Japanese paperwork: frustration or opportunity?

I sipped on my canned coffee—Kirin’s Fire Blend—and looked at the clock through the glass doors. 8.57 a.m. Three more minutes until the doors opened and I could get into the warmth of the Nakamachidai Community Centre.

I pulled out my phone and re-checked the website to reassure myself that the room we wanted—the biggest one—was indeed available to book for our Christmas party. A lady came round the corner to wait with me. I greeted her with a smile, hoping I was covering my feeling of slight concern.

“Please let her not be after the same room,” I prayed.

The doors opened as the clock chimed for nine, and we both walked to the counter to book our rooms.

It still confused me that in a country like Japan—with bullet trains and automatic toilet seats—in order to book a room for the community centre you needed to go in person to fill out a paper form. Every. Single. Time. It didn’t matter if we were booking the same room, for the same time slot, for the same regular event. You could check online to see which rooms were available, and you could provisionally book rooms over the phone. But to make it official you had to go in person and fill out, from scratch, the exact same form.

Changing a booking meant filling out a whole new form. Making a mistake whilst filing out a form required the use of our hanko, official stamp, (because obviously you can’t just throw the form in the bin: it had to be stamped as incorrect and then stored for . . . reasons?). And because we only had one hanko, writing the wrong date could lead to a game of, “Who has the church hanko? And can you come to the community centre?”

There were a lot of groups using the community centres, and so they had pretty strict rules for room bookings. We were only allowed to have two bookings at any one time and were not only allowed to book more than a month in advance. Given how weeks and months overlap, this created a bit of an administrative nightmare for us. Even alternating our church meetings between two local community centres, we couldn’t always guarantee getting a free room.

And trying to secure a room often meant getting to the centre for opening time exactly one month ahead. People who showed up in person were given priority over those who phoned in to book. And if more than one group sent a representative to book the same room? Well in that case—and I give you my word that this is true—they decided who got the room by a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.

I was therefore quite relieved when the lady who had come in with me was after a different room (my Rock-Paper-Scissors game is not, as the Japanese say, “strong”). It still didn’t detract from the tedium of having to make the 20-minute bike journey that wintery morning, but the greeting of the centre staff did.

The lady behind the counter saw me and shouted in informal Japanese: “Levi! Long time no see! How are you? Did something happen?” I started to explain that the church now rented a room elsewhere when another staff member came from behind the partition. “Hey! I thought it was you. How’s it going? I guess you’re busy with prep for Christmas?”

I said that, yeah, it was a bit busy and that’s why I was here. We were hoping to book a room for our Christmas party. They confirmed if the room was available, then gave me the booking form to fill in. I sat at the counter to fill it in but they started to question me about our Christmas party.

“So what will you have in your party? Are you going to dress up as Santa again? Do you want us to put up a poster for it?”

The final question stunned me.

“A poster?” I repeated, like I was practising my pronunciation. “I thought you weren’t allowed to advertise for religious events in the centre?”

I had been told this quite firmly when I had first started booking events at the centre over a year earlier and had asked, with first-term missionary enthusiasm, about putting up a poster for an Easter event.

“We know you are a Christian group, and that’s OK. You can use the rooms. But religious groups are not allowed to promote their groups within the centre. And also no handing out flyers just outside the centre, please.” The Japanese was formal and polite, but the tone was firm and felt a little bit cold.

But over the following year and a half I had been back to book a couple of times a month. And over time I went from viewing the booking procedure as a frustration to be got out of the way, to seeing it as an opportunity to get to know the community centre staff.

I would hang around after handing in the form and chat to them. I got a card for the library and asked them for book recommendations. I asked if there was any way that our church group could help them, and they suggested we start a Mums and Tots group with stories and songs in English and Japanese. I agreed to dress up as Santa for their Christmas party. They convinced me to take part in the centre’s annual karaoke contest (I came in last place by a significant margin). After a while I would just pop in to say hi, if I was in the area.

Let me clarify that this was not a one-man mission. As a group we shared the room booking responsibility—mostly because it was such a time-consuming nuisance—and together we got to know the staff.

We hadn’t changed anything about who we were as a church group, or what sort of events we did. But now the staff had not only dropped the formal Japanese but were offering to put up posters to advertise our Christmas party.

I felt I should make clear that it was not just going to be games and music, but that we would have a talk about the meaning of Christmas.

“That sounds fine to me. Let me just check with the head of the centre.” She popped round the corner and after a couple of minutes came back with the centre head. “Ah, Levi! A party eh? Sounds like fun! Posters are fine. But send a PDF to me. We’ll print them here: don’t want you wasting money!”

As I cycled home, I reflected on how our relationship with the community centre staff had changed over the previous eighteen months. If it was possible to book online, we would have certainly saved a lot of time, but now I could see how all that time we had “wasted” filling out the same paper form thirty times was actually time we had spent slowly, almost imperceptibly, building trust with the community centre staff.

I am still bemused and often annoyed by the need to fill out paper forms in Japan, especially the repeated ones. But I am learning to see them as ministry opportunities, not just administrative annoyances. The frustration of Japan’s paper-based systems is real, but so are the friendships we can make through them.


Photo by Karen Ellrick

Levi Booth (UK) works in Kanto with OMF, making disciples of Jesus through sports, especially Ultimate Frisbee. He reads a lot, writes a little, and also enjoys baking, trekking, good coffee, and bad action movies.

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