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Barred from Japan for a teenage pot conviction

Dear Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, Justice Minister Satsuki Eda and Prime Minister Naoto Kan: I am a 32-year-old student who was supposed to study for a semester at a Japanese university. I am a very good student; I have been a teaching assistant in my department for a year, and I have many professors at my university that would attest to my character and abilities.

It was my dream to finish a portion of my studies in Japan prior to moving on to pursue my ultimate goal of a Ph.D. My trip was funded through state and federal financial aid as well as with a major scholarship from a very large U.S. government agency.

I flew to Narita just before the new year. Upon landing, I checked “yes” to the question “Have you ever been convicted of a crime in Japan or any other country?” on the immigration form. I was quickly detained and questioned.

The immigration inspector brought out a thick blue-covered law book and made me read (in English) a paragraph that stated the reason why I was not to be allowed entry in Japan. Afterwards they took a statement, ignored my pleas for consideration by stating “The law is the law,” and then sent me back to the U.S. on the next available flight.

What was the terrible thing that I had done that prevented my entry into Japan? Why am I now banned from ever entering the country?

I have a marijuana conviction on my record that occurred in 1997 — that’s right, 14 years ago.

It was a petty misdemeanor for “possession of a small amount of marijuana.” The only punishment was a $50 fine. In the U.S. this is considered a very minor crime, and the punishment is less than what you would receive for a speeding ticket. (It was so long ago that I mistakenly told the immigration inspector “1996″ and “a $100 fine.” I couldn’t remember the details and was tired after hours of travel.)

What is more frustrating is that I have been honest from the start. I informed the Japanese consulate that I had a criminal record when I applied for the visa. They approved my application and granted me a one-year student visa. I had assumed that the issue was taken care of.

Unfortunately I was wrong.

In Japan, the visa is only one part of the immigration process. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for landing permission and approval of longer-term stays in the country. This is done through a Certificate of Eligibility — a document filled out independently without consultation by the Japanese university I was to study at. Because of the university’s failure to consult with me, they failed to disclose my criminal record to the Ministry of Justice, thus starting the chain reaction of events that eventually led the sad conclusion above.

That the paperwork was filled out in error is not the reason for this letter. Instead I wish to highlight both the unreasonable immigration policy in Japan as well as the inept bureaucratic mess that is the immigration system as a whole. Instead of doing their job and reviewing my visa application, the Japanese consulate relied on only the issuance of the Certificate of Eligibility to grant my visa. This despite the clearly marked question on the required visa application that stated that I did have a criminal record.

Even more frustrating is that while a large portion of my documentation was in the immigration inspector’s possession during my questioning, he did not have — nor could he apparently acquire a copy of — the visa application that I submitted. I’m forced to question why the Japanese consulate general even bothers to issue a visa when they apparently have no bearing on permission to visit or stay in Japan. I also wonder why two organizations are involved in Japanese immigration, when these gigantic bureaucracies apparently have no communication between themselves.

The Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act states that landing permission will be denied to anyone convicted of a drug crime. This law makes no distinction according to the severity of the crime, nor the amount of time that has passed since the crime occurred. This failure to recognize any possible rehabilitation is saddening. It seems that in Japan there is no forgiveness; an old man will still be punished for a crime that occurred in his childhood — “The law is the law.”

But that isn’t true. The rich and famous have been able to skirt the law repeatedly. Paul McCartney of the Beatles was given permission to enter Japan after being caught trying to bring 7.7 oz (220 grams) of marijuana into Japan in 1980. The Rolling Stones were allowed to enter Japan despite their well-documented drug issues. More recently, Paris Hilton was given special permission to enter the country despite her multiple convictions for drugs and other crimes.

Unfortunately the Japanese immigration lawyers I have consulted with have told me that gaining special permission to enter Japan — even for a weeklong vacation — will be next to impossible. Apparently I am not rich nor famous enough to qualify for an exception to the law.

My only hope is that the government of Japan realizes that people can make mistakes and, instead of forever blocking myself and others from Japan, that a change is made to the law to take into account the severity of the crime as well as the length of time since the offense occurred.

I urge the Japanese government to review Japan’s immigration policy and procedures.

NAME WITHHELD
USA

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