Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Kafkaesque Absurdity of Japanese Paperwork

I had a rather eventful weekend, the less positive side of which was having my nice bicycle stolen (apparently by someone with a hacksaw and quite a bit of determination) from Koenji late Saturday night/Sunday morning.  The upside of the crummy experience was that I got to feel quite good about myself after going in to talk to the police and rather uneventfully reporting the theft on Monday morning.  Everyone I talked to was quite sympathetic and very helpful.

That was, for all its shadows, the good story.  The bad one began when last week I decided to finally get settled back into a yoga routine, which I'd been letting slide.  I found out when I first got here that though a recent yoga boom made studios pretty common, many of them - particularly those associated with the Yoga Lava chain - are women only.  But, since yoga has proven so vital to me keeping on an even keel over the last two years, I decided it would be worth it to trek down to Shibuya a few times a week to the closest male-friendly spot (I was also planning to bike there frequently . . . oh, cruel irony!)

After taking my introductory lesson and having a decent experience, I got a fairly hard sell to sign up for a monthly membership, which was fairly reasonable all things considered, roughly $240 for the next month and a half (somehow that doesn't sound so reasonable when I type it out . . . ).  But for some reason, after I forked out all that cash, they still wanted me to fill out a background check form to be sent to the consumer credit firm JACCS.  I was missing a few pieces of information and figured I needed some more time anyway, so I said I would bring the form back next time I came for a lesson.  The woman working the counter let me leave only after fairly sternly letting me know that if the form was incomplete at that time, I wouldn't be able to get a lesson.

The absurdity of being subjected to a credit check for a service I had paid for in cash was one thing, but the real headaches had only just started.  I spent maybe three hours on the paperwork, including a quick side-trip for some help from my bank (Citibank is expensive, but they are generous with service).  I thought I was done when I brought the paperwork back, but there were two problems.  I had excluded my middle name from one entry, but not another; and I had written my name last name first in one place, and otherwise in another place.  The staffer at the desk was pretty sure this would get my credit check returned, and I ended up having to re-fill the entire form.  I had to do it twice, in fact, because I mis-entered something else, too (I forget what).

At least from where I sit, Japanese paperwork seems to demand a level of precision that I'm not used to.  Maybe it just seems like that because it's so much more of a challenge for me to fill it out, and I suppose there's also a genuine element of cultural incompatibility in the case of Western names vs. Japanese names, which are always written last-name-first.  There's no Western-style convention of reversing name order for paperwork, and looking back on it I can see where my little quirk could have made things complicated, especially since chances are good whoever read it at the other end wouldn't have known whether 'David' or 'Morris' was more likely to be a first name.

The other really hilarious quirk of Japanese paperwork has to do with signatures.  There's really no such thing as those in Japan, either, since most Japanese carry a personal or family hanko, a stamp-like seal that's used to perform the same function.  There have been some accommodations for signatures, but at least at my Citibank, the application of this is simply hilarious.  If I sign something, and it doesn't precisely match the signature on computerized file, I have to do it again until it does.  This usually means the desk-workers end up having to SHOW ME MY OWN SIGNATURE in their computer file, so that I can copy it and meet their standards for signing my own name.

Now, I'm sure I have an unusually variable signature, but for any Westerner it would still be easy to tell that my signature is my own - regardless of variability, it's got a certain cro-magnon/2nd-grader-with-a-crayon je ne sai quois that's completely inimitable.  More than that, though, it seems for a lot of Westerners the signature isn't something that's going to be meticulously examined - its a bit more ceremonial than that.  Conversely, the funny thing about hanko in Japan is that while most are registered at a local office so there actually is a reference, any two Japanese with the same family name will have largely identical hanko, and you can actually buy mass-produced stamps at places like 100 yen store - so they can't actually perform the function of verifying identity, either.  Both are equally a matter of ceremony and convention and performance.

Now, one final point.  As much as the yoga paperwork aggravated me on many levels, what I really found amazing was that the police were far more service oriented and, frankly, laid back about formality.  They gladly let me write various bits of information on the report in Roman characters when my Kanji proved predictably hopeless.  They helped turned a stressful situation slightly less so, while the yoga mess was . . . well, I'll let you figure out the irony of that one for yourself.

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