Since debuting in October as Japan’s first law office catering to foreign nationals, Tokyo Public Law Office Mita Branch — Foreigners and International Service in Minato Ward has been deluged with appointments.
And lawyer Masako Suzuki believes there are more non-Japanese in dire need of legal help who are endangering themselves by hesitating.
“If you think you have any legal problems, just come visit us,” said Suzuki, who added that speed was important to solving problems.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve thought, ‘Why didn’t you visit us earlier?’ ” the veteran attorney on legal issues involving foreigners said, reflecting on desperate clients who took action too late, leaving her few options to help.
The Tokyo Public Law Office, which is supported by the Tokyo Bar Association, tried to address foreigners’ needs before the Mita Branch opened. Now monthly consultations have more than doubled, peaking at 74 in February, reflecting pent-up demand, Suzuki said.
The largest group of people who might need legal support, Suzuki said, are those who are overstaying their visa and those seeking political asylum. Those most vulnerable to isolation tend to lack official residential status.
Those with expired visas often let fear prevent them from coming forward and let years go by without taking any action. But procrastination in these cases only makes things worse, Suzuki said.
“Once a deportation order is issued, there aren’t many things you can do about it to save yourself,” she said. “But there are ways we can prevent that from happening.
“For example, if you’re virtually married (to a Japanese), you should immediately report it to the Immigration Bureau,” she said, referring to couples who have not registered their marriages with the proper authorities. “It’s often the case that people hesitate to do so because they’re worried their visas have expired, and just do nothing. And the next thing they know, they get caught.”
A Filipino woman who visited the TPLO’s Mita branch in mid-April seemed on track to escape that situation. The woman, who is in the country illegally, expressed how grateful she was when Suzuki accompanied her to the Immigration Bureau.
“I feel truly lucky that Japan has this office. It’s really amazing the extraordinary lengths it’s gone to to help me so far,” said the mother of two.
This is the kind of help many foreign residents are seeking from the new office. Japan has been chronically unprepared to provide legal assistance to non-Japanese because of language barriers and the lack of technical knowledge needed to adequately address their issues.
In addition to the systemic flaws, Japan has been losing its tolerance for visa overstayers over the past decade. Although the nation has seen nationalistic sentiment surge since hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took power in December, by no means is the trend a new development, Suzuki emphasized. This is especially true when it comes to people who are staying in Japan illegally.
“There was a time when overstayers could qualify to obtain driver’s licenses, and even open their own bank accounts. They were, in a way, a part of society,” she recalled.
That lenient mood drastically changed when a government-led initiative kicked off in 2004 to halve the number of visa overstayers in five years to make society more “crime-resistant.” Some overstayers were said to be involved in organized crime.
According to the Immigration Bureau, part of the Justice Ministry, the number of visa overstayers had plunged from 219,418 in January 2004 to 113,072 exactly five years later.
After the immigration law was revised to tighten surveillance over illegal workers last July, things became much more difficult for overstayers, Suzuki said. “Compared with what it used to be, Japan has become more unreceptive and aggressive toward outsiders,” she said.
But as much as Japan has tilted to the right, that doesn’t discourage Suzuki and her colleagues at the TPLO Mita branch from pursuing their goals — especially given the number of foreigners in trouble.
But the very existence of the fledgling law office remains unknown to many in desperate need of help. To improve the situation, it plans to bolster ties with municipal offices and consulates, where foreigners with legal residential status often visit.
Most importantly, however, the Mita branch needs to beef up its ability to reach out and network with the most impoverished communities, which tend to be less informed, Suzuki says.
“People we really need to approach are those trapped in their own communities and isolated from the outside world,” she said.