Adventures in Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy in any society has ups and downs, pros and cons, benefits and absurdities. Just after an interaction today with Dubai’s bureaucracy, I read with painful amusement about Debito‘s trials and tribulations in getting his Japanese passport renewed, a narrative of which was just published in the Japan Times. It’s worth reading in full, and I won’t spoil the ending, but consider the conundrum when Debito goes to renew his passport, which bears the name “Arudou Debito”…

I walked in with all the necessary documentation and filled out the forms. The friendly clerk gave everything a once-over (very professionally; no double-takes at a Caucasian applicant), and all was going smoothly… until he got to the rendering of my name in Japanese.

Clerk: “Er, about your last name. You wrote ‘Arudou’ on the form. Officially we only accept Hepburn-style Romanization, so you have to write it as ‘Arudo’ or ‘Arudoh.’ ”

I sighed, and said, ” ‘Arudou’ is how it is spelled. My expiring Japanese passport also had it rendered as ‘Arudou.’ Clearly that was acceptable then and should be acceptable now.”

Clerk: “Yes, you can write ‘Arudou’ on the back of your application to indicate how you would like your name rendered on the passport itself. But for our bookkeeping purposes, you must render it as ‘Arudo’ on the front. We can only take Hepburn. Please remove that superfluous ‘U.’ ”

I said I could do that, but then that person would not be me.

I won’t spoil the ending — read it yourself.

Consider also this painful story, forwarded to me from MF author Joe a few months ago, from one of his friends, regarding the issuance of an international driver license at the license issuing office of the Tokyo Keishichou:

I reviewed the online documentation before I went and by my estimation I had everything I needed to complete the application. I was wrong. I got to the window, license and picture in hand, and the lady at the counter asked me for my passport. My passport? The police department’s website said nothing about this, but she was insistent. Thus begun one of the dumbest dialogs I have ever had the misfortune to have participated in. It went something like this:

Lady: Please show me your passport.
Mike: You need my passport to issue an International Driver’s Permit?
Lady: Yes.
Mike: Well, I have my Alien Registration Card, which has my passport number, the issuing authority and expiration date. Will that do?
Lady: No. It has to be THE passport.
Mike: Seriously?
Lady: Yes.
Mike: Well, you guys are closing at 4 and I won’t have time to go home and get it. Isn’t there something else I can show you?
Lady: Do you have a copy of your flight itinerary or an e-Ticket?
Mike: Ah – yes I do! Just a moment. [fumbles with iPhone] Here it is!
Lady: Sorry, it needs to be printed.
Mike: What? It’s an e-Ticket. You don’t print e-Tickets.
Lady: Sorry.
Mike: Well, can I email it to you and have you print it?
Lady: We don’t have email.
Mike: Could I fax it to you?
Lady: We don’t have a fax machine.
Mike: So what am I supposed to do?
Lady: Well, there’s a convenience store around the corner. You could copy the screen on your phone and use that.
Mike: You’re serious?
Lady: Yeah, that would work fine.
Mike: Uh, Ok. Whatever you say. I’ll be back in a few.
So I did just that, but it didn’t work. Not surprisingly you can’t photocopy an LCD screen. So I took a screenshot of my phone, emailed it to our office receptionist and had her print the email, then fax it back to me at the convenience store. How’s that for efficient? 15 minutes later and I’m back … waiting in line again. 25 minutes and I’m back at the window. The conversation continues…

Mike: Here is the e-Ticket, printed as per your request.
Lady: Yep, that’ll be fine. Please go to window 7 and pay the fee, then come back.
Mike: [why the F!#@ didn’t you tell me about the fee BEFORE you sent me on this fool’s errand and made me wait in line again?] Thank you.

I pay the fee and get back in line. Another 10 minutes go by and I finally reach the window again…

Lady: Welcome back. Do you have all the documents?
Mike: Yes. Here you go.
Lady: Great. Lets’ see here… Yes, everything’s in order. Have a seat and I’ll call you when it’s ready.

What happened next absolutely made my blood boil. She stamped the application and passed onto the drone behind her, then handed everything else back to me — including the fax of the printout of the email of the screenshot of the e-Ticket! WTF?! I took two steps then lost it and turned around.

Mike: Lady, if you didn’t intend to keep this e-Ticket or use it for anything, why the hell did you make me go through all that just to give it to you on paper? You DO realize that it is nothing more than a paper copy of the screen I showed you earlier, right? I mean, that IS what YOU asked for, right?
Lady: Yes, I know, and I sympathize. But those are the rules.

Somebody rescue me. Please.

As it happens, today I went to DEWA (the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority) to get my new apartment hooked up with electricity and water (we move in tomorrow). I prepared the necessary documents to the local office — a copy of my tenancy contract, a copy of my passport, and a copy of my visa — and rocked up to my local DEWA office.

First, here’s what went wrong. In addition to the necessary documents, I also brought in the proof of ownership form held by the landlord, the deed of his contract with the developer/seller from 2008, and the power of attorney held by his agent in Sharjah, UAE, as the owner is an Indian national resident in India. I put this together with my documents at the desk with the DEWA officer — and she decided to scrutinize those as well. Fortunately, everything was in order, but I shouldn’t have included those unnecessary documents, and that’s a lesson for dealing with any bureaucracy — don’t give them anything more than what they ask for.

But here’s what went right. It turns out I forgot a copy of my visa — it was left on my printer at the office! However, I had a pdf of the document in an e-mail sent from my work e-mail address (on my blackberry) to my personal e-mail address the day before. I asked the Dewa officer: could I e-mail her a copy of it to print?

This not being Japan, she said, “sure.” She offered to print out a copy if I could send that to her, and she gave me her e-mail address.

But I face another major problem — my blackberry runs out of battery in sending the 1.5mb file! Fearing I was doomed, I hopefully asked if she had a charger for a blackberry. She said no — but asked around, and fortunately, another DEWA clerk offered me his blackberry charger. I plugged in my phone, sent her the document, and minutes later I had the final receipt in my hand.

I should also note that e-government in Dubai is so advanced that I could have done the application entirely online, and upload electronic copies of the documents, but that means the electricity takes 24-36 hours to start up. Visiting the office directly, although you have to wait 20-40 minutes to be seen, gets you a connection to the grid in 3-4 hours. You can also renew your car registration, pay your utilities, and do much more through Dubai’s e-government systems.

Don’t get me wrong, Dubai has its problems. Lady Curzon made a special trip to our new apartment at 2pm, when a repairman was scheduled to be at our apartment to fix an unrepaired problem, and he showed up at 3:15pm. But on this occasion, I walked away impressed at the flexibility of bureaucracy, and when coupled with reading the same story by Debito (and remembering the same story from Joe above), I came away with the thought that Japan’s bureaucrats are handicapped by a slavish following of meaningless rules. It slows down the entire country and is a fruitless exercise.

25 thoughts on “Adventures in Bureaucracy”

  1. As frustrating as Debito’s tale is, its hard not to think that he’s just a professional nuisance when he comes up with pretentious exaggerations like “it is my name, the most important thing a person can have.”
    No, there are a lot of more important things a person can have – just as there are lot more things one can fuss about!

  2. Similar thing that happened to me at the Airport:
    I was leaving from NRT to Bali for my wedding. At the checkin counter of Garuda Airways (the Indonesian company), as usual I give only my passport because that’s all they need to match me to my e-ticket. It takes them 3min to assign us a seat and get the bags sorted, the chick prints out our boarding passes and just before handing them to us she asks me:

    Lady: “Do you have your e-ticket?”
    Me: “No, it’s electronic. You checked me in, my passport is enough.”
    Lady: “You need your e-ticket.”
    Me: “Well here’s my confirmation number, is that ok?” — showing her my iPhone with the TripIt application
    Lady: “You need the printed e-ticket.”
    Me: “If it’s printed, why is it electronic?”
    Lady [困ってる]: “あの~~、 let me see what I can do.”

    She then leaves for 10min, discussing with all the other checkin ladies and supervisors.
    Finally, she comes back with 2 sheets of papers.

    Lady: “Ok, I could print them out. It is ok now, there you go! have a good flight!”

    And she hands me our printed e-ticket, same as the ones I had on PDF from my booking.

    Me: “Errr… You don’t need it? There no stamp or anything?”
    Lady [smiling brightly]: “Oh no, it’s just for you, you need to have a copy of your e-ticket.”

    I walked away towards the security gate shaking my head…

  3. In Debito’s defense, I would bitch up a storm if a bureaucrat tried to arbitrarily change the spelling of my name. Even if you don’t personally care how your name is spelled, a discrepancy is a pretty considerable hassle for many things that require ID like air travel, bank accounts, etc.

  4. Yeah, I don’t see this as Debito being a nuisance at all. If the Japanese government wanted him to spell his name a certain way when he first naturalized I’m sure he would have followed the official rules at that point, but since they approved it back then they have no reason to ask him to change it.

  5. I think most of what Debito writes is the musings of self-importance, but I care about how my name is represented in Japanese, even if it is a matter of representing long vowels differently, so in that sense give the man his due.

    However, it could be that one stupid idiot went on a power trip because he has nothing better to do with his life. I’ve also flown out of Narita several times on an electronic ticket and they didn’t need a print out. I was so waiting for them to stop me and show me their id when I recently returned to the country and it didn’t happen.

    Maybe I’ve just eaten enough sushi, read enough hentai manga and sucked on my teeth long enough that I give off an aura of Japaneseness and people just leave me the fuck alone. I don’t think so though.

  6. Joe’s story makes my heart go out for him. What an ass that person at the Keishicho was.
    Debito’s story makes my heart go out for the guy at the passport office. What an ass Debito was.

    His name isn’t Arudou, or Arudoh, or Arudo. It’s 有道 出人. It’s a name he chose, himself. Sure, he wasn’t free to name himself anything he wanted. His choice was limited. But he had far more choice in his own name than pretty much anyone else in Japan, and the only reason the issue even came up was because of the completely free choice he had of choosing to naturalize.

    So the Japanese government has specifications regarding how to romanize Japanese names. Eminently reasonable, so you don’t get “My name is たかはし, which I write in English as ‘BadMotherFucker'”. But Debito has a fit because it’s different than he chooses to spell his new name in his own native language (WTF?). Not because it’s different than the name on his 戸籍, not because it’s different than the name he registered with when he changed his name to a Japanese one. No, because it’s different than he would have spelled the Japanese name he took if he were to have written it in the English alphabet. As if one’s native tongue has anything to do with romanization of Japanese names on Japanese passports. You may as well demand that Debito be written דָּוִד because that’s how it was originally spelled in Hebrew. What an ass.

    Now, if the person Joe had to deal with was the person who had to deal with Debito, at least we’d be looking at a story of karmic just rewards. Instead, we have Joe and some innocent guy at the passport office having to put up with unreasonable and stubborn asses.

  7. Roy,

    From what I’m reading, they *did* require him to write his name a certain way: 有道. And he *did* follow their rules. Then when he went to get a passport, he got all pissy because he didn’t want to follow their rules regarding romaji, only kanji. After being a sufficient ass, they let him write a disclaimer of responsibility that said “I’ve chosen not to follow the rules, and if I get in trouble, I accept responsibility” And now, 10 years later, the exact same thing has happened again.

  8. Unless I’m misunderstanding something I have to feel for the clerk who got all the extra grey hairs courtesy of Debito.

    The argument Debito was having was not about the spelling of his name on the passport itself. Japanese bureaucracy does offer some flex when it comes to spelling on passports.

    Debito spent his afternoon fighting over the spelling of his name on a form used to apply for a passport.

  9. Serves me right for mentioning Debito in my post — everything turns into an opinion on what a certain commentator feels abour Debito.

    No one has any comments on my experience in Dubai? Coming from Japan it was so refreshing!

  10. Sorry, Curzon. People always discuss stuff they disagree with more than what they agree with. Your experience in Dubai sounds awesome. As an American, I’ve always seen Japanese bureaucracy as being far less bothersome and complicated than the US, but it’s good to know there are still places with bureaucracy far and away better than both.

  11. Incidentally, that story is not mine; it comes from a friend of mine, and I forwarded it on to Curzon. When I went to get my international license, I only needed to show a passport as “proof of travel” — but that was at the small Kanda license center, and not at the huge/annoying Samezu center. Which goes to show that sometimes it’s a matter of choosing the right bureaucrats in the first place.

    Another friend, who used to work as a lawyer in Amsterdam, once commented that “Japanese bureaucrats are just as useless as European bureaucrats, except that the Japanese ones will usually tell you how to fix whatever is wrong with your application.”

  12. “Which goes to show that sometimes it’s a matter of choosing the right bureaucrats in the first place.”

    Very true. I think I mentioned this on the blog before, but no idea where/when.

    When I moved out of Japan after my first year on a 3 year work visa I just left without saying I wasn’t coming back, taking my Alien Registration Card with me. Then I came back a year later for grad school on a new visa. I was staying at friend’s place for a month while I found someplace more permanent to live so I went to the local ward office down there in Fushimi-ku to register my address (amusingly, Japan requires ZERO proof of address to register your address on the card, which is then treated as gospel when you need proof of address for anything else).

    I told the guy at the desk (who was, very oddly, wearing a multicolored polka dot shirt and lavender corduroy pants, which seems like an unlikely fit for the municipal office dress code) that I was using my card from a previous visa and specifically asked if I needed a new card. He said it was no problem, and even suggested HIMSELF that I don’t change my status written on the card because I would have less hassle if my ID says that I was an office worker instead of a student. Naturally, I took him at his word that this wouldn’t be a problem.

    Fast forward to a few weeks later, when I’ve moved up to Sakyo-ku (near the campus). I go to the immigration office to apply for a Reentry Permit (再入国許可書) and they tell me that the old reentry permit I had on my previous visa was never canceled in their system – despite having been stamped VOID at the consulate – they can’t issue a new one, and because that was tied to my old Alien Registration Card they can’t do anything until I go get an all new one.

    The moral of the story? I guess it’s that even if one bureaucrat tells you that some particular formal procedure is skippable, don’t believe them. It will most likely come back to bite you in the ass, and not them, so they have no incentive to care.

  13. Joe:

    “Japanese bureaucrats are just as useless as European bureaucrats, except that the Japanese ones will usually tell you how to fix whatever is wrong with your application”

    That’s the exact same impression I have! I’ve always found that there is a lot of red tape involved in any formal transactions (permanent residence, home loan related tax issues, childbirth, etc.), but I can just call a free, manned information line in advance, and easily get a list of what forms I need, and where to get them. Then I just gather up the necessary stuff, take it to the proper office, and everything goes smoothly.

    When it comes to doing anything involving the US bureaucracy, though, it’s impossible to get full answers. One person might tell me about one form I need, but I only find out about needing form B from reading a website, about form C by asking someone who has already gone through the process, about form D from an answering message used in place of an actual person on an information line, etc., etc. It’s so much more stressful, and even when you think you’ve got everything, you can’t be at peace, because there’s no way to be sure until you’re actually standing at the counter.

  14. One bureaucracy I occasionally have to deal with is the New York court system, since I am registered as an attorney in New York. Every two years, when I go to pay my registration fee, I have to certify whether I am in compliance with New York’s continuing legal education requirements. The rule is that an attorney doesn’t have to take continuing legal education classes if they are not “practicing law in New York” during the two years in question. However, the staff who are responsible for checking compliance are not allowed to tell attorneys whether or not any particular kind of activity counts as “practicing law in New York” — so the attorney basically has to guess what that means on their own.

  15. Have to wonder if the Japanese government has gotten some flack on names at some point since Debito naturalized or if this is simply an example of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing. If Yamagata Emi wants to be Yamagata Amy on one passport and Emi on the next, I know for sure that she could get two social insurance numbers in Canada – a ticket for welfare fraud if the opportunity ever arose. It doesn’t even have to be something as lame as “Amy” (although it is different for half….), the last name Otsuka could also be Oduka or Ozuka or Outsuka or Ouduka or Ouzuka – with six credible romanizations for one not uncommon name, I think there very well should be a “rule”.

    I’ve only had great experiences with Japanese bureaucracy, although I haven’t had to do anything complicated. Took me 5 hours of waiting to get a Canadian health card. In Japan – no wait, card in hand less than 5 minutes after hitting the desk, and they even went out of their way to help me pay less. Of course, I’ve only dealt with Japanese bureaucrats at 500,000 population cities (three different ones) so that could be the difference.

    In any case, might we not be complaining about Japanese bureaucracy because customer service is (often) so much better? I had to have a bum netbook repaired two years ago – the company sent a courier (Sagawa) who boxed it and took it off and I had it back in my hand in perfect shape just a shade over 48 hours later. A friend of mine had an identical problem with the same company in Canada and that meant 4 hours of the Mumbai shuffle, sending it at their own expense, and a 2-3 week wait.

    Lady Curzon’s story also reminds me of no end of trouble around here – I was once told that I could expect my phone hook up sometime between 9-5 sometime between Monday and Thursday. They couldn’t call ahead because, well, I didn’t have a phone. They came the following Monday.

  16. You also run into problems when the person has a foreign (katakana) last name. My wife and kids have the normal spelling for their last name on their passports.
    It brings up the question: Is the romanized version of スミス “Smith” or “Sumisu”?

    Also, my daughter has the letter L in her name (similar to how Julie becomes ジュリー). We had to get her American passport first to show that her name was spelled with an L.

  17. The problem there is that the official rule is really vague. From MOFA’s web site:




  18. Same problem as hoshikagi for my wife: she needed proof of the romaji spelling of her/my last name.
    Thankfully the bureaucrat lady was nice and gave a fax number where i could send copy of my gaijin card, which holds my name in romaji and hers in kanji / kana.
    Problem solved in 5min, but that could have well depended on the person on the other side of the dreaded desk.

  19. i must agree with debito and the preferred and registered spelling of his name. my son had the same problem with the name on the travel insurance not matching the name on the passport rendering the insurance (or passport) useless. plus, we were advised at the Japanese Embassy how to render his japanese name in romaji – yet another bureacrat decided to do it his own way. when a name is registered in a certain way – that is WHAT IT IS.

  20. I manged not to do it! Besides, there are now two whole sites for people who want to talk about Debito.

  21. Pretty lady: The problem is, the name *was* registered as Arudo. Debito just didn’t like that, so when they asked him to write it down as it was registered (in other words, to write down WHAT IT IS) he said “No! That’s not how I spell it in English, so I don’t wanna!”

    And to top it off, after taking up a long amount of time and forcing this guy to go into a long meeting with others, he then busts this:

    “Look, how do you think I got ‘Arudou’ rendered as such on my expiring passport? Because I had this discussion with you in 2000 when I first applied, and again in 2006 when my name changed after a divorce. When your bosses realized I was not going to budge on this, they had me write out and sign a moshitatesho (a kind of affidavit) stating that if anything were to go wrong due to the spelling of my name, the responsibility would be mine alone.”

    So not only is he spelling it wrong, he’s *knowingly* spelling it wrong, because he’s had this discussion before. Twice! And he *knows* that he can get it spelled his personally preferred wrong way by writing a moshitatesho. But instead of, at the start of the conversation, saying “Look, I know that you’d like me to write Arudou, but I’d rather write Arudo. We had this discussion a few years ago, and I wrote a moshitatesho. Let me write another, and lets be on our way”, he holds back this information, making a slightly annoying 5 minute process turn into a huge ordeal involving pow-wows.

    The man is an ass. He happens to be on the right side of some arguments, and the wrong sides of others, but regardless of which side he’s on, he’s an ass about it.

  22. Odd that a thread about the name of a particular person who uses that particular personal name as the title of a blog which often features posts about his personal exploits would turn personal.

  23. May I ask a favor — can everyone here please agree to stop mentioning Debito Arudou and his self-important antics?

    Nothing he says or does adds any real value to the usually serious Japan-related discussions on Mutant Frog (which are refreshingly well-informed and sedate for a blog), so why do people keep mentioning him? Surely, it’s not for the high-quality research, objective in-depth analysis, or cross-national studies.

    I suspect you do it simply to work people up from time to time.

    If so, I’m disappointed and slightly irritated that Curzon brought up his name (once again) in one of his posts. He’s better than that.

  24. @cbp

    For rōmaji readers to pronounce words correctly, you can’t hide vowel elongation.

    For example, “大田区” can not be correctly written nor pronounced as “Otaku”,
    and “大きい” can not be correctly written nor pronounced as “oki”, or even “okii”,
    and yes: “tofu”, “sumo”, “Tokyo”, and ironically “romaji”, are all incorrect as well.

    “道” can be written as “dō”, or “dô”, or “dou”, or “doo”, or “doh”, take your pick.
    “道” can not be correctly written as “do”, because that hides the vowel elongation.

    For rōmaji readers to pronounce words correctly, you can’t hide vowel elongation.

    Anyway Curzon your story about the flexibility of a Dubai bureaucrat was nice. 🙂

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