Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Getting It All Back

Every year, people feel annoyed at the prospect of having to deal with the tediousness of filing their income tax forms. There is one thing worse than filing your tax forms and that's having to do it twice. I already finished my U.S. taxes and sent the forms off a couple of weeks ago but this past weekend my husband had to head off to the local tax office and file my Japanese taxes.

This is something I didn't have to do for many years because my company somehow took care of it. It wasn't until I stopped working that I had to do it myself for my freelance work.

In the U.S., people get several months to file their taxes but you only get one month in Japan (from February 15 to March 15). I'm guessing that might be one of the reasons why the local ward office's (wards are like little cities inside of Tokyo) offer a lot of assistance for free relative to the U.S. In our ward, my husband went to a place with about 12 tables seating 12-16 people each. There were about 15 "helpers" there who assisted people with their forms. The whole trip took him about an hour but he said most of that time was spent waiting for a helper to become available.

In general, the bureaucratic approach in Japan is a lot less mercenary than the U.S. It seems like they expect you to make mistakes even though their forms have a less complicated set of rules than the I.R.S. applies to their forms. I'm not certain but I don't think they have the same system of penalties that the U.S. has should you screw up. I think they'd just make you pay any extra tax if a mistake was found and possibly make you write a letter of apology.

In Japan, there is this "custom" of writing a letter of explanation and/or apology when you screw up official forms. My husband and I once forgot to go to the local government office within two weeks of getting our visas renewed. When we remembered about a month and a half too late, they just made us write out why we forgot and nothing more came of it. This is very fitting with the Japanese character. They don't want people to make mistakes but they don't necessarily want to penalize you strongly for having made them.

This relative flexibility has both drawbacks and benefits. In one way, it's a reflection of compassion and tolerance of human fallibility. In another, it allows for a lot of "case by case" consideration where prejudice can be selectively applied when judging people's mistakes. Because of this, you can never be quite sure where you stand when such issues come up though there is generally a good chance that you will be treated in a lenient fashion in regards to issues which involve dotting "i's" and crossing "t's".

In my case, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I'd made little enough last year that I would be getting all my tax money back as I'd expected only to get 50% back. The thing that I'm really looking forward to though is my tax information setting my health insurance and city taxes to levels commensurate with my current income. Since both of these are always a year behind because you pay nothing at all the first year, I've been spending from 1/2 to 2/3 of my small income on these two expenses for the past year now and it's been disheartening. Supposedly, the recalculation will occur after they get my tax forms and I'm really looking forward to feeling like I'm making money for something more than paying last years insurance and tax debts.


Joanna said...

I have a question, do you have friends who are Japanese? Is it difficult to make friends in Japan? Do you have any English speaking friends? What do you guys do for entertainment outside the apartment?

Shari said...

Hi, Joanna, and thanks for your questions. They are good ones and many are points I had planned on addressing in future posts.

The answers in a nutshell are that we have both English and Japanese-speaking friends but not so many of either as we used to have due to the fact that we have stayed put and they have moved on. I have friends in the U.S., of course, but they don't tend to communicate as often as I'd like with a few (very valued) exceptions.

Also, I worked at the same company for 12 years with mainly a Japanese staff composed of salesmen (whose job it was to be out of the office) and one other foreigner (my former boss). My former boss and I are still friends and still in touch (as are a Japanese coworker and myself but far less so) but people who work and people who don't work have different availability, especially in Japan where there's a lot of overtime and my weekends are full of private lessons (and my husband works all day on weekends) whereas my boss has weekends off. We literally have no days off in common with our friends since we're on Weds.-Sun. working schedules and they're on Mon.-Fr. The only time we can get together (literally) is Japanese national holidays.

Aside from people you work with, it's hard to be "serious" (as opposed to casual) friends with Japanese people because the context in which you meet them is a service provider/service consumer one. You cannot tell who sincerely likes you and who wants free English practice in that situation. My husband and I have socialized with students but it's never been more than a surface thing and not really about "friendship".

These days, we don't do much for entertainment outside the house because I've got severe problems with my back which make it difficult to reliably travel any distance without the possibility of great pain. In Tokyo, where there is often nothing in the way of public benchs or spaces to rest and you're relying on public transportation and walking, it's hard to see any outside amusement as worth the cost.

When we were younger (I'm 42), we used to do a great deal of running around and that's something I'll eventually get around to writing about.One of the things we used to do (and were absolutely mad about) was go to sumo matches. The other was second-hand record shopping which took us all over the place for many years.

The main method of external socializing in Japan is drinking at Japanese bars (izakayas) followed by karaoke in many cases. This is something which has left my husband and I out of the loop to some extent because I don't drink at all and he drinks very, very little. Neither of us enjoys singing.

As for your question about making friends, it's generally quite easy as most Japanese people are quite friendly and you tend to meet a lot of people at conversation schools. However, Japanese people expect different things out of friendships than foreigners so the friendships take on a different shape. This is a touchy issue which I plan to cover at some point.

Thanks again for your comment! If you have any other questions, feel free to ask.