[Gross generalization alert] There are three things the Japanese excel at: paperwork, meetings and forming lines.
Japanese children are taught from a very young age how to stand in line. Lisa tells me how when she was in kindergarten her teachers taught the children to touch their fingers to the shoulders of the person standing in front of them in order to form the straightest human centipede you ever did see.
As a foreigner who is still a little shaky navigating the transportation system, this line forming aptitude is much appreciated. Very little time is spent milling around in crowds.
Second, Japanese businessmen are notorious for their efficient meetings. They start on time. They end on time. They follow the agenda to a T. All agreements and approvals are actually made prior to the meeting, so there is no need for discussion. They are as slick as a block of feta cheese.
Finally, paperwork. Jesus Christ do the Japanese love paperwork. They need a paper trail for everything. Recently, Lisa had her watch band fixed at Dior in Shinjuku. She stopped by to drop it off a couple of weeks ago. There were a few phone calls between her and the shop to discuss the details, then another phone call to confirm it was ready. When we arrived at the store to pick it up, the clerk had an individual document recording each transaction. Not just the receipt documenting the initial drop off, but a document, stamped and signed, recording every single phone call that was made regarding a watch band.
That being said, when it comes to filing paperwork and handling documents, these guys are freakin’ pros.
Today, I turned in my tax return at the tax office. I want to make this helpful for other foreigners living in Japan, so I will provide the step by step procedure along with some links that might be of assistance.
First of all, I was stunned by how easy it was to file my tax return here in Japan. Full disclosure: I have never done my own taxes. My mother is an accountant and she always did them for me. I refuse to feel ashamed.
This year, Mom regretfully discontinued her services as my accountant. Figuring out my taxes in New Jersey/Pennsylvania was one thing. Learning the Japanese accounting system was out of her pay scale.
It was time I took this responsibility upon myself anyhow.
Successfully completing the process on my own required luck, a little bit of research (mostly google) and a whole lot more luck.
First of all, if you work full-time, you don’t need to file taxes in Japan. Your company deducts the correct amount of taxes from your paycheck every month and everything is fine and dandy.
However, since I only lived in Japan for half of 2012 and I barely made any money, I am in line for a substantial refund. The only reason you need to file a tax return in Japan is if you are getting a refund or if you need to pay taxes on income on which taxes were not deducted. [Gross generalization alert]
So anyway, as I said, the Japanese love paperwork. The first requirement of filing your tax return is you need to provide the original copy of every single pay stub you received.
Now, my filing system can be described as haphazard as best. Akin to Vince Vaughn’s quagmire in Dodgeball. And back in America, I didn’t have to keep my pay stubs. Some of them ended up in the “important document drawer” of my desk, while some stayed in my briefcase. Most ended up in the garbage and a couple found their way to the floor of the car.
As soon as I found out that I needed every single pay stub here in Japan (about six months too late), my initial reaction was “oh shit.”
This is where Lady Luck would interject for the first time. As I rummaged through my “important document drawer” and my briefcase, I was able to locate every single pay stub from 2012. As a bonus, I found my Shiharai Chosho form. This is the same thing as a W2 form, and my employer had slipped it in with my January paycheck.
Hallelujah! Somehow I had all of the documents I needed to file my taxes.
Thankfully my employer’s website provided a couple of links to documents that provided directions in English about how to file taxes. Here is a pdf of the exact instructions: Japan Tax Guide. What I found most useful were the copies of the tax return documents themselves.
Secondly, I discovered the Gaijin Tax website. This website, though a bit outdated, offered amazingly easy instructions, in English, about how to fill out your taxes in Japan.
Of course, I still had a little trouble tabulating my return. Somehow I calculated that the Japanese government owed me nearly $4,000. This didn’t quite compute, being that I only paid $700 in taxes the whole year.
So after eliminating one deduction too many and filling out a rough draft, I was confident enough to finally trek to the tax office.
[Advice for those of you actually following my directions: you can find the address for your tax office in the city guide book you received when you got your alien i.d. card.]
I went to the tax office on March 12. Taxes are due by March 15. It took 20 minutes to travel to my tax office. I arrived at 4 p.m.
There were only a few people inside. Two people were seated, looking like they were waiting their turn for something. There were three lines. Two were empty. One line had three people. There were two people standing at a table writing feverishly on forms.
Every sign was written in Japanese. There was not a word of English anywhere. The workers stared blankly. They seemed to be purposely avoiding my gaze.
There were filing cabinets lining the wall with different labels on every drawer. I located a drawer that matched the tax form I had brought with me. I found the correct document and began copying down the information. Writing my name and address and work and bank information in pen. When it came to the tax calculations, I wrote in pencil and only filled it in half way.
Then I got in line. As is the general rule of thumb in Japan, always get in the line with the most people. That is more than likely the line you need.
So that’s what I did. I got in the line that had three people. Within a few minutes, it was my turn.
The guy clearly didn’t speak English. I handed him my ‘W2’, my pay stubs and my tax form. He quickly stapled my work documents together and began to process my tax form. Then he stopped. He looked at me.
He pointed at my tax form, and he said, basically, “This needs to be written in pen.”
“Hai” I said. “Yes.”
Then he noticed that is was only filled in halfway. Apparently this was the line for tax forms that were completely filled out.
Now usually, Japanese workers are sticklers for the rules. They don’t bend them. If the tax form is supposed to be filled out, you need to return to the writing station and finish filling it out and get back in line.
However, I have found that the bumbling foreigner bit has gotten me by on a few occasions. You stand there, pretending not to understand Japanese, giving the big doe eyes. The worker, too embarrassed to chastise you, goes ahead and fills out the paperwork for you.
That’s what happened at the tax office. As it turned out, while I was at the counter, the line behind me had formed 10 people deep. The clerk, rather than taking the time to show me what to do, filled out the remainder of my document in 10 seconds, filed my paperwork, and voila, I was done.
It took less than five minutes to file my taxes. And it was free, I might add.
Next year I might have the same guy do my taxes for me. Sorry Mom.