Entering Japan

Once a year I go back to the United Kingdom, which means that once a year I come back to Japan and have to go through customs and immigration. It’s usually not too much of a problem – a couple of questions, these days a photograph and a fingerprinting and then I’m on my way. It wasn’t like that the first time though.

On that occasion, I had the misfortune to stand in the line manned by a customs officer with the annoying traits of having both atrocious English and a seemingly strong determination to prove it. He smiled and asked where my country was. I resisted the temptation to tell him it was still just above France, and said that I was British. Then he asked if I had any drugs. I thought that only a very poor smuggler would have been caught out by such a direct question, but I assured him I didn’t. He didn’t look convinced as he said, ‘No drug?’

‘No drugs,’ I confirmed.

‘Are you sure?’ he asked.

Again, I wondered, what sort of a person might have answered, ‘Well, no, I’m not sure, but I don’t think I’ve got any.’

‘I’m sure,’ I said. And then he took a small book from under his counter, and said, ‘Please.’ Maybe he had a target to reach and was desperate for me to admit I was carrying contraband.

He opened the book to a page with illustrations of pills and plants and said, ‘Please, you have these?’ as if expecting me to suddenly realize that why, yes, I did have some white powder that looked like that, and one of those pretty plants!

‘No,’ I said again.

He asked me to open my bag and he had a good rummage, taking out some photographs of my family and friends. He had a good look through them, and singling out one of a female friend asked, ‘Girlfriend?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘A friend.’

‘Do you like Japanese girls?’

I didn’t know how to answer. To say ‘yes’ would have him thinking I was some kind of sex tourist here to try my luck with the locals, and to say ‘no’ would have just looked rude. And a bit gay. In the end I laughed nervously and probably came across as a pervert giggling at the mere thought of Japanese girls.

‘Do you have porno?’ asked the man.

‘Sorry?’ I thought I’d heard him correctly, but customs officers are supposed to ask if you are carrying any ‘obscene publications’ or perhaps ‘some materials that could be deemed pornographic in nature’. This chap asked as if he was a friend hoping to borrow some.

‘No,’ I said.

‘Are you sure?’ he asked again and I rather hoped he had another book under his counter to help me understand fully what exactly he was looking for this time. He didn’t, though, and after another quick look through my case and flick through my photos he told me that my female friend was very pretty, and sent me on my way.


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6 Responses to Entering Japan

  1. Hugh says:

    My fiancée and I were returning to Japan from San Francisco where I’d bought her an engagement ring. We realised it was over the limit for a single item, and decided to declare it, if only so that if it ever got lost or stolen, there would be no hassles with the insurance. The customs man looked at it, looked at us, and said “That’s an engagement ring, right?” We agreed, he thought for a moment, and said, “OK, half each. You’re under the limit. Off you go.”

    • sendaiben says:

      Wow, that is awful. I have re-entered Japan about twenty times, and while I have issues with the fingerprinting and photos (I think it’s stupid when applied to tourists, so how much more so for permanent residents), I have never had a problem with the customs officials.

      At most I get two or three questions:

      “Do you speak Japanese?”
      “Where did you go?”
      “What were you doing there?”

      in a disinterested way. I think if I met your aspiring linguist I may have resorted to sarcasm and pointed remarks!

      • Hugh says:

        The fingerprinting is nothing to do with terrorism. It’s to stop people who’ve been thrown out for overstaying their visas from re-entering. If it does anything to stop or limit human trafficking and the sex trade here, then I’m 100% in favour of it.

  2. Jeffrey says:

    I had a similar experience when coming back into Japan after a trip to Guam with my wife and in-laws, who were standing behind me in line! I couldn’t believe someone could be so unprofessional and plain stupid.

    Then the last year at shougatsu coming through Narita, after I told the agent where I was head he smiled as it turned out he was from my wife’s home town.

  3. HAHA! I thought I had it bad when I was asked, “Why no omiyage?” I felt like such a selfish brute….But your experience wins hands down!!

  4. jaydeejapan says:

    I had an interesting time the first time I re-entered Japan after a trip back to Canada. I had some shampoo in my suitcase, and the customs agent wanted to check inside my suitcase. When I opened it, it turned out that the shampoo bottle had opened, and some of it had come out on my jeans. He then offered to help me wipe up some of the shampoo. I was very surprised. Another agent came over to see what he was doing, thinking that he had found something. He was just helping me clean up some spilled shampoo. Nice guy!

    Ever since, I haven’t really been asked anything other than what I do in Japan.

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