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A cut-out-and-keep guide to getting legal advice in Japan

by Masami Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

April marked the start of the year for schools and many companies in Japan — a month when many newcomers from overseas arrive in the country, just in time for the cherry blossom season.

If you are one of these new arrivals, a lot will be fresh and unfamiliar, and that, unfortunately, applies to the problems you may face as well as the positive aspects of your new life here. Even long-term residents are not immune to complications related to their visa status, work, money, family and so on. With this in mind, I thought it would be timely to take this opportunity to share some tips on how to use legal services in Japan.

First, the national and local tiers of government offer a range of free counseling services in English and other languages. The Immigration Bureau operates a number of regional Immigration Information Centers (see No. 1 below) that you can call for general information and “one-stop” information centers in Shinjuku (2); Urawa, Chiba Prefecture; and Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture. These centers can offer advice on a variety of issues, not just those related to immigration.

If you believe your human rights have been violated, whether it be related to discrimination, bullying, defamation or privacy issues on the Internet, you may want to consult with the Justice Ministry’s Human Rights Counseling Offices for Foreigners (3). This service is also free.

If you work here, you are protected by Japanese labor law. If you have problems with wage payments, unfair dismissal or other employment-related issues, you can find information and advice at your nearest Labor Bureau (4).

Local municipalities also offer free consultation services. If you live in Tokyo, the links prepared by the Tokyo Employment Service Center for Foreigners should be useful, as they show available consultation services in Tokyo at national, regional and local levels (5).

If you are interested in retaining a lawyer, there are a number of English-speaking attorneys at private firms. Even if you do not know any English-speaking lawyers, there are several local bar associations that provide legal counseling for foreigners at ¥5,400 (tax included) for 30 minutes with free interpretation (6). Some even provide a completely free service.

If your income is lower than a certain level, you are eligible for free legal advice from the Japan Legal Support Center (7).

If you are a resident with mid- to long-term residential status and satisfy certain means-test criteria (8), you can receive a legal-aid loan to retain a lawyer for civil and family cases. Legal aid is available as long as lawyers are contracted with the Japan Legal Support Center, and provided that they are willing to take on legal-aid cases. Even if you do not have a legitimate residential status, you may still be able to receive legal aid in some cases.

Regardless of your residential status, if you are unfortunate enough to be arrested, you can consult a lawyer once for free. In such a situation, you simply need to tell a police officer to call the duty attorney (tōban bengoshi) and the officer will contact a local bar association and get them to call a lawyer (9). The lawyer will bring an interpreter if you do not speak Japanese. A family member or friend of the arrested individual can also call a local bar association directly and ask them to send a lawyer.

Masami Kittaka is an attorney with the Foreigners and International Service Section at Tokyo Public Law Office, which handles a wide range of cases involving foreigners in the Tokyo area (www.t-pblo.jp/fiss) Phone 03-6809-6200. Send your questions to lifelines@japantimes.co.jp.

Lifelines to the law

1. Immigration Information Centers: www.immi-moj.go.jp/english/info/index.html

2. Consultation Support Center for Foreign Residents (Shinjuku): www.immi-moj.go.jp/info/onestop/pdf/soudan_eng.pdf

3. Human Rights Counseling Offices for Foreigners: www.moj.go.jp/JINKEN/jinken21.html

4. Labor Bureaus with a Foreign Workers Consultation Service: www.mhlw.go.jp/new-info/kobetu/roudou/gyousei/kantoku/dl/040330-3.pdf

5. Information centers in Tokyo with foreign language services (list provided by the Tokyo Employment Service Center for Foreigners): tokyo-foreigner.jsite.mhlw.go.jp/english/contact/infocenterforeignlangtable.html

6. Legal counseling for foreigners by bar associations: www.nichibenren.or.jp/en/legalinfo/counceling.html

7. Japan Legal Support Center: www.houterasu.or.jp/en/index.html

8. Legal aid means-test criteria: www.houterasu.or.jp/en/about_jlsc/operation2.html

9. Information on duty attorney system (in criminal cases): www.nichibenren.or.jp/en/legalinfo/arrest.html