My thumbs, my thumbs, a kingdom for my thumbs

Opinions Tokyo Life - July 16th, 2004
Henry Scott Stokes

by Henry Scott Stokes 

I had one big educational experience the other day — I was served a deportation order. Here’s how it happened.

I had neglected to keep an eye on my passport and had let the date of expiry of my visa go by. That’s what the Immigration Office — out on the far side of Shinagawa — calls “overstay”. It’s a heinous offense.

All of a sudden I was an “illegal resident.”

The key word is “overstay!”

If I heard it once, I heard it four or five times. Coming from the lips of a uniformed immigration officer in that big new building they have opened out there in dock-land, it sounded like death.

Yikes, I was handed a mostly Japanese-language document with my name on it, and “DECISION” printed on the top in English, and down below that word “deportation.”

Son of a gun; I thought this was what they did to Chinese heroin runners and to undesirable speci­mens, following a period of incarceration in gaol. But me? Deported? To where? When?

Well, that’s what it comes down to if you overstay. After several interviews and much palaver, all in Japanese, I was told I had three days within which to appeal the verdict to the Minister of Justice.

I agreed to do that. It seemed the only possible course of action. There was no point in asking for time to bring in a lawyer. It was going to be best if I faced this crisis with just one unprofessional helper.

Fortunately, I had had the wit to bring along my 86-year-old news assistant, Fumi — she who doubles as my mother-in-law. Fumi kept me company and sat through all the interviews — including one in a windowless cubicle — always with a different official.

One of these interviewers, a young woman, had asked Fumi to leave, saying: “You are not needed here.”

Fumi had turned a deaf ear.

Bidden to do so, we returned to a waiting room along with a bunch of Filipina mums and their babies. In the corner was a creche. It was tucked away; a comfy space with rubber walls by a window.

“Why don’t you go in there and take a nap?” sug­gested Fumi. Yes, I could do that, I thought — even while wearing a dark suit. I snuck in there and fell fast asleep, a perfect solution.

When I awoke, it was 2 p.m. and time for judge­ment to strike. We had been there since 9 a.m., and now we would know the outcome of the appeal to that all-powerful Minister of Justice.

Suddenly, my name was announced, and I stood up. In a moment three of us were being led through a door, with Fumi squeezing in just behind us. I knew the other two, one a British dad, with sons aged 6, 4 and 2, and the other a Canadian dad, with sons aged 5, 3 and 1. When you’re up against it, you share details. We had whiled away time, talking about our families.

Now we were approaching the moment of truth.

This time the meeting was with a senior official. He urged us to seat ourselves. First he called on the other British dad — hails from Poole, Dorset, close to where I live — to come forward.

“I present you with a visa for three years,” said the official, handing back his passport to my compatriot.

Then, it was the turn of the Canadian. He too received a three-year visa with a huge chop in his passport. I just loved the look of that chop; glimpsed over his shoulder. Big, square, solid.

Next it was my turn.

I received back my passport, complete with a three-year visa.

You know, you can say what you like, that this was all a bit of Kabuki, and we were going to be excused our negligence from the very start, and we were just being given a lesson.

But I don’t see it quite like that. There is a mech­anism here, ready and in place, to make us leave if we misbehave. Or just to pull us into line.

Of late, the U.S. government has ordered every­one Japanese (and all other non-U.S. residents) to depart the U.S. and re-apply for their visas outside. This is being done to check people’s identities and make up files on all foreigners.

It’s all about gathering documentation. My file out at the Immigration Office is about half an inch thick. It includes my fingerprints — all eight fingers and the two thumbs as well, done separately. Plus a mug shot.

Plus a piece I wrote for Bungei Shunju, the monthly magazine, on Princess Masako. Plus a copy of my original deportation order dated July 1.

It’s the thumbprints that struck me most. My thumbs, my thumbs, a kingdom for my thumbs.