(We made it to Japan! Here to recount some of our misadventures is Mister Boy.)

Originally, I was going to write this blog post as a sort of instructional guide on how to navigate the Japanese animal importation process for your pet cats. Having recently done so, I thought it would be a good way to assuage your fears and anxieties.

It turns out the process is fairly well explained by the Japanese Animal Quarantine Service (AQS), albeit not in chronological order. So I’ll skip most of the details, except for the parts we feel could use some clarifying. But what I won’t do is assuage your fears and anxieties, because if you screw it up—like we pretty much did, despite enormous amounts of planning and fretting and duck-alignment—things can go wrong for you, and your fluffy little buddy could spend six whole months locked away in kitty quarantine. So, instead, I am writing this post as a cautionary tale on what can go wrong.

To add color to the narrative, let’s introduce the subjects. On the left is Little Man, aka smoker cat, aka Mr. Kitty, aka Buttface McGeezy. On the right is Cheesy Poof, aka the fat one, aka Booga Bear, aka Buttface McGeezy.

Pre-flight Preparation

I’ll assume that you’re starting this whole process at least seven months before you’re due to arrive in Japan, or else you’re completely screwed—your best hope is to find a foster home or release the cat into the wild. Get your cat microchipped, inoculated for rabies, and blood drawn and sent to Kansas State University as described by the regulations. The Japanese love themselves some regulations, and they are sticklers for the rules. The order of operations is very important. Our first mistake was doing each step of this process on different days for each of our cats, since our car couldn’t carry both of them at once. The dates on the documents differed for each cat, creating opportunity for error that the vet later stumbled into like a big dumb dinosaur into a tar pit.

When filing your advanced notification with AQS, your options are mail or fax. I strongly recommend hellofax.com as a web-based fax service. The first few faxes are free, it is easy to earn additional free faxes, and they transmit internationally. Figure out which AQS branch at Narita to send the notification to based on what terminal your airline uses. The notification process is actually quite good; they responded to us by email and we were able to clarify some of the confusing parts of the importation process.

A few days before your flight, you’ll have to have an APHIS Form 7001 filled out by your vet, as well as Forms A and C from the AQS. My advice: Double check all the information on these forms. You’ll then have to mail them off to APHIS for official government seals, and they won’t necessarily confirm that the information on the forms matches the source documents either.

Flying Day

You’ve got all your ducks in a row, your cat is locked safely in its prison cage, and you arrive at the check-in counter to check the cats as baggage. In our case, the incompetent desk staff spent an hour checking us in, then decided that we actually needed to take them to the cargo terminal. (This was a lie. Or, at best, a complete misunderstanding of their own system. If this happens to you, call the office you made the reservations with—United PetSafe for us—because even though you think that they were one of the twenty offices they called before deciding to fuck you over, they weren’t.)

So off you go to cargo, taking an airport taxi and paying even more money than the pet reservations should have. The cargo agent will be terse but efficient, and he’ll get the cats stowed away. Then you’ll be stranded at the cargo terminal, and will rely on the kindness of strangers to drop you off back at the passenger terminal.

Next you’ll enjoy your flight. I recommend getting hammered.

Arriving in Narita, your plans are now screwed. Your cats flew cargo instead of baggage, so you can’t pick them up in the baggage area like you’d hoped. No, once again you have to slough your way to the cargo terminal, this time with all your luggage. Your airline’s baggage assistance counter will hopefully have directions on a print-out, but your cab driver won’t speak any English. There is one saving grace: You are in Japan now, and the service will finally be fantastic.

An Introduction to Japanese Bureaucracy

At the cargo terminal, you’ll have to sign in at a security gate and receive visitor badges. The terminal is actually two levels, with United’s area on the lower level, which is a bit confusing. You’re now a good mile from the passenger terminal and the buses to Haneda, but the check-out process will take at least an hour, so it’s probably unwise to ask the cabbie to stick around. If you’re lucky, like us, the fantastic service will extend to the airline giving you a ride back to the terminal. Otherwise, you might have to call another cab, and hope that they can find you. Or walk.

At the customer service desk, your pets should be waiting for you. You’ll have to complete the quarantine and customs process next. The airline assigned a driver-cum-chaparone to guide us around the government complex. First stop is the AQS. Here they will scan your cat’s microchip and closely inspect your paperwork.

If you’re unlucky or careless like we were, this is where you will find out that the vet filled out the paperwork incorrectly. In our case, the vet put the wrong dates for a rabies vaccination and the blood test on Cheesy Poof’s forms. Even if you have the original vaccination certificates and the results from the blood test with the correct dates, if they aren’t sealed, AQS will disregard them: It’s the sealed forms that matter.

And do you know what incorrect forms gets you? Summary judgement for your cat: Six months in quarantine. Straight to Guantanameow. No credit for time served.

If you’re especially unlucky, you’re a regular schmoe planning on working in Japan. In this case, your cat will be kept by the AQS service right there at Narita. We were lucky enough to be moving to an air base, so AQS released our cats to be quarantined there. There was more light at the end of the tunnel: AQS said that if we could have new forms drawn up by the military vet with the correct dates, they could release Cheesy Poof from quarantine. This is very, very good news, since Cheesy Poof wouldn’t thrive in a prison environment.

Double check your paperwork.

The last step is a visit to the customs house across the street, where you probably won’t have to pay any additional duties so long as the cats are your pets (and not for sale). Then it’s back to the airline’s cargo service counter to pay any service fees, and off you go back to the terminal… with the cat, God willing.

Onward

Cats have been permitted on every bus we’ve taken so far (so long as they fit on your lap), and the regional train. They aren’t allowed on bullet trains unless they’re in a very small carrier. This came up when our flight to the airbase was cancelled, and we had to make alternate arrangements: either take the train, or fly to a nearby city and get to the airbase “somehow.” JAL does a very good job flying with pets domestically: The fee is a flat $50 per pet, they always fly baggage, and you don’t need reservations. I really like Japan.

We opted to fly, then took the bus to the train station, and a train to the airbase. Doing this with 120 lbs of luggage and two thoroughly unamused animals amounts to an extremely tiring adventure. The cats are a bit of a spectacle, and the Japanese riders tended to be amused by them instead of annoyed.

And that’s it. The cats are now safe and secure in the base kennel. The base vet is working with AQS in Tokyo to have Cheesy Poof’s quarantine lifted. We hope to bring him home with us next week. Total cost: Well over $2000, most of my sanity, and a dangerous brush with total calamity. To conclude, do not bring your cats Japan unless you absolutely can’t live without them. Like us.

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