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Shifting from the SOFA to permanent residency

by Louise George Kittaka

Reader W has been residing happily in this country for 35 years with his Japanese wife. As an American civilian worker on a U.S. military base, he is currently here under SOFA (the Status of Forces Agreement between Japan and the U.S.), which means he is exempt from the usual passport and visa issues that apply to foreign residents. However, with plans for retirement on the horizon and a wife who is some years older, he is wondering what will happen if she predeceases him. He writes:

“I’m anticipating eventually getting a spousal visa once I finally stop working on base. My wife is nine years older than I am and thus my question: Although I don’t wish to think about it too much, she might die before I do, and therefore I wonder what my status would be? Can I maintain the spousal visa, or could I then qualify for another type of visa? I do wish to remain in Japan for the rest of my life because I’d have to start all over again if I were to move back to the USA.”

When his SOFA status comes to an end upon retirement, W should visit his local immigration office within 30 days and apply for a change of status. As the spouse of a Japanese national, he should have no problem getting a three-year spouse visa. Eventually, however, he will want to try and get permanent residence, which would allow him to stay in Japan indefinitely, regardless of his marital status.

The person I spoke to at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau said that spouses of Japanese may apply for permanent residence after living in Japan for one year and having been married for three. Since W meets both requirements, he can start the application process as soon as he has got hold of his spouse visa. The time it takes to receive approval of an application for permanent residence varies, but it is best to allow about six months. According to my source, the fact that W has been married and based in Japan for over three decades is very likely to work in his favor.

While this probably will not concern W, it is worth noting some new developments that could affect foreign residents on spouse visas. In the past, even if a person divorced their Japanese partner, they were eligible to remain in Japan until their current visa expired. However, under the new immigration laws that were introduced in July 2012, Immigration may revoke the visa of a person who has not been “engaging in the activities in the given visa category for six months or more.”

Since the introduction of the new resident-card system for foreigners, those on spouse visas are now required to report any changes in employment or marital status to the Immigration Bureau within 14 days.

Kiwi Louise George Kittaka has been based in Japan since she was 20. In the ensuing years she has survived PTA duty for three kids in the Japanese education system and singing live on national TV for the NHK “Nodo Jiman” show, among other things. Send comments, questions and calls for help here: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp