Traveling to Japan as an airline crewmember has been an extraordinarily "easy" experience during my 30 year career. Disciplined and efficient, a spot-on reflection of the Japanese culture at large, the Japanese Customs Officials with whom crew interact make quick work of international arrival formalities. After a 14 hour non-stop flight, that fact is greatly appreciated by working crew.
But over the last few weeks, the normal complete paperwork, turn-in paperwork, walk through and out of the customs hall routine has seen a few changes. Specifically, Customs officers are "spot-checking" arriving crewmembers to assure that they comply with well-publicized import restrictions. Apparently, the spot-checks have revealved some fairly egregious breaches of conduct by crew: in a recent pre-departure briefing in Houston, my crew was informed by an Inflight Supervisor that recent checks have revealed crewmembers carrying gallon Ziplock bags full of undocumented prescription medication and alcohol (which may never been landed in Japan without duty being paid) disguised in water bottles.
One hears warnings and, after so many years of traveling, takes them with a grain of salt. But my experience arriving yesterday on flight 7 from Houston was quite the example:
I apparently drew the "lucky number" when we arrived in the Customs Hall!
The precisely-uniformed Customs Officer (wearing hat, white cotton gloves and all) asked twice if the declaration I handed him was mine and then asked if I had anything more to declare. I responded that I did not. He then pointed to my large tote which he systematically disassembled...no rush, whatsoever. He seemed particularly interested in my Dasani water bottle and Ziplock bag of toiletries & medications.
The water bottle was still sealed, a fact which provoked a somewhat disappointed look from the officer. So, he proceeded to remove every single item from my Ziplock, including a Compazine suppository (for severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, it can't be beaten). The suppository blister pack had likely been in my bag for at least 3 years, as a "just in case."
"What this?", he grunted. I explained but he didn't understand.
"What for?" I explained but he didn't understand.
He pointed it toward his mouth, implying oral administration. I tried to correct him, as delicately as I could, but my subtlety was lost. He didn't understand and, frankly, seemed to think he'd hit "paydirt" with the intriguing-looking item. I turned around and pointed to the CORRECT administration sIte for that type of product but he still didn't get it. He opened the blister pack and put his nose to it. For a moment, I feared he might probe it with his tongue, the way you see in movies or on television. (If only I'd had the presece of mind to employ my iphone camera for this episode!) Suddenly, the suppository held no interest and he dropped it back into the Ziplock.
After giving up on my tote, he then wanted to see my rollaboard. I have a travel coffeemaker which he disassembled, shook and seemed to be measuring the weight of each piece. After pushing around clothing articles and shoes, my disappointed friend shoved everything in my direction, still a disassembmled mess. He once again presented my declaration and asked if it were mine. I replied that it was and he said, "Thank you for cooperation." That was it.
I'd say that inspectors were randomly checking 50% of crewmembers entering at the time. We went through along with a Thai crew who we're also scrutinized. Nobody else seemed to receive the scrutiny that I did. Could it have been my appearance?
Of course, the fiendish side of me wants to play now! What fun thing can I introduce to my bag for the trip I have scheduled on the 21st that might provide a moment of levity without a lifetime of regret?
Maybe I'd better not! At no point did my new friend show ANY sign of amusement; just a disciplined, efficient disappointment.