Friday, March 30, 2012

Random Thoughts: Leaving as a solid citizen

Foreigners are often roundly criticized for coming to Japan and not acting as "good citizens". This means that they don't pay their city taxes, health insurance, etc. nor do they sort trash according to the strict rules and guidelines of their areas. Unlike small cultural issues like cooking smelly food or being too loud, these things are more about government regulations than simply irksome cultural preferences.

Because my husband and I know that foreigners get a bad reputation for not taking care of business before they go and we want to be upright citizens, we have been making every effort to exit this country on the up and up, even if it costs us some money on the way out. What we have discovered is that the bureaucracy here makes it as difficult as possible. In some cases, you get the royal runaround such that you believe they would rather you gave up and left them alone. In others, there simply does not seem to be a tried and true path to completing things neatly under conditions in which you are leaving and never coming back. For those who are curious about how things work here, or those who may one day have to leave and want to also depart in compliance with all regulations, I'm going to talk about various aspects of extricating oneself legally and (hopefully) appropriately. Note that this is by no means a complete list, but merely the things we've faced as of the writing of this post. 

1. City taxes.

In Tokyo, there are what are referred to as "ku taxes" by the foreign community, or city taxes, that must be paid to the ward you happen to live in. If you lived in New York, it would be equivalent of paying borough taxes. These are above and beyond your federal taxes and like local taxes back home. They are actually a bigger chunk of your tax bill (10%) than your federal taxes (about 5%, but it depends on income) and one of the reasons foreign folks dread them.

City (or ward) taxes are tricky because they are not issued for about a year after you come to Japan. They are calculated based on annual income, but there's no income from which to make such calculations until you've been here and filed an income tax return. Note that many language school chains often handle this for their teachers, so many people who spend a year or so here as teachers for more paternalistic companies may never know about this. Unfortunately, even those companies who don't take care of such things (and many don't) don't tell foreign employees that they need to look after such things. If you're lucky, the accountant will offer a vague message about how not all of your taxes were deducted and you have to take care of the rest. You do not get any instructions about where to go, what to do, or what other taxes might be due. I didn't know ku taxes even existed until I had lived here for more than 8 years. No one ever told me at my places of employment and no one sent me a bill.

Because the tax calculations lag behind by about a year, it's not uncommon for a foreigner to blithely spend about a year here and then suddenly get a huge tax bill for about one month or so's income. You suddenly find that you need to pay 300,000 yen ($3,600) and many people don't have that sort of money just lying fallow in their bank accounts, especially in the first year when there are more expenses to set up a home and more money spent on sightseeing and enjoying the country and people. 

The lag means that when a person is leaving Japan, arrangements need to be made to pay the previous year's taxes. They are usually issued around June, but I'm leaving on March 29. In order to leave without an outstanding city tax bill, I went to the local government office and asked them to submit a bill for me now (meaning two weeks ago when I originally asked) so I could pay them. Considering the fact that I already filed my income tax form in February and got my refund deposited, they have all they need to calculate my income and taxes for the previous year. Apparently, that is not enough though. They essentially said they couldn't (or wouldn't) do it, nor would they forward the tax bill to me in America so I could pay them from there. The only conditions under which they would assist me would be to send the bill later this year to someone I know in Japan and have them pay it for me. If I did not have a contact here, then I'd have no choice but to leave and default on the taxes. They simply left no other option. Since many short-term visitors may not have a person who they would like to burden with this responsibility, is it any wonder many foreigners simply walk away with city taxes unpaid?

2. Postal forwarding

After we leave, we don't want the next tenant of our apartment to receive mail addressed to us, nor do we want the landlord to have to deal with it when said tenant comes to him and asks about it. The truth is that we receive almost zero mail of value in Japan anyway (just our bills and advertising), so we don't really care about the mail in general. Every personal and professional contact was given our contact information on a card and they know where to send things to us in the U.S. Setting up postal forwarding was only a courtesy and not for our benefit in any way. 

You would think that this would be simple because all postal services in all countries around the world should have basic address change procedures in place. That may be so for domestic mail, but when it comes to leaving the country, things get monumentally hairier. Before I launch into the full story, let me say that we live near the main ward post office and went there to conduct business. We did not go to some piddly little branch that rarely handles more than a parcel or two abroad a year. This is the central deal and is enormous and where you go for any serious postal business. 

Our first step in all of this was to call and ask what the procedure was. We were told that they would not be able to forward domestic mail from Japan to the U.S., but they would send international mail or parcels to us there at our own expense. Armed with this information, we went to the post office and were greeted with nothing but confusion about what we were talking about. We called information again and went to the post office once more on another day with the promise that the person who was telling us one thing would call the people and explain things to them. This time, we got the name of the exact form in Japanese. It's interesting to note that they were extremely reluctant to tell us the name of the form. However, on another day, we went back. A middle-aged woman took us into a secure area (with a locked entry and exit) on the second floor in which major sorting was being done and talked for awhile with the information people. They told us they didn't have the form and that we should come back on a particular day and they would have it. 

We returned on another day and they not only did not have the form, but told us that no mail forwarding of any kind was done between countries. They would only do it from domestic address to domestic address. At this point, we decided to give up on it all and just tell the landlord that we tried, but mail addressed to us may come after we leave. Later, we got an apologetic call from the information people we had been dealing with saying that they would get it straight next time. On our fourth visit, we were lead back up to the secure area again and finally given the proper form. With much waiting and other people talking on the phone, this process was finally complete (we hope) after four visits.

3. Health insurance

Health insurance is another thing that many foreigners are accused of abandoning as it operates on the same year-long delay as the city taxes. When we went there, we also looked into a refund document that I had been sent based on my medical expenses and low income last year. They kicked back about 40% of what I paid in costs and agreed to deposit it quickly because of our departure date. This was unexpectedly kind and helpful. 

We told them that I was leaving and they went off and said something about my having "overpaid". Instead of my paying them for the previous year's bill, they gave me back about 1300 yen ($16) and asked if I'd like to turn in my health insurance card then or later. I'm still not sure if they got what I was trying to do (pay what may be issued later this year), but that is what we told them we were there to do. I can only say that I did my best to pay what was owed, and that somehow I either didn't owe anything, or they didn't comprehend what I was saying and I will not have been squared away my "debt". I may, indeed, be a "defaulter" by Japanese government estimates, but not because I didn't make an effort to be otherwise. I couldn't exactly insist on giving them money or paying bills they didn't acknowledge will come in the future, so we left it at that.

4. Bank

There were two stages to our dealing with the bank. The first was transferring our remaining funds to our U.S. bank. We've done this about once every 8-12 months for the past decade and the process seems to take longer and be more fussy every time. This last time was no exception. Though the bank has full access to every bit of our information (and have our bank card and identification), they were unable to process our forms this time around without having our passbook in hand. In the past, they did not require the passbook, but my husband had to run home and get it as I sat there feeling sick with a pre-departure cold. This transfer took a full hour when it has taken as little as 15 minutes in the past.

I've read that Japan has been tagged as a country in which money laundering tends to occur and the Japanese government has demanded more and more information from people when they send money home. One of the boxes we had to check on the form was one promising we were not funneling our money to Iran, North Korea, etc. We also have had to state why we are transferring money the last 3 or 4 times we've sent it back. We always just say, "family reasons", which is true and vague. However, I have read blogs and comments by other people who are rather seriously grilled about the reason they're sending money back including being asked about family history (parents' address, jobs, etc.). We were not given the third degree, but if things keep getting tighter and we had remained, I wouldn't be surprised if that would have been our future as well.

The other stage of dealing with the bank was closing out the account.This was a far tidier affair, though still fairly time-consuming as I was issued a Japanese credit card about 17 years ago and it had to be canceled as well. After much fretting about whether or not all automatic payments that tapped into the card had stopped and filling out a few fairly simple forms, we were given our remaining funds and our bank and credit cards were cut in half in front of us. Of the processes we dealt with, this was the simplest.

5. Telephone (NTT land line and ADSL internet)

When it comes to bureaucracy, I'm guessing few businesses are as monolithic and rigid as NTT (Nihon Telephone and Telegraph). My husband and I refused to move ahead into the age of cell phones, so we did not have to cancel such contracts. Our situation was set up in the stone age of telecommunication. We purchased a land line 23 years ago for around $600 (54,000 yen). Yes, you heard that right. Back in the day, NTT sold its numbers to you for a huge fee. Ours was actually a "bargain" as the full price was around $800. Used lines, which ours was, were sold through classified ads or you could purchase a fresh, shiny new one from NTT directly.

As cell phones have taken over, NTT has pretty much lost the monopoly that allowed them to shaft people with this practice, but holders of the lines can't really sell them to anyone else anymore. They are worthless now, but if you want to disconnect from your line, you have to pay NTT $25 (about 2100 yen) in fees. The most economical way of dealing with it is to "abandon" the line. That means that you legally surrender the rights to the number and NTT can reclaim it and probably sell it to some sucker who still thinks land lines have value (I guess). At any rate, we were at least a decade and a half past recouping our investment in the line and just had to do a bunch of useless forms to say, "we surrender our rights to our number". NTT would not even consider cancellation of our service until we did this so we had to twiddle our thumbs waiting for them to do their paperwork.

After the line abandonment documents were received and acknowledged, we thought we were in the clear except for the DSL modem they "leased" to us for a monthly fee. The modem has to be returned to them, but they refused to send us the postage paid special bag so that we could send it back ourselves. They also refused to issue a bill and allow us to pre-pay prior to departure. No, the only way to leave on the up-and-up with NTT was to give them the address of a person in Japan and have them receive the bag, send back the modem, and pay the final bill. There was no other option but this or default on the bill. Obviously, we made the proper arrangements, but, again, if you have no trusted contacts in Japan, this would be difficult to arrange.

6. Gas, electric, water

My husband and I are very fortunate to have a great landlord who agreed to speak with these three utilities companies and help us arrange final payments. I'm not sure what would have happened if we had tried to do it ourselves, but he arranged for each of them to come to his home (he's our next door neighbor) and then ours on the day before we left to collect final payments in cash. They're going to calculate the bills to the best of their ability and shut off our gas (but not water and electric) on the evening of the 28th at around 7:00 p.m. (Note: these posts are written pre-departure and queued for publishing as I expect not to be in posting from the 28th-31st while I'm in transition to the U.S.). This isn't so strange as these things were turned on by the landlord when we moved in. He arranged for them before, so this may be something he handles for all tenants, or just special treatment for us. 


All countries have their bureaucracy, and I'm in no way suggesting it is harder to extricate yourself from Japan than other countries as I frankly have no experience doing it anywhere else. I'm merely writing this post as a chronicle of my experiences and some of my efforts to depart as a solid citizen (this is not a complete list). I say that because I'm sure I'll be misunderstood and people will think that merely talking about the experiences implies that they I am saying they are extraordinary in some way. That is not my intention.

My impression of all of this is that anyone who leaves without a person who they feel comfortable saddling with their final bills and paperwork may simply decide it's easiest to blow this popsicle stand without settling their tab. Some people may simply have no choice. Most, I'd wager, have a way to make it work if they're tenacious enough and try hard enough. When I say that, I don't mean that they push the companies or bureaucrats to cooperate, but rather that they search far and wide for someone who can look after their interests after they have departed. That's the only area where effort is going to count. I didn't try to say, "if you don't send me my bill now, it won't be paid at all," but I don't believe that would change much. If anyone has tried that, I'd like to hear about their experiences and whether or not it worked.

Most people who come to Japan come with some sort of support system which likely handles all of this. When my husband first came to Japan (alone, pre-marriage), he did so as a contracted teacher for a a large language school chain. They looked after everything for him (except a phone, he never had one) including utilities, rent, taxes, etc. Many foreigners are shielded from these kinds of situations and never face having to extricate themselves from them depending on the types of jobs they do. This is another reason that people sometimes walk away from bills like outstanding taxes and health insurance. Someone else looked after it all and little magic fairies tidied up the mess for them.

I should note that the consequences of walking away without squaring away your debts doesn't just give all foreigners a bad name. It can also hurt your sponsor. The person or company who has your back for your working visa is ultimately responsible for your financial situation. One of my husband's former co-workers placed some folding screens that were in a rental apartment outside and they were destroyed from exposure to the elements and he disputed their value and his culpability. The landlord took 100,000 yen (about $1250) from his security deposit and he refused to pay his final rent in retaliation. He felt he was being cheated and this was a way to get back his unfairly taken deposit money. In the end, the person who paid was his former company. As his sponsor, they had to pay the outstanding rent.

I strongly dislike the notion that each bad foreigner makes it bad for everyone else. However, there is truth in the idea that people who did as my husband's former coworker did (leaving the company holding the bag) make companies decide not to sponsor their employee's apartments or create more Draconian contract conditions such as withholding final income until all debts are confirmed fully paid. Sometimes, people default because it's difficult to do otherwise even when you try your best to be a solid citizen (as my experiences seem to show), but sometimes people just rationalize away their bad behavior and depart knowing there is no way they will ever be held accountable. The arms of the law of Japan don't stretch over international waters.

Regarding the difficulty of leaving with all of your ducks in a neat little row, my feeling is that the Japanese paper pushers in some cases and as individuals working in soulless jobs with a lot of repetition would prefer that you simply not bother to wrap up all the loose ends. The Japanese government or companies, on the other hand, would like to get their dough. In the scheme of things, very little is lost to the entire country and it puts the workers who have to handle such special cases in a bad position of trying to do something they rarely need to do and therefore do not have procedures in place to handle. Walking away leaving things hanging is easier for them to process than pushing them to try and figure out ways of making things work. This is a country which acculturates people into the notion that they do what they are told, follow the rules, and do not substitute their own judgment when there is a gap in the procedures. It also means that they are forced to go up their byzantine chain of command to try and find non-existent answers to your questions. That may be the way it is everywhere in the world, but I think that it's more common for people to adapt and be flexible back home. I guess I'll find out about that soon enough. 


  1. As always, I appreciate you sharing with your readers your experience in Japan. It always allows me to see the world through the eyes of someone else. :) If you don't mind my asking, when do you plan on returning to the United States?

  2. Travel safely and welcome back to the United States! I can't help feeling wistful, as I have loved this blog and your snack blog so much since leaving Japan myself. I would appreciate a post somewhere down the line letting us know how your adjustment to the U.S. is going. All the best!

  3. I hope things go well for you back in the States. I have enjoyed reading your blog(s) since I found them a few years ago. I have often been amazed as to how much of what you write is exactly what I see and experience. Sometimes, I wondered if I hadn't somehow written it myself!

    When I returned to the US after a few years in Korea, and again after my first time living in Japan, I found readjustment to the US much, much, more difficult than anything I felt in adjusting to life overseas.

    Perhaps it's because after getting used to living in the only country with four distinct seasons, going back to the US with its fewer seasons is too big of a change.

    Good luck!

  4. Thanks to everyone for the comments. Just a quick note. The blogs are not over because I'm back in America. I still have things to finished here, and I hope to continue the snack blog to the best of my ability. Hopefully, I'll have more to say and the time to keep saying it. ;-)

    And, D, adjusting to life in America over the last several days has been terribly hard for me. It's something I'll be writing about here soon.

  5. Wow...that's pretty difficult! We've had to leave 2 countries now (3 if you count the US), and that sounds by far like the most hassle. Of course, we're in Japan as contractors to the Navy, so I don't think we'll have quite as many of those issues to address if/when we leave, but I'll be sure to bookmark this post just in case!

  6. Sounds similar to the bureaucracy in Malaysia. Things happen very slowly and takes a huge hassle. Then you lose your temper and rage. After that, things get done but it gives government workers the impression that Americans are 'difficult'. *Sigh*

    P/S Always wanted to comment here but I completely understand why you normally disallow commenting. I've always been fascinated with Japan and have dreamed of living there. As you present a less romantic and more realistic portrayal of Japan, I've been able to appreciate where I live more. If I ever do go and live in Japan, it will be because I want to experience Japan -- the good and the bad -- and not because of some 'grass is greener' fantasy.

  7. Thanks for this post, lots of things here to keep in mind when we decide to leave. Good luck with everything!


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