Recent amendments to Japanese
immigration laws have significantly changed, and in many cases eased, regulations for
foreigners wanting to live and work in Japan. But as Richard Smith and Stuart Braun found out, while the door has
opened for some, others are still knocking.
In the past decade the reality of an aging workforce and a declining birthrate has
animated Japanese authorities to widen the pool of foreign immigrants coming to Japan.
This has wrought a number of changes and amendments to Japanese immigration laws, making
it increasingly difficult to keep abreast of the already complex panoply of visa
regulations. In 2000, for instance, the standard duration of a work visa was, in most
instances, increased from one to three years, while this year British nationals will, for
the first time, qualify for working holiday visas.
Crossing the border
Until recently, foreigners in Japan who wanted to travel out of the country were given
re-entry permits "not exceeding one year." This caused problems for people who,
despite having recently been issued a two- or three-year visa, could not leave the country
for more than a year, and an administrative overload for immigration officers who needed
to process additional re-entry permit requests for people whose one-year permits had
One of the three main amendments to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act
(ICRRA), which came into effect in February of last year, has eliminated the discrepancy
between visa and re-entry permission validity. Re-entry permission has been effectively
extended to a period "not exceeding three years," that is, three years but not
exceeding the validity of the current visa.
Other changes have also been implemented. Minimum and sometimes maximum validity of visas
has been lengthened for 21 out of 27 statuses of residence. For example, visas for
professors are now valid for six months, one year or three years-the shorter six-month
period has been eliminated. For specialists in humanities, skilled labor and intra-company
transfer engineers, duration was either six months or one year; now, it' either one year
or three years.
Shoji Ryuno, an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says Japan now issues
five-year visas to people from APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) countries that
work at the executive level for companies with direct ties to Japanese companies. He adds
that the duration of the visa is decided upon according to the applicant's country of
origin. "It is difficult to treat each country on the same level," he says.
Running the gauntlet
Ken Joseph, director of The Japan Helpline, a non-profit, non-governmental worldwide
service, is more blunt about such ambiguity. "The big fear is, China is next
door," he says, referring to the difficulties Chinese nationals have long faced from
airport immigration authorities. Recently, an anti-discrimination suit was filed against
JAL for consistently denying landing to Chinese nationals from "airside" into
Japan-it's this landing permission, not a visa, that serves as the legal basis for the
foreigner's stay in Japan. While such "special treatment" varies from country to
country, all foreign nationals who are, rightly or wrongly, liable for overstaying their
visa, working illegally or are deemed "likely to abscond," will be taken to a
Landing Prevention Facility and held to wait for their airline's return/outward flight.
Two of the recent amendments to the ICRRA amount to a crackdown on what authorities
perceive to be an epidemic of illegal immigration into Japan. One amendment states that
"'Illegal stay' has been enacted as "'Crime.' Illegal stay committed by foreign
nationals who had entered or landed in Japan illegally shall be punished after the date of
the new Act regardless of the date of illegal entry or landing."
"Before, illegal entry or landing were crimes prosecutable only when they were
committed when a statute of limitations applied," explains Nobuko Fukuhara,
immigration inspector at the Tokyo Immigration Bureau. "Now, it has become a
The other amendment states that "the period of refusal of landing in Japan has been
extended. Foreign nationals who have been deported from Japan for reasons of illegal
entry, illegal landing or overstay in Japan, etc. are refused landing in Japan for a
period of 'five years' instead of the former refusal period of 'one year.'"
"Now, they are very strict with somebody doing something wrong or here
illegally," says Ken Joseph. "But they are very cool with those living here
Two of the recent
amendments to the ICRRA amount to a crackdown on what authorities perceive to be an
epidemic into Japan.
"Illegals" might be having a harder time staying in Japan, but immigration
procedures in general have greatly improved. For a start, the proliferation of immigration
offices in and around Tokyo has made visa applications easier. Joseph remembers the time
when the only immigration office in the Tokyo area was "a beat-up old place in
Shinagawa, where people could wait all day to have their visa application processed."
Meanwhile, the attitude of immigration authorities has changed. Currently, immigration
officials ask few questions before stamping visas into passports. "Before, the
attitude was why do you want to stay in Japan?'" says Joseph. "These days, they
are very understanding."
The Japan Helpline errs on the side of caution when interpreting these more liberal
immigration laws. "Last fall, a policy was started to relax citizenship requirements,
and foreigners planning to stay here are encouraged to become citizens or at least
permanent residents," notes Joseph. However, he strongly recommends the latter
course. "If you have a problem with the legal system and are arrested and thrown in
jail, for example, you can call your country's consulate or embassy for help," Joseph
says. "That protection disappears if you become a citizen."
Despite all these complicated procedures, Japan Helpline notes that the right connections
will get you a long way. "Some notable can sponsor you for a permanent residency the
minute you are off the plane." For those seeking permanent residency, the rule of
thumb at present is that foreigners who have lived in Japan for more than ten years, or
over three years if they are married to a Japanese, are eligible to apply for residency
providing they have no criminal record and are able to support their family.
Buoyed by a need to fill a void in skilled information technology workers, Japan has
recently taken steps to relax immigration regulations for people in the IT field. In
February, for instance, the government announced a policy to increase the number of
foreign technological professionals by 30,000 within the next five years-the Justice
Ministry has accordingly eased requirements for qualified Indian information technology
experts to enter Japan for working purposes. Additionally, in an effort to promote
bilateral business cooperation, the Foreign Ministry recently eased regulations regarding
the issuance of short-term business visas to Chinese nationals working at
Japanese-affiliated firms in China.
From March 15, Japan
will issue multiple-entry visas valid for one year to Chinese working at companies
registered with Japanese Chambers of Commerce. In a similar move, the period of validity
of multiple-entry visas issued to Hong Kong passport holders who intend to enter Japan for
short-term stays as tourists purposes or on business trips has been extended. Starting
April 9, the length of a 90-day, multiple-entry visa will be extended from one year to
Such "special cases" underlie the fact that visa regulations vary greatly
depending on your country of origin. Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, Korean, French,
German, and more recently, British foreign nationals between the ages of 18 and 30 are,
for instance, eligible for one-year working holiday visas. Holders of a working holiday
visa, or "Youth Exchange Scheme" as the British program launched on April 16 is
called, who, after a year, want to transfer to a full work visa, are not required to leave
Japan before their work visa comes into effect. Conversely, holders of a tourist visa
wanting to upgrade to a work visa unfortunately still have first to leave Japan, present
their Certificate of Eligibility to an outside embassy, and then re-enter Japan. Current
visa fees are JY3000 for a single-entry visa, JY6000 for a double-entry or multiple-entry
visa, and JY700 for a transit visa (fees are collected in local currencies). In the case
of applicants from countries with reciprocal arrangements relating to visa fees with
Japan, fees are reduced or exempted in accordance with the arrangement.
While Japan has long been accused of isolationist and somewhat xenophobic immigration
policies - Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara's recent comments linking illegal immigrants
in Japan to potential guerrilla activities might be seen as typical - there has been a
significant easing of immigration restrictions in recent years. Continued adoption of this
open door policy is likely then to add to the myriad of changes to immigration and visa
regulations. To keep up with the changes, make detailed inquiries with your embassy, the
Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and otherwise, gambatte.
For complete information on visa application requirements, the visa requirement section of
the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is: http://www.mofa.go.jp/j-info/visit/index.html
The Japan Helpline's website is at http://jhelp.com