Making sense of the tax mystery for foreigners

Japan’s tax system appears to be one of the most difficult concepts for foreigners to understand. It would come as no surprise if a foreigner working in the country — in particular someone employed without a proper visa — knew little or nothing about income tax returns.

In recent years, however, foreign workers, including illegal workers, have grown increasingly aware of the system, which entitles them to tax refunds, and are demanding that uncaring employers fulfill their obligations under the system. Through income tax returns, workers may be refunded part or the total of all taxes deducted from their wages, contingent upon such deductions made for their dependents, medical fees and insurance payments.

Tax authorities have remained indifferent to the visa status of foreigners claiming their due rights as workers, but stress workers’ obligation to pay taxes, including residential taxes collected by local governments. Syed Riaz Ahmed, 44, a Pakistani man working without a proper visa, said he paid some 457,000 yen in income tax payments from 1993 through 1995. In fact, the payments went to his former employer, owner of an auto parts factory in Yokohama, who deducted the amount from Syed’s monthly salaries in advance.

Under a system called “withholding at sources,” worker income tax payments are collected through employers. Usually, tax refunds are also arranged through the company. If, however, employers do not take the necessary steps, employees can directly apply for a tax refund by filing the necessary documents.

In late 1995, Syed asked his employer for one of the documents, called a certificate of withholding, but was rejected. Without the document, Syed, who came to Japan in 1992 on a 15-day sightseeing visa, has been unable to recover most of his taxes. “I’m very happy in Japan, except for the tax problem,” said Syed, who hopes to return to his family of five in Karachi if or when he receives the refund. The Yokohama employer, whose identity is being withheld, said he has kept in his possession withholding certificates made for Syed.

Both sides agree, however, that the employer did provide Syed with 122,000 yen — an apparent refund for only one of the three years that he worked at the factory. Syed’s employer apparently did not file his tax papers for the other two years, according to Katsuo Yoshinari, head of the Asian Peoples’ Friendship Society, a nongovernmental organization in Tokyo.

The organization helps foreigners staying illegally in Japan on humanitarian grounds. It handles about 150 cases regarding income tax per year, Yoshinari said. Foreigners who had overstayed their visas began seeking advice on taxes from the group a few years ago, he said. Related information has spread through Japan’s foreign community.