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Navigating Japanese Customs

John Pohl

I had a little more than three hours to make my connection in Tokyo for Fukuoka. My son and his family were waiting for me there, in the airport of the largest city on the southern island of Kyushu.

It was a two-hour flight, arriving in Fukuoka at 11 p.m., 30 hours since I left for the airport in Montreal for the first of three flights. The end was in sight.

My son, his Japanese wife and their two small girls lived another two hours away by car, but had rented rooms in a city hotel for two nights.

On the long walk towards Immigration, there were dozens of friendly young people wearing bright yellow vests pointing the way for passengers who had pre-registered their proof of Covid vaccination.

But Immigration itself didn’t seem ready for the influx of several planeloads of passengers – my flight was one of two that arrived from Vancouver within five minutes of each other, and there were at least another two from the U.S.

Immigration officers kept arriving and opening kiosks but the lines just got longer and longer. I wished that some of the multitude of yellow-vested greeters had been upgraded to passport inspection.

The lines doubled back on each other, and I kept meeting the same people as the lines snaked back and forth. Just when I thought I was about to make the turn toward the nearest Immigration kiosk, my line turned a corner and continued down a long corridor.

Eventually I got photographed and my passport was stamped but now I had less than two hours to recover my two small but heavy suitcases, take them through customs and find the shuttle to a different terminal, where I also had to get my boarding pass.

My carry-on-size suitcases were sitting next to each other in the baggage pickup area, thanks to the red ribbons I tied to the handles. Each suitcase was about 40 pounds, mostly because I was carrying some of my son’s carpentry tools that he had bought long before he moved to Japan five years ago.

I noticed that my TSA-approved baggage locks were missing. I learned later that airport security in Montreal — no doubt alarmed by the large pieces of metal inside my luggage — had opened both suitcases, leaving a note that nothing had been removed. No mention of the locks, though.

One of the suitcases — I found it in the basement but hadn’t checked it for flaws — had its wheels locked in one direction, which I noticed only when I was leaving for the airport. I did notice that the handle was hard to pull up, but now I couldn’t raise it more than halfway. Fortunately, Customs wasn’t far.

A Customs agent greeted me by giving me big wads of tissues. My hand was covered in blood. I hadn’t noticed that part of the suitcase’s handle had broken off and cut me as I tried to steer the two bags in unison, one with a handle at half-mast and with wheels that wouldn’t turn.

My Customs declaration was spotted with blood. In the confusion, the officer just waved me through.

No time to wash my hands. I had to find the shuttle to Terminal 3, and I had just an hour to get there.

Of course I went the wrong way out of the terminal, and lost more time. The shuttle sitting at the stop took off as I got close to it. I waited an eternity — 10 minutes — for the next one.

I made it to Terminal 3, but I had to walk through a half-kilometre of boutiques and restaurants to get to the counter of my airline. It was 8:20.

I was able to rid myself of one bag at the self-serve check-in. The second one would have to be paid for.

There were only 10 or 12 people waiting to check in, but the line wasn’t moving. It was now past 8:30.

I noticed a tall young Japanese woman looking at me and waving. She must have noticed my agitation. Finally I joined her at the head of the line. Nobody objected. Maybe they were checking into a different flight.

A middle-aged woman was standing at the only counter with an agent. Two other employees were staring at and pecking at a computer. The line was not moving. It was now 8:45 p.m., 15 minutes to departure.

Don’t worry, the young woman said to me. They won’t go without us.

I hoped that was true.

Suddenly, the computer system came back to life, and both of us moved forward. I paid $80 for my extra bag. The young woman, who had introduced herself as Yoka, paid $140 for her massive suitcase.

The three of us — me, Yoka and the other woman — started walking and running to the boarding gate.

We arrived at security and waited for an agent to appear. We introduced ourselves.

The older woman, who I decided was Filipina, said she had come to Japan when she was 19 and lived in the country for 26 years. She now lived in Hawaii with her partner.

“I used to hate America,” she said. “Now I love it. So free.”

Yoka agreed. She was a student in Seattle.

I just said I was Canadian, deciding it was not the time to reveal that I was American born but had since relinquished my much-coveted U.S. citizenship.

The little conversation about freedom and, I supposed, Japan’s system of expectations and obligations, got me thinking. I could attribute Yoka’s love of freedom in the U.S. to being on her own for the first time. The older woman, I surmised, came to Japan as a worker and was a permanent outsider. I knew that foreigners, like my son, can never become a Japanese citizen.

In the following weeks, I witnessed how Japanese culture, perhaps stifling of individual freedom, was a system of obligations and expectations that made for a civilized society. Attractively so.

People bowed to each other at any encounter. I exchanged several bows with anyone I interacted with, from a store clerk to the waiter in a restaurant. In the rural area where my son and his family lived, I sometimes exchanged bows with drivers passing by as I walked along the road.

You acknowledged the other person. It seemed so civilized.

Many more revelations were to come. My daughter-in-law taught me table manners. You keep the hand without chopsticks on the table, not on your lap. When you get up, you push the chair back to the table.

Even in a picnic park, you brush the crumbs off the table into the garbage bag you take home. There are no public trash cans.


I made the flight, which sat for another 15 minutes and then taxied for so long I thought we were going to drive to Fukuoka.

My son was waiting for me in the airport, with his wife and children in his mini minivan.

At the hotel, I went to bed right away. I had to be up by 8 a.m. for a full day of sightseeing in Fukuoka.

40 views3 comments


Frank Mackey
Frank Mackey
May 31, 2023

Nice job, John. Like Earl, I would like a follow-up piece detailing what happened after you fell asleep. Because, of course, all good things happen in the dark, after you shut your eyes. My son tells me he studied at the Fukuoka University of Education on a one-year scholarship. On his last Japanese adventure, he worked for Hiroshima Prefecture for 4 years, I believe.


Jim Withers
Jim Withers
May 26, 2023

I like the bowing thing. We should adopt that in Canada. Nice piece, John. You made me want to go there.

Replying to

Lovely read, John. Makes me want to go to Japan as well, if only I could avoid the airports. Hope we'll see a follow-up piece on sightseeing in and around Fukuoka.

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