Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Getting a Thai Visa in Japan

Japan is infamous for having a bureaucracy that surpasses even the anal-retentive souls working at DMVs across the United States:

"You missed a comma here. Please fill out all twenty forms again and come back next month between 8:07 and 8:23 AM."
"I'm sorry, but we cannot process this on a Tuesday. It has never been done before, and I can think of no practical reason to start now simply because it would make things easier for everyone."
"We require an inkan, family registry, signature, proof of insurance, proof of residence, additional proof of residence, cat's last name, and your expected date of death."

Thus far, I have been quite lucky in avoiding discriminating salesmen and government employees when getting set up with a cell phone, acquiring a gaijin card, installing internet, changing residences from Hiroshima to Kagoshima, and even dealing with the insurance paperwork surrounding my hospital visit.

All well and good. But, in the end, the universe had to tip the scales before I departed the land of the rising sun for good. In the form of Japanese bureaucrats employed at the Thai consulate in Osaka.

Day 1
Step out of exit #7 of Sakaisuji-Honmachi station in Osaka at approximately 9:38 AM, the air full of promise... and a little humidity. My paperwork rests comfortably in my black sweat-stained backpack, the product of hours of checking, double-checking, and having photos taken:

VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR Non Immigrant O (Visa for being volunteer)

Submission: 09.30-12.00 hrs. at 1st Fl. of Bangkok Bank Bldg (except Thai & Japanese national holidays)
Collection: 13.30- 15.00 hrs. at 1st Fl. of Bangkok Bank Bldg (first working day after submission)

Documents Required:

1. 1 designated application form signed with the same signature as appears on passport
2. Passport (original & copy: holder’s data) with validity over 6 months
3. 1 photo size 4.5 x 4 cm, color or black
4. Airline ticket or flight confirmation sheet from air carrier or tour company (original & copy) with date of entry, flight no. and name of passenger
5. Recommendation letter* from institute in Japan (original in English)

If not belong to any institution in Japan: 1) a guarantee letter** by a Japanese residing in Japan and, 2) a copy of a guarantor’s passport or driving license with the signature of the guarantor affixed.

6. Invitation letter* from institute in Thailand (original in English or Thai)              
7. Registration document of an institute in Thailand (copy)

*: Recommendation letter and invitation letter should be typed on the institute’s letterhead, issued within 3 months. Consisting of necessary information: applicant’s name, institute’s name, the purpose of visit, date of entry to Thailand and duration of stay with institute’s seal affixed and signature of assigned authorities.

**: A guarantee letter should identify name, occupation of the applicant, purpose of visit, date of entry to Thailand, period of stay and name, address and signature of a guarantor affixed. The letter should also state that a guarantor guarantees the behavior of applicant in Thailand.
1. The documents required are an original or a copy as stated above.
2. All documents must be in A4 size.
3. Application is not accepted by mail.
4. Please apply at least 2 weeks before your departure.
5. Visa fee should be prepared in an exact amount of payment.
6. Please note that a consular officer reserve the rights to ask for additional documents as deemed necessary.

At this point, I'm still weary after a late arrival in Osaka from Hiroshima, and not at all cleansed by the soothing waters one can only find in the sulfur-rich Kagoshima onsen. Nevertheless, some inconveniences are necessary for travel; dealing with government officials being one of them.

I wait for approximately one hour before my name is called. Strike one - I did not copy my passport pages. Quickly run next door to the Fedex-Kinkos and pay 8 yen/page. Return and start from the beginning.

It looks as though I will be called soon... wait... the Japanese secretary looks over my forms and calls me.

"I will have to talk to the consulate. Please wait a moment."

My first confirmation - this man is a trained desk boy, not someone with any power to officiate. He is going to enforce each regulation as if his life depends on it. No flexibility whatsoever.

"Turner Raito-san, the consulate is in a meeting. Could you wait for a few hours so I can ask them about this?"
"Ummm... don't you only accept applications in the morning?" (it being about 10:30 AM at the time)

He shrugs as if to say, "yeah, that's right, but what can you do?"

I'll tell you what you can do, you can stop offering useless suggestions - why have me wait for a decision whose outcome can't be taken advantage of? Without waiting for word from the consulate, he looks over my forms and decides I do not possess the required registration document of the Thai institution for which I will be volunteering. He sends me away, dismissively, telling me he can't accept my application.

A Romanian citizen in front of me had it much worse; he was clearly just passing through Japan on long-term travel, and had been unable to have a Thai visa processed before he left. But, since he was applying in Japan, he was subject to the same regulations: a recommendation letter from a Japanese institution, or a personal reference by a Japanese citizen, including a copy of his passport and inkan.

I believe Japan is the only country to request something like this of non-Japanese, and it's absolutely ridiculous. There's a certain time period for which one can apply for any visa of any country, and if you have to stay and travel around Japan for a few months, you don't want to have to fly back home in order to secure a visa for another Asian country, now do you? This doesn't just apply to residents of Japan, but tourists and commuters as well.

Yet, Japan makes this the only reasonable option by requesting such a reference, in addition to the other paperwork.

Day 2
Check into a nearby internet cafe, and contact my organization in Thailand, begging immediate assistance and stating the problem. The organization is confused, because although they have never had someone apply with them from Japan, they have never had any requests for a registration document (I assume because their other consulates are slightly more sane). Nevertheless, they quickly rush out, scan the document, and email it back to me.

No chance the consulate is thinking about something else?
No, this is the only registration paper we have.
You're sure? I can't stay in Osaka for long.
Yes, go ahead and turn it in.

I walk back in, more than confident I can just drop off the paperwork this time. The same dull-eyed face greets me as I cheerfully but tiredly set my application on top of the others. After some time, and nearly twenty pages of You Gotta Have Wa, I catch my man consulting with another bureaucrat about some aspect of my application.

They must be amazed that a foreigner actually got the required documents... maybe this has never happened before...

I am called to the glass cage shortly, and told promptly:

"I'm very sorry, but we cannot accept this application. This is not the correct form. The name is not on it."
"What do you mean? It's clearly the registration form - it has the registration number (confirmed on the recommendation letter) and the government seal."
"Yes, but this is not the right document."
"Well, you do understand that this organization has no other documents to give me, right? This is it. I have the correct form."
"So sorry, I cannot accept this."

Strike twenty. I wait five minutes, walk out the door, do an about-face, return to the desk, and pile my papers on top of the others. Ten minutes later, I am called.

"Turner-san? Has anything changed?"
"No, you just seem to always change the rules, so I'm applying again with the same forms."
"All right, please wait, I will check."

Yes, this actually happened. And although I wasn't too confident, I felt there was a possibility of getting my visa this time.

No go. He returns, utters the same apology, and calls the next applicant.

All that travel for nought. From Kagoshima to Osaka for nothing. They can't even handle a simple visa.

Day 3
Insult to injury. I call the Thai embassy in Tokyo to confirm the required documents for an O-type visa, and am told I also need to supply a copy of my teaching certification, as well as approval from the Ministry of Education in Thailand.

Yeah... I won't be doing that. With each inquiry, it seems more paperwork is added. The only solution to getting anything done in a Japanese bureaucracy is to bring every single legal document in your possession and every one that can be imagined, even if they don't exist; what does reality have to do with paperwork?

Thai Consulate Osaka
Thai Embassy Tokyo

In conclusion, do NOT apply for visas in Japan - take that cheap flight or ferry to Seoul; enjoy a vacation in the US and do some visa-hopping. But do not allow yourself to cave and walk two blocks to the nearest government representatives; it's far easier to just hop the border.


ThePenguin said...

Wouldn't it be more appropriate to blame Thai bureaucracy in this case? They're the ones making the rules after all...

Turner said...

I might say that, except I had no problems with the embassy in Beijing.