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Saturday, Sept. 29, 2007


The curse of the middle name

When I was new to this country, I had regular "episodes of misunderstanding" about Japanese life. Episodes that taught me that Western thinking and Japanese thinking did not, could not, would not match. Episodes that always left me muttering that I had been in Japan too long, even though I had just arrived.

I haven't had such an episode for many years now, and perhaps that means the same thing: I have been here too long.

Yet, the other day I had a lulu.

As I have done many times for the past several years — ever since my older son decided to become a professional student — I walked to my local post office to wire him finances. As a veteran, I came prepared: I had my personal stamp. I had copies of the last many times I had wired money. I had my postal savings passbook. I had my alien registration, my passport, and my driver's license. All this because I always feared something would go wrong.

But I had had no difficulties whatsoever in numerous tries. Which meant the post office was due.

I knew this the second I greeted the clerk in Japanese and he answered me in English. A bad sign. We were not going to communicate.

I told him I wanted to wire money to the States. I had the necessary form already filled out. He accepted this and began to peruse it carefully, licking his chops like a wolf before a lamb.

And then — I knew it! — he sucked his teeth.

My American bank did not have a street address, he said. It was impossible to send the money.

Oh really? I displayed copies of my last many transactions. My hometown is too small for street addresses, I explained. It's almost too small for streets. The bank name and routing number were all I needed, trust me.

He shuffled through the copies. "Who could have OK'd these!?" he asked.

I pointed to his superior sitting 3 meters away and he dropped the topic. Only to soon suck his teeth again. "Why?" he wanted to know, "If the money will end up with your son, have you written 'Living Expense' as purpose? It will not be YOUR living expense."

Again I said that was what his superior had instructed me to write.

Now he shuffled back to his boss. The two huddled for a hushed conversation and then the clerk returned, beaming as if he had just saved the banking business from collapse.

"You must write 'SON's living expense' or it is unacceptable!"

So I did and he went ahead with the transaction, taking both my passbook and alien registration. Only to stop cold.

The names on my passbook and alien registration where different! He almost screeched this.

I explained the A.R. contained my middle name but my passbook did not. My postal account dates to the 1980s and I had never entered my middle name.

He handed everything back and apologized that he could not make the transaction.

"Now wait," I said. "It's my money. You have photo I.D. I have also done this dozens of times. Your boss sitting behind you has waited on me personally. I have the copies with me. Besides, no other foreigner ever comes in here. You all know who I am."

The man bowed. He apologized again. And said it was impossible. New laws had made sending money more difficult. The government wished to tighten down because of North Korea.

I told him to look at me. I was not North Korean. And my son in the States was a Japanese citizen. Plus, how would North Korea use this money? The amount was enough to buy peanuts, not plutonium.

"I am so sorry," he said.

I was deciding whether to stomp out, or to first close my account and then stomp out, when he added:

"You have only two possible options. You can either legally change your name to match your passbook."

"WHAT!?" I reached for his neck.

"Or you can create a new passbook. It takes about five minutes."

"All right. That's what I'll do. But can I strangle you first?"

He didn't answer. Ten minutes later I went home with my money sent and a brand new passbook, along with some small gratification that I had somehow triumphed over Japanese bureaucracy.

Or so I thought

In the next month I was contacted by every Japanese creditor I had, all bellowing for payment. Why?

Because now my passbook name was not the same as their billing data. The post office would not release my funds. I had to contact each creditor and change my name on their endless forms.

So I had been here too long. At least under my shortened name.

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