The series of events that found me dripping wet on the doorstep of my bank were decidedly Japanese.
It began with a housing allowance.
Providing your monthly rent is over a particularly minimal 12,000 yen (~ $120) a month, employees at my university are eligible for a subsidy to off-set their living expenses. I had claimed this for the last two years, but this year … I balked.
The problem was that to submit the annual claim form, you had to prove how much you were paying in rent. If your rent is withdrawn automatically from your bank account, the only accepted proof is a copy of your monthly statement. Since I had to give this first to my head of group (who handled my Japanese paperwork) and then to the financial office, this was rather invasive.
Look, it's not like there was anything truly exciting on my statement, but isn't exactly information I pin up on Facebook.
So I decided not to claim and just said no.
It turns out, one doesn't `just say no' in Japan.
This week I received an email from the international support office who had been contacted by their financial counterparts to ask why I had not completed a housing allowance form for this year. I replied, explaining my reasons and requesting that they just chalk this one up to 'cultural sensitivities' or downright contrariness.
Apparently, there was no box for that.
So upsetting was this dilemma that I was begged to reconsider, in those exact words. In a land of extremely strange bureaucracy, there are battles worth fighting and ones that are not. This was in the latter category. After all, they were trying to give me money; it's difficult to be passionately against that.
It also turned out to be extremely lucky, because I was about to become ineligible for the housing benefit.
Because I wasn't paying my rent.
When I grudgingly logged on to my bank website I saw that my October rent had not been deducted from my account. A swift assessment of the recent national holidays confirmed this wasn't just late, but had problematically not occurred.
… At least, I suspected it would be problematic once my rental agency confirmed I was free-loading.
My initial housing contract had been for two years, after which the lease was renewed automatically on a month-by-month basis. However, the direct debit from my bank account was not. While I was deeply relieved to have spotted this the month I defected on the first payment, rather then when a hoard of ninjas turned up at my door[*], it did require a trip to my bank.
As a rule of thumb, no one involved enjoys these.
Since all I needed to do was restart a lapsed monthly transaction, I had this dream my bank visit would be brief. However, 15 minutes in and my request had blown the mind of my bank teller so completely he was unable to use any more English. I was cold, wet, despairing of humanity and had promptly stopped attempting any Japanese. Our stalemate was broken by another bank employee, who led my teller away to a quiet room and made me sit in the corner and think about what I had done.
(OK, he didn't phrase it in those exact words but that was the message)
The issue was that the renewed monthly payment counted as a new transaction, requiring a fresh form. I was perfectly willing to complete this, but I had not got the bank account details of my rental company to hand. I had gone in with this crazy notion that --since the bank had been paying the rental company for 2 years straight-- they would be able to lift these details from their records.
Do you know what kind of idea that is?
A crazy one.
Admittedly, I could have returned home and dug through my files to locate the required numbers, but with the bank hours being only from 10 - 3 pm during the week, this was a considerable inconvenience. Moreover, I'd paid a one-off sum for my October rent the previous afternoon over the phone so I KNEW THEY HAD THOSE NUMBERS.
It was around this point I stopped understanding any Japanese to avoid insinuations I should take a form and leave.
Mercifully, a few minutes later someone new and shiny was put on the case. She fixed the transaction in minutes and retained her powers of speech. I have no idea if my request was genuinely simple or if my new teller did 6 illegal things after hearing dangerous rumours that I was the kind of crazy to turn down a housing allowance.
At the end of the transaction, she passed me a copy of my completed form. I promised to keep it for next time. We both looked at the date the transaction expired: it was set for five years in the future. I could practically hear every bank employee deciding on a new line of work within that time.
It was the moment to leave and find something suggestive to add to my bank statement.
[*] Why yes, that is exactly how I thought this would go down