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Admit one




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 expired.

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 continuous offense."

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 responsibly."

Two of the recent amendments to the ICRRA amount to a crackdown on what authorities perceive to be an epidemic into Japan.


Open door
"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 three years.

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


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