my declaration and after each of them checked my Gestalt with little to no interest and an obvious expression of disbelief, each of them stated their personal opinion about me in fatigued Japanese. I did not really look like a typical Zen-monk to them, more like a club-kid from Berlin, which I probably was.

He sent me back to take my seat in the last row of the room and I saw my hopes for a re-entry-permit diminishing by the minute. My bluff probably did not work as well as I expected and I slowly started considering the possibility to be put onto the next flight or worse…

I was watching the happenings around the front-desk like in a theatre, from the distance it had a surreal feeling to it. The scenery looked like a stage and the officers like tired actors in slow motion. They repeatedly kept looking into my passport, my tourist-visa-application and other official-looking guideline-books again and again, they made some telephone-calls discussing my case and frequently shook their heads in disbelief, when suddenly the door behind the front-desk opened.

In came a beautiful female flight attendant, dressed in a tight dark-blue JAL uniform, pulling my slightly beaten-up silvery Rimowa suitcase behind her with squeaking wheels. My doubts vanished in an instant. It was obvious to me that this must be the end of my very fresh relationship with Japan. She came to bring me my suitcase and that was it. “Bye-bye Japan! It would have been nice! Maybe next time! Arigatou gozaimasu!”

She moved with determination towards the front desk and after a quick formal Japanese greeting asked them for my name. The immigration officers pointed wearily across the room in my direction upon which she presented my suitcase to them, made another quick bow and exited the stage as swiftly and decidedly as she had entered it. The three immigration officers got up from their seats and had a look on the suitcase when suddenly there were these vocal expressions of surprise that are typical among the Japanese, reverberating throughout the whole empty room: “Eeeh!? Sooo desu, neee!!!”.

I was not quite sure what to make of it.

They signaled me to come forward and I nervously joined them. Mister Whiteshirt exclaimed: “Buddha!”, pointing towards a big colorful sticker on the metal case that I put there ages ago. He looked at me in expectation. I eyed the sticker and had to suppress a nervous laugh. It was actually not Buddha but a depiction of that crazy-guy Ganesha, the Indian god of joy & dance, who’s been with me for years wherever I go. But well, I’m not a nitpicker and Ganesha probably does not care. So, yes: “Buddha! It’s Buddha!”, I agreed.

The officer smiled contently and began discussing these new findings with his colleagues. They nodded their heads in consensual agreement. There was relief in the sound of their voices. Now they could believe that I came to study Zen-meditation and they wouldn’t have to make more telephone calls or search for paragraphs in heavy immigration-law-books. They could finally finish their shifts and take the train home to order Sake at their local Izakaya.

It took two more minutes and I had a stamp of approval in my passport and I could re-enter Tokyo without any further problems.

I loved Japan.

I would stay for 7 years.

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