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Immigration procedures face huge shakeup

Donald Eubank looks into what upcoming changes will mean for Japan's foreign community

by Donald Eubank

As of July 1, there are big changes afoot for the laws governing foreign residency in Japan. Not since 1990, when the categories of residence increased from 18 to 27, has the Ministry of Justice’s Immigration Bureau undergone such a wholesale reordering of its operations.

What’s coming up? Aside from a number of smaller revisions, there will be an extension of the maximum length of permission to reside in Japan from three years to five, the abolishment of the re-entry stamp system required to leave the country and return, and — most significantly — the replacement of the Alien Registration Card issued by ward offices with a new Resident Card to be managed by the Immigration Bureau.

While those first two changes will be welcomed by many in the non-Japanese community, the third could prove more controversial, as it means a consolidation of information on all foreign residents in a centralized location: the Ministry of Justice. The shakeup partly reflects a recognition by the ministry that it is no longer able to keep track of the changing demographics of the foreign population of Japan, the majority of whom, until recently, were “special permanent residents” (the legal description given to the zainichi Koreans and Taiwanese who lived in Japan before and during the war and were forced to take Japanese nationality, and their descendants). The number of Chinese in Japan, for example. has doubled in the past 20 years to more than half a million, meaning they now outnumber the zainichi Koreans. This influx — along with the arrival of workers from Brazil, the Philippines and other countries — helped push the total number of foreign residents to an all-time high of nearly 2.2 million in 2009, double the 1.1 million recorded in 1990.

“There have been many newcomers who failed to apply for alien registration properly, who frequently changed address without reporting it, or who returned to their home country after being granted a re-entry permit and cut off contact while staying in their country — and then, it was not known whether they intended to re-enter Japan,” explains Koichi Harada, a public information official at the Justice Ministry. “(Because of) such changes, it has been more difficult to keep precise information on foreign nationals’ residence, etc., based on two separate laws: the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act and the Alien Registration Act.”

According to the Immigration Bureau, there were requests from the Gaikokujin Shujutoshikaigi (Congress of Cities with High Ratios of Foreign Residents) to reform the Alien Registration system because member cities were finding it increasingly difficult to maintain up-to-date, accurate information on their foreign residents. To address these issues, a Working Team Concerning the Residence Management of Foreign Nationals was established in 2005 under the Ministerial Conference to Discuss Countermeasures against Crime. This team was comprised of members of the Cabinet Secretariat and representatives from the Justice, Internal Affairs and Communications, Foreign Affairs, and Health, Labor and Welfare ministries.

After the team’s study was completed, a “Three-Year Plan for Promotion of Regulatory Reform” was put forward by the Cabinet in June 2007, which included a call for the “reorganization of the alien registration system.”

All the changes that were decided upon in this process are scheduled to be realized within three years of July 15, with the first already having taken effect on that date: the stipulation that the destination of someone deported from Japan shall not include countries proscribed by the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Of all the amendments, the abolition of re-entry permits for stays outside Japan of less than a year is probably the least controversial. It should come as welcome relief to all those who, having gone through the ordeal of getting their status of residence updated, have then had to buy the stamp for re-entry and stand in two more lines to complete that process.

“The change has been made because the re-entry permit system has been extremely unpopular among foreign residents who have been required to go through two processes, i.e. one for the status of residence and another one for the re-entry permit,” immigration lawyer Tetsuya Iida of In Control told The Japan Times.

On this point, the Immigration Bureau seems to agree: “I know of many countries that don’t have a re-entry permit, which is very convenient,” says Nobuhiko Mishima, public liaison officer at the bureau’s General Affairs Office, who works on the front lines in the Shinagawa immigration center. “For example, there’s the Green Card system in the United States. But so far Japan has been very inconvenient.”

His colleague, Miyuki Nizeki, adds: “This will be an advantage for both sides, as we won’t have to process so many applications, and you won’t have to come into our offices to leave the country.”

The end of the re-entry-stamp process and the extension of residence status to five years should help reduce the workload of the Immigration Bureau centers, the staff of which totals only around 3,500 members across Japan, with a single immigration officer currently reviewing upwards of 50 or even 100 applications a day. At the same time, however, the bureau will be taking over full responsibility for the registration of foreign residents — a mammoth task involving the processing and centralization of a huge amount of information currently held in ward offices around the country.

The introduction of this new system will mean a reorganization of the Immigration Bureau on a major scale, and the Ministry of Justice is carrying out a study on how to ensure the bureau’s Immigration Centers run smoothly as the changes are implemented. So far, this has only resulted in advance PR, including leaflets distributed at immigration centers and details of the changes listed on their Web site ( www.immi-moj.go.jp/english/newimmiact/newimmiact_english.html ). When asked what exactly the study will look at in terms of internal operations, the bureau seems to be taking the approach that fools and bairns should never see half-done work, or, as Harada put it on behalf of the Immigration Bureau: “We would refrain from giving more details on the nature of the study because we are carrying out the study now and suppose that the time is not quite ripe for it.”

The assumption of responsibility for the ID system for and registration of foreign residents raises big questions, the answers to which immigration lawyers that regularly deal with the Immigration Bureau seem as uncertain of as the bureau is itself.

“I think that the Immigration Bureau doesn’t know yet in particular how it will work yet under the system,” says Tomohide Koh, an immigration lawyer with Office Cosmopolitan. However, for foreign residents in practical terms, he adds, this much looks likely: “If you just change your address, you need to go to the ward office, but you will need to notify the Immigration Bureau (of changes in) information other than your address.”

The transfer of responsibility for “gaijin cards” from ward offices to the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau also raises important questions about what happens when a new resident arrives in Japan. At the moment, new residents with valid visas simply pass through immigration and are issued with their Alien Registration Cards on presentation of the correct paperwork at their local ward office.

Masahito Nakai of Nakai Immigration Services suggests that under the new system, “On your first entry, the (new Resident) Card will be issued at the airport if you are coming to the country for the first time to become a resident.” As things stand now, “You need to submit, for example, fingerprints (at the airport), but all this information, including photographs, may (in future) be transferred to the (Resident) Card.”

However, after a long flight, the last thing a new arrival in Japan will want to deal with is a drawn-out bureaucratic session with immigration officials — particularly one that culminates in a predictably unflattering photo that will take pride of place on a card he/she will be required to carry 24/7 and produce on demand countless times over the next one to five years. Hopefully the Ministry of Justice study will come up with smart ways to skirt such potential pitfalls.

On balance, the changes appear to be genuine attempts to deal with real problems the Immigration Bureau has encountered as it attempts to fulfill its key responsibilities, i.e. keeping track of foreign nationals; providing as efficient a service as possible during the immigration process; and applying administrative and legal correctives to previous omissions or duplications. And the bureau says that if you don’t want to try to understand what all this means, lawyers will still be able to represent you in the application process.

There are sure to be bumps in the road as the changes come online. Some NGOs, such as the Committee against Resident Alien Card System, are concerned about the IC chip that will be embedded in the Resident Card, and in particular the security and privacy issues this raises, as well as penalties for filing changes late. The Immigration Bureau says that the chip will record “all or part of the information printed on the card,” which will consist of the cardholder’s name, birth date, sex, nationality, address, photograph, signature and status of residence. No further information has been provided by the bureau about penalties, except that they will be leveled if changes in the above information, as well as marital status, are not reported within 14 days.

For now, it is hard to tell what the reality of the new system will mean until it comes into effect — for both foreign residents as well as the Immigration Bureau, which has a lot of preparation to do as it adjusts to its new role as the central overseer of the expatriate population over the next three years. However, as far as Japan’s foreign community is concerned, the new system’s success is likely to boil down to one question: Will the handover of responsibility to the Justice Ministry mean a more bureaucratic, enforcement- heavy approach — or will it make life here that little bit easier?

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