Friday, August 31, 2007

The Oracle of Shinjuku

“There are only two things you have to do in life to be a good citizen,” the Honorable Justice Evans pleaded to the half-filled central juror room at County Courthouse. “Pay taxes and do jury duty.”

After two postponements, there I was reporting for duty less than a week after returning from Japan, which doesn’t have such a legal system, but is considering adopting it. In the meantime, were Justice Evans addressing Tokyoites, he might substitute proper disposal of household garbage for jury duty. Paying taxes anywhere is a given, except maybe in Dubai.

As I looked forward to fulfilling civic duty in America, I thought back to qualms I had about shirking it in Japan. I had cleaned up my act on garbage after initial infractions. And I never had to think about taxes since they were automatically deducted from my teacher’s paycheck.

Complacency with being a good foreign resident changed with the arrival of an official envelope from the Shinjuku office of Tokyo’s city government. Not lost among its thick contents covered in small, indecipherable characters was a bolded bottom line: ¥104,200 with four pay stubs for ¥26,050 each. I only had to read numbers to know I had debts equivalent to $900 due two weeks before I departed.

With time of the essence, I sought a one-stop authority. I asked for an audience with the Oracle. Unlike her predecessors from ancient Greece, China and Mesopotamia, this glasses-rimmed granny didn’t look particularly divine behind a bare desk with a nine button telephone.

And rather than “ask for an audience,” I simply walked into the Shinjuku ward office. Nonetheless, her advice was not to be taken lightly. She dispensed such wisdom that I consulted this bilingual bureaucrat four times in my final two weeks. To her, it was a day job. To me, a personal concierge ready to tackle the nitty gritty of getting a pension refund or recycling a water-logged laptop. Charged with helping Japanese-challenged foreigners figure out affairs, the Oracle became a lifeline to wrapping things up in Japan before I shipped myself back to New York.

Frustration preceded reverence. With a grasp of two languages and within reach of a telephone, the Oracle delivered a painful reading at my first consultation. She decoded the suspicious envelope, which was an unwelcome parting present for residence tax owed. While coincidence rather than prescience delivered the bill before my checking out, its bottom line could not be ignored before my imminent departure.

The Oracle was not sympathetic. “You must pay now” became her patented response to each sour face I threw up in opposition to parting with such a hard earned sum.

Pouting to the Oracle would get me no where, but another foreigner waiting in the Oracle’s on-deck chair offered advice of his own. A Japan veteran, the Ph.D. student gently interrupted to explain how changes in tax laws had hit everyone hard. Residence tax in particular had skyrocketed. He knew of people who owed double or triple what they had paid last year.

“But I didn’t pay anything last year!” I cried.

“That’s because your first year in Japan is free,” he said. I was getting nailed for my second year just days before I left for good. He understood the temptation. From the corner of his mouth he insinuated for me to drag out the installments for as long as possible, and to leave without saying good-bye, especially not to anyone official. The Oracle observed the exchange while brooding from her seat.

To pay or not to pay wasn’t the question. It was a matter of how much. Posts from online forums steered wannabe evaders to pay just enough to keep names off the top of the delinquent pile on the tax collector’s desk. I wrestled with how much was just enough. One installment? Two? Or get installments further subdivided and pay even less before slipping away.

I couldn’t block out the Oracle’s uncompromising tone ringing in my ears: “You must pay…you must pay NOW!”

A whispering voice on my other shoulder countered, “Drag it out for as looooong as pooossible.”

Battle lines were drawn in a fight for my morality. Rules were rules, but the Oracle’s do-right demands were hollow; if I wasn’t renewing my visa to stay longer, there was no mechanism to force my compliance before jetting off for good. In the unlikely event that immigration asked for proof of payment, I might be detained until I cleared my name. According to the online community, the specter of such a scenario was about as remote as locusts descending upon the concrete of Tokyo.

Here at the end of my Japan adventures, however, I felt a moral imperative to do right. After all, hadn’t I broken enough laws in this honesty first, by-the-book country? The number of smiling lies I fed to immigration about my intentions for visiting. The three months I taught on a tourist visa. The mega amounts of prescription drugs I smuggled in my luggage to avoid headaches from customs and monthly shipping charges from overseas. To make up for the past, my conscious was guilting me into full compliance.

A few days later I decided to pay the Oracle another visit. A smile of recognition gave way to an eye of suspicion.

I confessed immediately. “I already paid one installment!” It was due before I left, so paying that one was never in question.

I already knew the Oracle’s stance on the rest. Yet I was here for a different issue – getting a refund for payments I made into the national pension scheme. I showed her an assortment of confusing paperwork. One small slip of paper caught her attention. It was an earnings and tax statement from the current year. The Oracle revealed that if I was leaving, I might qualify for an income tax refund, but only the national tax office could tell me for sure. This building housed, among other departments, the tax office for Shinjuku ward where my residence tax would be collected.

A pension and income tax refund would help offset losses from the remaining installments of residence tax. I would be doing everything by the book while reducing the blow to the balance in my bank account.

Just then, the Oracle had a second thought. Storm clouds massed outside.

“But maybe you must owe more taxes,” she warned. “I don’t know.”

Thunder crackled. Lighting flashed. It rained locusts. The thought of voluntarily walking into the income tax office and coughing up more money made me choke, but the Oracle had spoken. I would heed.

She pulled out a map made illegible from countless reproductions, and circled my meeting place with Tokyo’s taxation tribunal. Twenty minutes later I reached their office, and it began to pour.

To be continued….

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Below is a published recap of a day trip I took with Jen back in January.

To view the Ashikaga photo set, click here.