Negotiating Japanese Customs

As going through customs and immigration in various countries becomes an unwanted yet unescapable hobby for us, I wanted to start by writing about the system I am most familiar with – Japan.  I hope this will help you know what to expect and how to get through quickly and easily (and without a trip to the special questions room)

Getting into Japan

In all things, Japan is a very orderly country.  This creates an absolutely monstrous beauracracy which makes government extremely slow and means you have to fill out a ridiculous amount of paperwork for anything short of buying a toothpick.  However, it works.  If you follow the process, it will turn out exactly as explained, so just follow the insructions and don’t worry.

Visa:  On the easy side, for US citizens going to Japan on a holiday, no visa is necessary for a period of stay of up to 90 days (at the time of this writing).  .For other countries, please check with your embassy in Tokyo.

Immigration:  If flying into Narita, you will leave your plane and take a long walk down pristinely clean halls (pretty much all of Japan is this clean) towards the immigration room.  Make sure you have your disembarcation card filled out.  This should have been handed to you on the plane, but if not, there are plenty to be found in boxes in the immigration room.  With card and passport in hand, you will need to get in line.  There will be three lines to choose from:

– 外国人の方 | Foreign Nationals – (this is probably you)

-再入国許可証持ってる方 | Re-Entry Permit Holders, foreign nationals with long term visas in Japan with permission to leave and return on the same visa – (Less likely to be you, but good if it is)

-日本人のパースポート持ってる方 | Japanese Citizens – (even less likely to be you)

Get in the correct line and wait (usually a much longer wait if you chose the first line).

Speaking with the Immigration Official:  In Japan, as in all countries, immigration officers are selected through a long and grueling process to specifically identify people who like to spend all day sitting in a booth stamping papers and concurrently lack the gene for humor.  Just be polite!  The Japanese put great emphasis on politeness so just wait your turn, and present your papers when asked, and bow politely.  You will have to get your picture taken and your fingerprints recorded as part of the entry process.  (A note to US citizens: do not complain about this!  The US got the entire global panty supply in a bunch after 9/11 and this is one of the results).  Luckily the Japanese have made this process simple.  Just smile for the camera, stick your index fingers in the machine, and push down.  This should clear your way for entry.  If you do have to discuss anything with the immigration officer, just remember that English is most likely their second language and though all Japanese study English, many are not as proficient as you would expected (even English teachers).

Customs: After clearning immigraiton, go to the baggage carousel, get your luggage and look for one of the yellow customs forms that are supplied at a number of stands in the customs area.  Fill out the form as direrected (fairly easy assuming you read at a 4th grade level or above), and then head towards the line of customs agents.  There are usually around 10 – 15 agents each manning a desk at the line.  This is the final gauntlet!  Take a look at the officers and find the one with which you feel a special, kindred-spirit type of connection as this person will decide whether you get a cursory look at your paperwork or a thorough investigation.  Once you’ve made your decision, have your yellow form and passport out, cross your fingers, and go for it.  Whether it’s because I have a well cut jib, or I am just lucky, I have never been stopped by customs, but it does happen.  Just be patient.  After you are done, just go out the doors and…

Welcome to Japan!

Posted on by Aaron in Aaron's Blog

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