02 May 2011

The Tax Man

The letter was sitting on the coffee table when I got home from work. I plonked myself on the couch and scooped it up. Slowly moving my eyes over the characters, I was able to make out my name, and that it had come from the offices of the City of Osaka. This could only mean one thing: that they wanted money from me, and lots of it.

Every year the good people of the City send out their city resident taxes, a charge based on your previous year's income. For me, this means a couple of hundred thousand or so of my hard-earned yen will vanish from my wallet, in my choice of one whole payment or four bi-monthly installments. It's a cruel ex post facto system: receiving money for your hard work that you can hold, smell, and stroke, easily falling under the impression that it's actually yours to have and to spend, only to have it ripped from your grasp several months down the track by the tax man. Sure, I understand how it all works and know what the letters are when they arrive in my mailbox, but I have still not yet trained myself to anticipate them; they never cease to catch me off guard each year. The whole process seems akin to placing a toy in a child's hands, letting them play with it for a while, then whisking it away, never to be seen again. And just like the child in said scenario, upon opening these letters I would bawl. Each and every time. An inhumane trick still cuts deep no matter how often it's played.

Just for once I wished the city would contact me with something positive; something beneficial to me. Why did they always have to be so mean? Why did they always have to take take take? Why couldn't I ever peel back the seal to reveal a simple note saying:

Dear McMahon Jeremy, we at the City of Osaka would just like to say a big "hello!" and "we hope you are well". We truly value your presence in our city and thank you for choosing us over that egotistical Tokyo. Or

Dear McMahon Jeremy, as part of our gratitude for your consistent payment of taxes on time, we would like you to accept this voucher for a complimentary full-course dinner for two at the Hilton Hotel. Or

Dear McMahon Jeremy, we wish to inform you of an unfortunate error in our records. We regret that we have greatly overcharged you in previous years and we would like to return this money to you promptly. Please find enclosed a cheque for ¥500,000. This is something they would never do in Tokyo...

But no. As I tore off the end of the envelope and unfolded the letter I saw that, yet again, I would be putting on hold those home furnishings I had forever been saving up for, and instead handing over the money to some disgruntled teen behind the counter of the nearest convenience store. However, there apeared to be something strange about this particular payment. Despite being large, it didn't come in a booklet form that allowed four easy payments. They were requesting one whole payment. And... they wanted it in four days time! Something was definitely skewiff here; this didn't seem like my usual city taxes.

I scanned over the letter for clues, the kanji characters floating off the page and passing through my eyes into my skull, my brain instantly rejecting them and ricocheting them back out into the atmosphere. I really ought to study more. Eventually I located a couple of familiar characters, and as soon as I had processed them I hoped to hell I had read them incorrectly. The taxes were from Minato Ward, a section of the city where I used to live up until late last year, and they were dated from 2006. Four years ago?! They were billing me for taxes from four years ago? This didn't make any sense.

According to the bill the taxes had been gradually accruing interest charges over the years and had now increased by 50% on the original amount. My failure to pay the bill had caused the amount to mutate, fester and feed off itself so that it now resembled a behemoth destroying everything in its path, unable to be taken down by the careful aiming of a single open wallet. But I had never ever come across this bill before in my life. It had to be the first time they had sent it to me. How on earth was I supposed to pay something that I didn't know existed?

I clicked. Of course, 2006 was the year that I had been away from Japan for eight whole months. There were multiple reasons for this, the foremost being that my father had been struck with illness and I had wanted to spend time with my family again. I had also grown fed up with my teaching job and needed a little break from Japanese life. But now it made sense - whilst I was away they must have sent me my taxes sometime in the middle of the year. I never received them, and when I returned I had a new address, albeit in the same ward. So wait, if I had returned to the same ward and registered my new address with them, why hadn't they just sent me a follow-up bill, stating what I had owed in my absence? I could have received the bill, been made aware of something I would certainly not have thought about otherwise, and paid it off. Oh my god, they held this information from me for nearly four years, only making it known once I had moved to the other side of town, all the while letting the interest grow so that they could collect more money from me! The savages!

A foreigner in Japan often likes to jump to the conclusion that the country is out to get them. We regularly feel that people deliberately discriminate against us and aim to make our lives here complicated and perplexing, enough that we'll eventually crack and just pack up our bags and leave. That waiter in Sukiya pretended not to see me nor hear my many cries of "sumimasen!", choosing instead to serve those salarymen who came in after me! That policeman purposely left that old unlocked bicycle sitting on the street on my walk home and then hid around the corner, knowing that he could pull me over riding away on it and lock me up for the night! I felt that way now. How dare they try this on! Who did they think they were, aspiring to get away with such thievishness? I would pay them a visit and get this matter sorted out.

On the train to Bentencho a few days later, I played out the confrontation in my head. I would walk in and feign any understanding of Japanese, asking if anybody there spoke English. A reluctant gentleman would be pushed forward by his colleagues and I would slowly and carefully explain my situation to him. He would understand that, yes, this poor guy had been hard done by, and would ask me if I wouldn't mind just paying the original amount owing, free of the interest charge. I would say sure, sulking a little internally at having to pay anything at all but all the same thankful that it wasn't any larger. We would part ways with a bow and smile and I would stroll back into the sunshine and grab some lunch at a swish little restaurant somewhere nearby, paying for it with a thousand yen note that happened to blow across my path along the way. A fine day all up.

But as the train rolled into Bentencho station I remembered that they didn't have swish little restaurants. I used to live here after all. I was also well aware that the area reeked of ominousness, from the absence of restaurants and shops and greenery, to the presence of factories and noisy motorbikes and old ladies scooping discarded noodles from garbage bins. My confidence wilted with my first step onto the street. Not only was it overcast, if the sun had've been out it would've been obscured by the lurching highways and train lines overhead, and the black smoke pouring out of the many trucks that thundered along the main road.

I took a deep breath of stale air and threw my shoulders back and my head high. I was going to get what I wanted, what was just. The tax office was just a short walk away and as I passed through the automatic doors I entered a cavernous space filled with an array of desks and cubicles stretching as far as the eye could see. People scurried about and clacked on keyboards and answered phones. I took the letter out of my pocket and began unfolding it as I approached the counter in front of me, where four pairs of male eyes peered up from behind computer monitors. I chose the greying guy directly in my path and as I proceeded forward he slowly rose from his chair and backed away from the desk a little fearfully. The other men, all similarly deeply entrenched in middle age, sidled up to him in a show of support, should I leap over the desk at any second, wielding a foreign language and heading straight for the jugular.

I asked if they spoke English, in English; my theory being that if I pretended I didn't understand what they were trying to explain to me they might give me what I want. A guy who knows the language well knows the rules well too, right? I wanted to plead ignorance of everything, except letters that found my mailbox. If the bills come, I pay 'em. If they don't, I don't know what the hell is going on. One of the men asked me in Japanese what I wanted and I repeated, "English. Do you speak English?" They broke into a confused panic, frantically looking this way and that, muttering to themselves and each other until finally one man asked me to wait and ran off into the deep recesses of the office. The others composed themselves and straightened their ties, and the first man motioned to the letter in my hand, asking me if I had come here wanting to pay that. "I have a question," I responded tentatively in Japanese, claiming that I didn't understand the language, carefully releasing each word with an unassuredness as to whether or not I was making any sense to them. A fine acting display.

A moment later they pushed through the reluctant winner of the "You Get To Speak English Whether You Like It Or Not, Because You Once Bragged About Having A TOEIC Score Of 600" competition. He was another middle-aged man, and as he strode up between the cubicles he took deep breaths, fixed his hair, and wore a smile that suggested a mixture of joy, fear, embarrassment, and customer service. We sat down at a desk and I slowly explained my situation to him. He vaguely understood, and managed to pull up some information about me on his computer. He explained what I already knew about the taxes being based on my income from my teaching job in 2005. He listened and took notes as I outlined my timeline, and scratched his head when he wasn't sure how to proceed. Through a little back and forth we determined that I had exited and re-entered the country on the same visa, and that I hadn't received any notice of my taxes because I was in Australia at the time. I still hadn't received anything until the other day, and now I was faced with an interest charge I didn't feel I should have to pay. He nodded in agreement. It was all going very well, I thought. He genuinely looked like he empathised with my situation, and was going to do all he could to help me. We would surely be smiling and bowing a few minutes from now, and I'd then head into a fresh burst of sunshine, stopping to bend over and pick up that lost money.

The man stood up. He told me that we needed to go up to the third floor. Ok sure, I thought. Let's go up to the third floor, they probably handle the money up there, and the computer that can print a new, reduced bill. I eagerly followed. The third floor looked just like the first floor: wide, deep, and buzzing with activity. It took the man a few minutes to get anybody's attention. Eventually he spoke to another gentleman, who asked us to take a seat on the couches near the entrance as he headed off in the opposite direction. As we sat, the English-speaking man turned to me. "Why you go back the Australia?" he asked. "Oh," I said. "Um, my father became sick. Cancer. Er... gan?" Again I pretended to possess just a smidge of Japanese vocabulary. As I said the word "gan" I looked at him with doleful eyes, and thought this play for compassion definitely wouldn't hurt my cause. The man nodded sympathetically.

After a minute or so the other gentleman reappeared and asked me to stand. He signalled for me to follow him and led me around the front counter and into the work area. We weaved through partitions and desks until he motioned for me to sit in a chair by a desk in the corner of the room. I sat myself down and placed the bill on the desk. This was great. Things were happening; we were going to get this situation resolved. I had stated my case, proven my innocence, and garnered their support. I could hear my English-speaking friend and the other man conversing behind me. My friend was relaying all that I had told him: about going back to Australia because my father was ill, and about never receiving any notification of any payment I was supposed to make once I had returned. I expected they would be slapping a revised bill on the desk in front of me any second now, asking me to pay the smaller amount and apologising for the inconvenience. Yep, slapping it right on the desk in front of me; the desk with numerous ink stains and bits of ply chipped off the corners. The desk with giant scratch marks running from the centre to the edge where I sat. The desk with giant scratch marks? What were they, were they from fingernails? What on earth had happened here previously? I slowly began to realise the oddity of having been sat down in a remote, poorly lit corner, away from all the other people. I hadn't picked up on this as I was being led here; my head had been swimming with the stress of the situation. And these scratches. Had there been a scuffle of some sort? Had someone been dragged away kicking and screaming to a side door, their pleas for mercy unheard over the ringing of phones and whirring of photocopiers? Oh fuck, was that blood spatter running up the wall alongside me? What was that? It was certainly a darkish reddish brown, and hardened. What happened here?

I attempted to spin around in my chair just as another man sat down next to me. I hadn't seen him prior till now, and his demeanour was most sober. He had jet black hair and a big nose that curled down over pursed puffy lips. He wore thin gold frames and a cheap suit with specks of dandruff on the shoulders. He leaned in and pointed to the total amount written on the bill on the desk in front of me. "You... must... pay," he said robotically and matter-of-factly. Ok, who was this guy? I pointed at the original amount and then the interest charge. "This is ok," I said. "I pay this. But this, no." He considered this for a moment and then stood up and walked away. He stepped around the nearest partition and began muttering with somebody else. I turned in my seat and glanced back into the office behind me. My English-speaking man was nowhere to be seen, and the other man was seated back at the front desk again, serving customers. They had palmed me off onto another person, and this new person was not in the possession of any English nor, it seemed, any understanding of the situation. How utterly vexatious. This mission had just taken a turn for the bad.

He reappeared from behind the partition and sat down again. I hoped his little aside had shed some light for him and he was coming back to make good. Again he placed his hand on the desk and rested his index finger under the total amount. He had ugly, stubby fingers, upon which were fastened minute nails that stopped well short of the tips. Did he ever have a need for clippers? I hated his fingers, and I hated him as the same words again dispensed from his bloated mouth, coated in deep monotone: "You... must... pay." Again I stipulated what I was and wasn't willing to pay. He placed a second piece of paper on the table. It was the timeline my English-speaking helper had written up downstairs. Had my helper deserted me, choosing to throw me to the wolves and go back downstairs to finish his coffee? Was he under the impression that he had left me in the care of good people who would help me out, or did he know that they were warming-up the "bad cop" segment of the interrogation? The fat sausage-fingered man proceeded to point out different times on the paper in an attempt to explain that I hadn't paid what was due four years ago, and therefore I had to pay the total amount here today. I threw my hands in the air and again pointed to the two amounts. "This, yes. This, no!"

He rose to his feet again and wandered off behind the partition. Once more I heard two voices quietly muttering their next tactical move. I wondered if it was time yet for the electric shocks. I was becoming very flustered and breathed deeply to regain my cool. I wiped my sweaty palms on the sides of my jeans, and contemplated my next move. Perhaps it was time to string together a little Japanese. I really wanted to just get up and walk out, but that would leave me still having to pay the full amount. What to do, what to do?

Mr. Barbecue Hands sat down again. I really despised this guy, to the pit of my stomach. He thought he was hot shit, appointing himself to take care of the rapscallion who had strolled in here thinking he could get away without paying his taxes. He was getting enormous satisfaction out of letting the foreigner know that this was not his place to make demands, and if he didn't like it he still had to pay or get out of the country; go back to America or whatever place he said he was from. I imagined him in his home, verbally abusing his wife in that monotone voice, ordering her to fetch him a beer and his dinner. I imagined his two kids running to hide in their rooms whenever he arrived home; distressed that their days had been ruined by the return of their heartless, soulless father, and vowing never to turn out like him in later life, this exponent of evil. Fuck this guy.

He reached out and touched the bill. "You... must... pay." Oh god, no. No! It had actually happened. The universes had aligned in such a way that the fabric of time had been compromised and we were now stuck in a time loop, resetting itself every few minutes. This nightmare was going to play on forever. My own Groundhog Day. I felt a sudden compulsion to re-tap the two totals and once again declare that I was fine with paying the lesser of the amounts. I couldn't suppress it; my faculties were now being controlled by an external force. He shook his head and I threw my hands in the air again. Any second he would get up and walk around the corner for yet another consultation and the needle would jump backwards on the grooves and we would do it all again. I had to try something to break this deadlock; to restore things back to normal. I summoned all my strength and propelled myself forward in my chair. My chest slammed into the desk and my mouth shot wide open. "Why didn't I receive any letters?" I blurted out in Japanese. He didn't flinch, and without missing a beat delivered an answer he had all prepared, as if anticipating my exact question. "You received many letters." "Please show them to me," I said, trying to sound calm and polite in my second tongue, but coming across more disbelieving and hurt.

He vanished for a few minutes and returned with some printouts. He placed them on the table in front of me. Not that I could read them, they were all in kanji, yet I could make out dates running down the left-hand side all the way back to 2005; some which had identical words printed next to them, I'm guessing to denote when they were supposed to have sent me my bills. He pointed to a date in October 2006, and asked me if I had been in the country at that time. "Yes," I said. "Since August I was in Japan." "You received a letter at this time," he continued. Eh? "Eh?" I replied. "No, no, no. Didn't receive." "Yes, I sent you a letter at this time and you received it." "I definitely didn't receive a letter. No way."

Here he was feeding me drivel that I had well and truly gotten this bill from them back in the day, and I had what? Chosen to ignore it or throw it away? Why would I do something that stupid? And why had I paid, in full and on time, every bill that had come my way since? Let's say the printouts didn't lie, and they sent out a bill only to have no payment come their way. When did they send the bill again, adjusted for interest? And the one after that? And where were the hired goons banging on my door and demanding payment or seizure of my assets, as I have heard has happened to other folk? Where were my goons?! I deserved goons!

"So, when was the next letter?" I asked. "How many letters sent?" My Japanese was on a roll now, though it hadn't disconcerted him in the least that a guy who could say nothing before now refused to shut up. He ran his finger up the page and counted the dates when letters were sent. "There's this one," he started, pointing to the aforementioned October 2006 date. "The next one?" I queried. He continued moving his finger up the page. He tapped his finger on a few dates, but instead of counting just broke into an unintelligible mumble that petered out after about the fourth tap. "Ichi, nmfphsmmmnmnnpmn..." "How many?" I asked. He repeated himself to the note, a tap and "one", followed by a few more taps and a prolonged low noise that left me wondering if he hadn't fallen asleep. This guy was clearly bullshitting me and just didn't have the conscience to fully deliver the ruse. I was willing to bet those other dates were just bills for subsequent years; all fully paid up. I leaned over to get a closer look and he yanked the sheets away, arose and walked off.

The realisation had now hit me. These people were not willing to accept that perhaps their bill had not been delivered to the correct mailbox, and that perhaps I had since somehow gotten lost in their system and never received any follow-ups. They were not able to lie well (maybe seeing as how I had suddenly magically acquired the ability to speak the language I may have also acquired the ability to read it, hence the quick exit of the printouts), and were not able to give me the benefit of the doubt nor admit any wrongdoing. Unfortunately I didn't possess the language skill to take this any further. And what good would that have done anyway? They held me in the palms of their hands and could do whatever they wanted to me.

I felt overcome by a wave of sorrow. Here they were, in the position to do right by someone and help them out of an unclear situation, and they were choosing to do otherwise. They lacked the benevolence or even the capacity to see a way to make this fair for the underdog, instead being mechanically compelled to stick within the rules of their existence. It wasn't in their DNA to comprehend that a bill could be wrong, or that a letter wasn't properly delivered. If it was what their technology and methods prescribed it to be, then anything outside of that realm was unfathomable. An office filled with automatons. So it came as no surprise when he sat back down beside me and once again repeated those three unflinching words on his English voice track:

"You... must... pay."

"Farrrrk!" I screamed. "Fine! Whatever!" I continually shook my head in disgust as I reached into my back pocket and fished for my wallet, slamming the correct amount of money down on the table. "Here, take it!" "Just a moment, I'll get you a receipt," he murmured, completely unfazed by my outburst. As he left me seated there in my corner yet again, my hands shot forward in despair, my nails finding the exact grooves of the scratch marks as I dragged hard and deep all the way to the edge of the table. Just another in a long line, I thought. Tears welled in my eyes, but I was determined not to let this cold creature see me sob. I sucked it all back up, leaned way back in my chair and stared at the ceiling. He came back and placed a receipt on the desk. I slowly reached out and picked it up, checking it was actually a receipt and not just a restaurant menu or something, before folding it and putting it in my pocket. I stumbled to my feet and blinked a few times to keep the tears at bay. I began to walk away from the man as he thanked me, and resisted the urge to flip him off or heave a defeated "fuck you" in his direction. No, I kept my head angled towards the ground as I placed one foot in front of the other. As I rolled my eyes upwards I could see the whole office again and noticed that they were sneaking glimpses of me and whispering to each other. I had completely forgotten they existed, but of course, they must have been aware of the whole wretched spectacle.

I kept my head low as I made my way down an aisle of partitions and towards the exit; my bag slung over my shoulder and my hands deep in my pockets. I could've sworn I heard someone call out "dead man walking", but I could have been mistaken. The man at the front desk refused to make eye contact with me, and sat drooped forward with his arms hanging to the floor, observing a moment of silence. I shook my head in disbelief one last time and thrust open the swinging doors, stepping out into the open air, and not looking back. All the way down the steps to street level I inhaled and exhaled deeply. I felt not only defeated but obliterated. Passersby, noticing the look in my eyes, gave me a wide berth. The sun was not coming out; in fact as soon as I lost any overhead cover I felt the first raindrops start to fall. Something blew against the side of my shoe, but as I looked down I saw that it was not a thousand yen note, but an empty styrofoam oden bowl. I made it back to the station a little damp and stepped onto the platform and straight onto a train, vowing never to return to this part of town again. At least not until the next fabricated overdue tax bill comes my way.

© Jeremy McMahon, 2011

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