Home > Focus on Japan 2005 > Japan, 1985, Fall

Japan, 1985, Fall

September 30th, 2005

In a recent post I told about my summer trip to Japan twenty years ago. Here is the next part of the story.

I came back home from the 6-week trip to Japan in late August of 1985, with an acceptance letter in hand from U.C. Berkeley to get my B.A. degree, and from there, who knows where I would have gone. I was to start at Berkeley in January, and so started to look for housing, hopefully international housing so I could have some Japanese housemates and we could have language exchange. That was the general idea. At least until I got the phone call.

The phone call came from Toyama, Japan, where I had stayed for a week or so, “teaching” some classes at the YMCA in exchange for a homestay and the countryside experience. The phone call was from the YMCA. One of their teachers was leaving, They wanted to know if I could come and work for them. In less than ten days.

I was wholly unprepared. I was setting up to move to the East Bay, not the the Far East. I was being asked to wrap up my whole life and move to a completely new and foreign one, in just over one week’s time. To take on a job as a teacher, for which I had no training or experience. One might wonder why they asked me to do the job in the first place, and the answer, as I was to find out later, was that it was extremely difficult for them to find anyone willing to live and work that far out away from the central areas of Japan, for the paltry paycheck they were offering.

But I was ready to make my decision. I figured that life experience overseas was the trump card–to live and work in Japan, in the culture and with the language I had been studying for more than two years so far, that seemed like a good decision. Before going on and getting my Bachelor’s degree in Japanese, why not pack some real experience under my belt first? So I made up my mind to go.

I sent a letter off to U.C. Berkeley explaining why I was not going to attend. I informed the YMCA that I would take the job. And they express-mailed to me the documents I would need. And at the same time, I packed up my life–stored what I could of my possessions in my parents’ garage, got the gear I felt I would need for my trip, and got ready to go.

But it is never just as simple as that.

The YMCA mailed the visa documents to me and explained what I would have to do. They told me I would have to go to Korea first, and while there, drop off my work visa application at the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Then I would go to Japan and wait for the visa to come through, go back to Korea, pick up the visa, and then go back to Japan and get to work. So I bought a ticket via Korean air, one which would constitute a 24-hour-plus flight: San Francisco to Los Angeles, with a two-hour layover; Los Angeles to Anchorage, with a two-to-three-hour layover; Anchorage to Seoul, with a six-to-seven-hour layover (during which I foolishly imagined I would be able to get to the Japanese embassy to make the application and then get back to the airport–I was not aware this was impossible); and then Seoul to Tokyo, from where I would board a train to Toyama. All seemed set.

Little did I know that the Toyama YMCA had absolutely no idea in the world what they were doing, or what they were setting me out to do.

I was scheduled to fly out in the morning on Monday, the 7th of October, 1985, to arrive in Tokyo on the 8th. On Friday, the 4th, I decided on a lark to drive up to San Francisco and check out the Japan Center to see if the Kinokuniya Bookstore there had anything I might want to get first. While there, completely on a whim, since I saw the signs showing the way to the consulate, I decided to drop by and confirm that my visa plans were solid. Boy, was that a good move.

You see, it turns out the plans were completely wrong. The YMCA had led me astray, and had I not checked in with the consulate, I would have been out of a job, out more than a thousand dollars in airline tickets, maybe even my life savings in a futile long stay in Seoul, and I would not have been able to get back in to U.C. Berkeley. In short, I would have been screwed, royally. Because when I checked with the consulate, they told me that there was no way the YMCA’s plan would work. I would need to stay in Korea while the visa was processed, which could take months. And that would most definitely not have worked.

I found this out on Friday, at about eleven a.m., with my non-refundable one-way ticket to Japan set to take me out Monday morning. Upon first discovering this, it seemed that I was indeed screwed in the regal sense.

But then the consulate people, obviously taking pity upon me, told me that while there were no guarantees, maybe they could do something. I don’t know if it was the reputation of the YMCA or my panicked 21-year-old puppy-dog eyes, but they said to get the basic materials I needed to apply for a visa and bring them back to the consulate as soon as possible.

Now, remember, I was in San Francisco, near downtown. My house was in the south peninsula, near Palo Alto, a good 45 minutes’ drive in good traffic, each way. I needed the papers from the YMCA, my passport, passport photos, and my college diploma. Diploma? I asked them, and they said, yes, you need a bachelor’s degree for a work visa. Um, I don’t have one, I replied. What do you have? they asked. I studied at community college for more than two years, I replied. Then bring your A.A. degree, they said. Um, I don’t have one, I replied. A few courses short on that. Well, they answered, get your transcripts of what you do have and show them to us.

So off I went, knowing that the consulate closed late but not late enough that afternoon. I must have gone I-don’t-know-how-many miles per hour, it felt like warp ten, down highway 280, all the way to Los Altos Hills, to get to my college and wait in line to get my transcript printed and sealed. Then up to Stanford Shopping Center to get some passport photos taken. Then home to get the papers the YMCA had sent me to use in Korea, with my passport of course. Then back up 280 to Japan Center to the consulate. I may have broken several laws of physics to get there in the time I did, for somehow, I got back up there by maybe 1:30 pm, and handed them what I had. They took the sheaf and told me to come back by 4:00.

Boy, do I owe those guys one, wherever they are now. I came back at 4:00, and sure enough, they handed me back my passport with a one-year work visa. I didn’t need to go to Japan via Korea, but the ticket was non-refundable, so I went that way anyway. And I was grateful. Had the S.F. consulate people not taken pity on me, all would have been lost. Even if I had decided to sweat out two or three months in Seoul and had the Toyama YMCA been willing to wait, the embassy there probably would have turned me down because I didn’t have the proper degree. By chance, I had stumbled coincidentally into the only way I could have ever gotten to work in Japan, not having the prerequisites to do so officially. To this day, I do not know what the people at the Toyama YMCA were thinking. They were not thinking enough, that much is for certain.

So I landed in Tokyo and got my visa stamped on Tuesday, October 8th, 1985. But not before my 24-hour-plus flight, on which something else quite memorable happened. Which will be the topic of part three of this story, coming soon.

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  1. ykw
    September 30th, 2005 at 05:46 | #1

    In retrospect, was the decision to go to Japan instead ucb a good one?

  2. September 30th, 2005 at 07:20 | #2

    Holy s**t! Isn’t that crazy how the “well, let me just check this out…” moments are so often life changing events. How jacked would you be if you didn’t got to the consulate that day. Makes my nuts hurt just thinking of that…

  3. Luis
    September 30th, 2005 at 08:49 | #3

    YKW: With all the variables involved, who could possibly know?

    Rotch: You’re telling me! Talk about dumb luck…

  4. Brad
    September 30th, 2005 at 15:06 | #4

    Very interesting reading! Amazing how some people (YMCA in this case) will cheerfully assert that they ‘know’ something, even if they don’t, even if it might mean ruining another person’s life. If you don’t know you don’t know. I hope you gave them a serve when you finally got there.

  5. Luis
    September 30th, 2005 at 18:36 | #5

    Brad: I’ll tell more in the next post, but the way things worked out, I could only be quite annoyed. Maybe that was a bad move, considering their basic treatement of me over the yaer and a half that I worked for them.

  6. Troy
    September 26th, 2012 at 15:23 | #6

    great story getting the 1 yr visa in a couple of hours!

    nice when official people cut some slack for us

    I’ve had slack cut for me more than once, though I’ve probably run through my allotment. . .

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