Immigration crackdown seen as paving the way for state to expel valid visa-holders


Staff Writer

After successfully expelling visa overstayers over the past decade, Japan is now shifting its immigration control focus to a new target: people in the country on bogus visas.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has submitted a bill to revise the immigration control law that will stiffen the crackdown on individuals it views as an emerging threat to public safety.

While it is unclear whether the bill will be passed during the current Diet session that ends in late September, lawyers and activists warn it is intended to give authorities leeway to weed out foreigners they consider “undesirable.”

Not only that, the envisaged law is so broadly defined that its impact could in reality extend to any foreigners who have mishandled their paperwork in applying for visas, they said, adding it even risks stoking xenophobia among the Japanese public.

The revision takes aim at what the government tentatively calls bogus visa holders, or giso taizai-sha (those staying under false visa status). The government has no official definition for them, but the term typically refers to foreigners whose activity is out of keeping with their visa status.

“The tricky thing about them is that they are outwardly legal,” immigration official Tomoatsu Koarai said, adding they possess a legitimate visa status and therefore are registered on a government database as legal non-Japanese residents.

Examples include “spouses” of Japanese nationals married under sham marriages, “engineers” whose job has nothing to do with engineering, and “exchange students” who no longer engage in academic activities after facing expulsion, the Justice Ministry said. Unlike visa overstayers, whose illegal status is clear-cut, these bogus visa holders theoretically remain legal until they are apprehended and have their visas revoked.

The ministry cracked down on about 280 such cases in 2014, but officials estimate the real tally is much higher.

“Compared with overstayers, these bogus immigrants are much harder to detect,” Koarai said, adding their tactics of deception have grown increasingly cunning in recent years.

Spotting overstayers is easy, he said, as all immigration has to do is consult its database and check up on the expiration date of a person’s visa. But to prove someone is actively deceiving a set visa status, an exhaustive investigation into each individual is necessary. The process, Koarai said, is “really time-consuming.”

Under the current framework, bogus immigrants are stripped of their visa if apprehended, but they face no criminal penalty, although they will either be deported immediately or instructed to return home within a month, depending on the circumstances.

The law, if enacted, will subject those who obtained or renewed visas through “forgery and other unjust measures” to criminal penalties, including up to three years’ imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of ¥3 million. The ministry believes imposing criminal penalties will serve as a deterrent.

The envisaged law will also expand the scope of foreigners subject to visa revocation.

Currently, foreign residents are allowed to retain their visa for three months after stopping their permitted activities. The bill calls for scrapping this three-month rule and ensuring that foreigners who discontinue their activities forfeit their residency status the instant they are caught engaging in something different or “planning to do so.”

The Abe government characterized in 2013 the stiffer crackdown on the bogus visa holders as part of its drive to make Japan the “world’s safest nation.”

Immigration official Koarai agrees, saying it disrupts Japan’s immigration control.

“If we failed to crackdown on those spurious immigrants, it would send out the (wrong) message that foreigners are free to flout immigration rules. We tolerate no rule-breakers,” he said.

Coming on the heels of Japan’s strenuous crackdown on visa overstayers, the bill represents a shift in its target, according to Eriko Suzuki, a professor of immigration and labor policies at Kokushikan University.

As is represented by the government’s five-year initiative started in 2004 to “halve” the number of illegal immigrants, Japan has over the years successfully repatriated visa overstayers, who totaled 60,007 as of Jan. 1, nearly a fifth of the peak in 1993.

The bill reflects Japan’s renewed push to banish non-Japanese it deems as “undesirable” and gives authorities greater discretionary power to this end, Suzuki said.

As Japan braces for an inevitable increase in foreigners — with its domestic workforce rapidly shrinking and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approaching — a law like this is just what immigration needs to tighten control over incoming foreigners, she added.

“Setting forth these criminal penalties puts authorities at ease, because it grants them the legal basis on which to crack down on unwelcome individuals,” she said.

A stepped-up measure like this risks making Japan a more controlling society, putting foreign residents in general, including valid visa holders, under stricter surveillance by the government and the public, she warned.

Suzuki is far from alone in voicing skepticism over the bill. Concerns are growing among critics over its fundamentally vague phraseology and possible ripple effects.

Several human rights organizations, including the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and Solidarity Network with Migrants in Japan, separately issued statements against the bill.

Lawyer Koji Yamawaki, for one, pointed out that requirements for criminal penalties were too broad.

Similar court rulings in the past suggest the phrase “forgery and other unjust measures” does not just refer to cases involving obvious deception and mendacity, he said. It could also include simple missteps on the part of foreigners in filling out application forms, such as failing to notify immigration beforehand of some minor facts concerning their life in Japan, he said.

“For example, it’s often the case foreigners applying for a working visa don’t inform immigration of the fact they live together with someone they are not legally married to, because they thought the information was not relevant. But the reality is many of these omissions have been deemed by immigration serious enough to revoke one’s visa,” Yamawaki said.

What’s worse, after the law’s enactment, these minor lapses could not only cost foreigners their residency status, but hold them criminally liable.

“The point is, under the intended law, even if you’re not being actively deceitful, you could still be prosecuted for simply not mentioning facts that immigration wanted to be aware of — no matter how irrelevant and trivial they may be. The law is that broad,” the lawyer said.

Yamawaki also pointed that out it’s not just foreigners who could be held accountable for such slip-ups. Their lawyers, employers or anybody involved in helping fill out their forms could also take the blame — at least theoretically — on the grounds that they partook or aided in their alleged attempt to obtain visas illegally, he said.

Should such a law be enacted, Yamawaki warned, it could instill the public with the misguided notion that foreign residents are troublemakers and contribute to breeding a xenophobic atmosphere.

“I’d dare say this is an extremely dangerous legislation the likes of which have seldom been seen in recent years,” he said.

Tokyo-based lawyer Shogo Watanabe, meanwhile, said the government was pursuing the impossible. Its expected crackdown on the tiniest missteps in a person’s paperwork, Watanabe said, ran counter to what he called the fundamentally “shady” way migration works worldwide. Human migration, he said, was not as perfectly clean as Japanese authorities apparently want it to be.

Illegal as they are, brokers, for example, now play an “indispensable” role in facilitating people’s movement in today’s world, while many migrants feel compelled to omit or understate certain facts that they fear may erode their chance of a successful application.

“That’s the reality of how migration works. No matter how hard Japanese authorities may try, they simply can’t make it completely crime-free,” Watanabe said. “Rather, picking at every single omission committed by foreigners sounds to me as tantamount to excessively interfering with people’s movements.”

Although those who intentionally feign marriage or occupation perhaps should be penalized, the law could in theory put in danger the vulnerable who should in fact be protected, not punished, human rights activists say.

One such example is technical interns who work under a state-backed foreign traineeship program called the Technical Intern Training Program.

Under the discredited initiative, allegations are rife that interns have been underpaid, forcedly overworked and abused sexually and verbally by unscrupulous employers. Fed up with subpar wage standards, a record 4,851 interns fled their workplaces in 2014, according to Justice Ministry data.

As the ministry acknowledges, these “runaways” will be considered in violation of the envisaged law once it takes effect, too, because — technically speaking — they no longer are fulfilling their duties as “technical interns” as per their visas.

“To think the law aims to crackdown on those interns who were fortunate enough to be able to escape their workplaces . . . this is unbelievable,” Ippei Torii, secretary-general of the Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, said.

“The government completely lacks the understanding that these people are in fact victims who need to be protected.”

  • Charles

    “Currently, foreign residents are allowed to retain their visa for three months after stopping their permitted activities. The bill calls for scrapping this three-month rule”

    If that happens, how are we supposed to be able to change jobs? Especially for specialized professionals, the pool is small enough where it might take several months to find a new job. Shortening the current three months to an even shorter amount of time will force foreigners to take the first available job they can find, even if it is an awful one, just to keep the visa. Forcing foreigners to grab the first available job as quickly as possible just to keep their visas will result in lots of stress for foreigners as well as many unhappy Japanese employers and foreign employees, who are “stuck with each other.”

    In the past, we had until the end of the visa validity period to find a new job. In 2012, this was shortened to three months (well, technically as many as 104 days–14 days to report it, then 90 days to find a new job). This is a worrisome trend. What’s next? One month? Two weeks?

    I’m currently studying for a degree in Computer & Information Science (and already have a degree in IT and two career studies certificates in Business IT and Application Programming), and can read/write >1,300 kanji (I passed Kanji Kentei 4-kyuu last year with a solid 168). I know that if I keep studying hard, I will be able to work in IT as soon as next year. This new law change worries me greatly because, as a fresh graduate, I’m going to need more than two weeks to find a job–it might take several months.

  • J.P. Bunny

    Seems okay, since it is all in order to make Japan the” world’s safest nation”, and protect public safety. Without the crackdown foreigners may run amok and poison the subway system, drive into crowds of pedestrians, scam the elderly out of their life savings, run rip-off bars, build condominiums that don’t meet earthquake standards, or set up businesses that sexually exploit high school girls. Things that the natives here would never do.

    • Charles

      Exactly—or maybe these foreigners would ride around on their loud, obnoxious motorcycles late at night, waking up whole neighborhoods in the process. Or maybe these foreigners would have a massive orgy with hundreds of people that would disgrace Japan and strain international relations. They might even cause the economy to shrink for the next 25 years! Things that the natives here would never do.

      Thank goodness the Japanese government has its priorities straight. 60,007 visa overstayers! That’s TWICE AS MANY illegal immigrants as America*!
      *(if you multiply by 367)

    • nrolland

      Indeed, they should never tolerate people coming in their country to do that. what is your point ?

    • Ken Foye

      All of those behaviors that you mention, while certainly negative, are irrelevant — totally irrelevant — to the issue addressed in the article.

      People who are here on valid visas, but who are engaged in activities not permitted by their visa status, should not be surprised if they’re asked to leave after being caught.

      The behaviors you mention have nothing to do with that. Nor do they mean that Japan must give up its right to enact certain immigration laws and expect non-citizens to obey them.

      This is a post-9/11 world, and as a foreign resident of Japan who plans to live here till death, I do NOT want to see people here on student visas if they’re not actually studying. Or people who are supposed to be teaching English but not actually teaching it.

      And no offense, but your attempt to deflect attention over to other issues — as if that somehow means Japan isn’t allowed to have immigration control laws — should be dismissed. Those are separate social ills having nothing to do with the fake-visa issue.

    • Hendrix

      Yeah and of course we cant have foreigners reading kiddie porn comics in Akihabra or touching up women on public transport, oh and those foreigners are really into upskirt photos …cant have that, the Japanese would never approve..

    • Paul Martin

      What planet are you on ? All those illegal acts you mention where in fact done by JAPANESE PEOPLE !! The sarin gas attack was done by a japanese sect,The driver of the car that hit those pedestrians in akihabara was a japanese ..Most of the bars ripping off gaijins is japanese along with the shops selling kid prn in Akihabara .The people getting ripped off on fake grandson in trouble scams are in japanese also..Get you facts right .

  • Hendrix

    I’ve been expecting this, i was wondering when Abe and his team of xenphobes would play the foreign card…. of course they wont go after the real criminals who happen to be Japanese like the yakuza, no lets go after the weakest in society, foreigners… so expect more police id checks, surveillance and visits to our homes to check up on us…. in one word, Fascism.

  • Firas Kraïem

    I’m sorry, but “I thought it was not important.” is no excuse to willingly omit some information which is explicitly requested on an application form.

  • Ken Foye

    The headline is misleading and alarmist. They’re only going to “expel valid visa holders” if they’re engaged in activities that aren’t permitted under their visa status. Or if it’s clear that someone got a spousal visa through a sham marriage.

    If you’re here legally AND you’re not engaged in activity that your visa doesn’t permit, you have nothing to worry about.

    If someone’s here on (for example) a student visa but isn’t actually enrolled in a school or studying, why should they be allowed to stay? In this post-9/11 world, I certainly don’t blame Japan for asking people engaged in such deception to leave.

    We don’t have a right to be here; it’s a privilege extended to us by the Japanese government. As such, we are obligated to play by the rules and obey the immigration laws.

    If you’re here running a bar when your visa says you’re supposed to be teaching English, and you get caught in that deception, you shouldn’t be surprised if the Japanese government shows you the exit door.

  • Ashwin Campbell

    What they need to do is get rid of all those Nigerians who don’t really have a job except for harassing tourists and forcing them into overpriced clubs for fear of being mugged. How did they get visas anyway?

  • Shady Shita

    This is really extrem, the part in the article (The Abe government characterized in 2013 the stiffer crackdown on the bogus visa holders as part of its drive to make Japan the “world’s safest nation.) reminds me of donald trump talking about immigrants as criminals :( , the majority of them work their as* off to make a living for themselves, really the more i read about this topic , the less i want to go to Japan :/

  • Frido

    Guys, wake up from your dream of a residence in Japan – go home! Don’t you read between the lines: Go back to your country of origin and work there! Japan doesn’t need gaijin who steal jobs from the natives. You state that English teaching is performed best by native speakers? You are wrong. Let the Japanese deal this among themselves. They are very inventive in situations where a crisis arise.
    Abe and his entourage want back the splendid isolation Japan pursued during the Edo period. This government only wants foreigners as tourists who let their amount of money in the country and leave as fast as possible after their shopping bags have been filled and the wallets are empty. In return, all other countries of the world should agree to send their residents of Japanese origin back to their home country to help Japan overcome its population decrease – maybe some good English teachers are among them.

  • tisho

    According to Gallup int. survey conduced few months before the Fukushima disaster, approx. 5 million people world wide (including Africa) have expressed desire to immigrate to Japan if they could. Today, that number is most likely smaller because of the Fukushima disaster and the financial crisis. So, even if Japan completely opened up its borders for anyone who wants to come, there will be less than 5 million people only. In comparison, 80% of the people want to immigrate to the United States. The debate in Japan should not be whether or not to allow more immigrants to come, it should be how to make more immigrants to come.

  • William Massie

    What I wonder about is for people who have side jobs. Say they have a teaching visa but do something else like translating or graphic design on the side. Don’t tell me they will start fingering those peeps too. I’ve known people before who did that kinda stuff.

  • qwerty

    I met a japanese guy (in a sauna) recently, he said hello, where are you from? japan is great isn’t it? boom, just like that. I get this kind of stuff all the time. who else says that? it’s cringeworthy
    but nationalism is getting ridiculously strong here
    nationalists need enemies – any foreigners / outsiders will do
    visas? what visas?

    “So it is the human condition that to wish for the greatness of one’s fatherland is to wish evil to one’s neighbors. The citizen of the universe would be the man who wishes his country never to be either greater or smaller, richer or poorer.”
    ― Voltaire

  • Paul Martin

    I have long stated that Japan’s immigration bureau is controlled by blatant anti gaijin racists! My whole family is integrated with Japanese, but bureaucrats are ruining any chances of fair immigration applicants even from close allied countries like the US, UK and Australia. I pointed this out to fellow reporter Osaki years ago when he visited me at the request of the Japan Times editor!
    I and my family who have been married to Japanese for many years 1 with children have had extreme difficulties with Japan’s immigration policies even though we have never overstayed and always complied with documents,etc.
    I also predicted the day may be fast approaching when many if not MOST gaijins will leave and look for friendlier countries and greener pastures!

  • Scrote

    This should mean the end of the Technical Intern Training Program as nearly all of the interns perform manual labour and are only “trained” for the first hour or so of their internship. As such, the interns will be violating the terms of their visas and should be deported under this new law.

    Of course, in reality the government will continue to ignore the blatant abuse of the Technical Intern Training Program as the companies that use it donate generously to the LDP. Thus the new law will just be one more nonsensical addition to the biased and farcical Japanese “justice” system.

  • Paul Martin

    The fact that my comments were removed proves even the Japanese owned and controlled Japan Times is afraid of the truth and free opinions from gaijins !
    Hopefully someday gaijins will control an english newspaper and media and the World can see Japan as it REALLY is full of prejudiced censors who cannot face criticisms from Japanese resident foreigners !