Getting to know Japan is hard work: a complicated language, cultural esoterica, mixed messages about prudent paths to take. People who find their way around and assimilate deserve kudos and respect.

And reward. The Japanese government should welcome them by granting Permanent Residency (“eijuken”). But recently people eminently qualified under PR guidelines are being rejected — even Japan’s first Caucasian geisha!

First, why PR? Well, try buying a house without it; most legitimate financial institutions (those run by individuals who still have pinkies) will not grant major loans.

Also, goodbye visa-renewal hassles, and you can take any kind of employment, change jobs, get divorced, etc., all without the risk of visa violation. PR is the next best thing to citizenship, without the identity sacrifice of giving up your native passport (since Japan doesn’t allow dual nationality).

Who qualifies? According to Immigration ( www.immi-moj.go.jp/ ), PR is a matter of time, visa tenure, and marital status.

In principle, people of moral fiber and legal solvency qualify after 10 years’ consecutive stay — half that if you are deemed to have “contributed to Japan.” For those with Japanese spouses or descendants (“Nikkei” Brazilians, for example), three to five consecutive years are traditionally sufficient.

That’s pretty long. The world’s most famous PR, the U.S. “green card,” only requires two years with an American spouse, three years’ continuous residency without.

Still, record numbers of non-Japanese are applying. The population of immigrants with PR has increased about 15 percent annually since 2002. That means as of 2007, “newcomer” PRs probably outnumber the “Zainichi” Special PRs (the Japan-born “foreigners” of Korean, Chinese, etc. descent) for the first time in history.

At these growth rates, by 2010 Japan will have a million PRs of any nationality — close to half the registered non-Japanese population will be permitted to stay forever.

But I wonder if Japan’s mandarins now feel PRs have reached “carrying capacity” and have started throwing up more hurdles. Let’s triangulate from three examples this past month.

Jack Dawson (a pseudonym) is the head of an English department in Fukuoka, one of only a few NJ permanently employed at Japanese elementary schools. Having worked continuously in Japan for nine years, he has been married for six with a Japanese and sired two children.

Under PR guidelines, he should be a shoo-in. But Fukuoka Immigration told Dawson he didn’t qualify. “They said I needed to be here 10 years,” he says.

Mark Butler (also a pseudonym), an unmarried Ph.D candidate at Tokyo University, has worked for a Tokyo securities firm for 8 1/2 years. He’s been on a work visa for 9 1/2 years, after spending his initial six months here on a student visa.

“I want a mortgage,” said Mark, “but despite a lucrative job, seven banks refused me outright because I didn’t have PR. Some banks even told me to naturalize, just for a loan!

“So after 10 years, I asked Immigration if I qualified for PR. They said I’d probably get rejected because I’m six months short; when I changed my visa from student to work, the timer reset to zero. But they said I could still apply — a rejection now wouldn’t affect future PR applications.

“So I applied, and was rejected. They suggested I get married, change to a spouse visa, and wait three more years. But we can’t afford to keep renting!”

Mark stresses he’s not angry, and will reapply later this year.

But the case that takes the cake is Japan’s first Caucasian geisha.

Sayuki, a 15-year non-continuous resident of Japan, thought she qualified under “contributions to Japan.” Immigration’s Web site ( www.immi-moj.go.jp/english/tetuduki/zairyuu/contribution.html ) includes examples like awards “internationally evaluated as authoritative” (such as a Nobel Prize or an Olympic medal), domestic medals (such as the Order of Culture), or other activities helping Japan “through medical, educational and other vocational activities.” They also gave 38 examples of successful candidates ( www.immi-moj.go.jp/english/tetuduki/zairyuu/eizyuu.html ).

Sayuki hasn’t gotten her Nobel yet, but felt she had done plenty. Attending Japanese high school and university for 10 consecutive years (the first Caucasian woman accepted and the first to graduate as a regular student from Keio), she earned a teaching qualification in Japanese, and became a regular journalist at Kyodo News and NHK.

After making more than 10 television programs about Japan, publishing three academic books and lecturing in Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore, Sayuki topped these achievements off by becoming a geisha. Hence the name.

Nevertheless, Immigration rejected Sayuki’s application, with the stock answer of, “Your actual achievements up to now cannot be acknowledged as sufficient for granting PR.”

It was a slap.

Don’t let your ‘visa clock’ reset

“Continuous residence in Japan” is crucial for upgrading your visa status or getting Permanent Residency. Stays of five to 10 years are meaningless if they are discontinuous.

If you go outside Japan for any length of time, you must get a Re-Entry Permit (“sai nyukoku kyoka”) beforehand. Without it, your “visa clock” will reset to zero.

Even if you already have PR, if you leave Japan without a valid REP (or it expires while overseas), you will lose your PR and have to start all over again.

More information in “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan” (Akashi Shoten Inc. 2008).

“The utter ridiculousness of me being rejected just because my fifteen years were nonconsecutive!” wrote an indignant Sayuki. “Whether or not I was here, I have been contributing to Japan since I was 22 years old. I was busy making television programs, lecturing and writing books on Japan overseas, and promoting Japanese culture to hundreds of students and academics worldwide.

“Then I became the first foreigner to represent Japan as a geisha, the most recognizable icon of Japaneseness. They wouldn’t take any of that into consideration.”

So maybe people shouldn’t bother learning Japan’s language and culture. Why not just put in the time, get married, and let inertia coast you through?

Because even that is no guarantee. PR requirements seem to depend on at which Immigration branch you apply, and which bureaucrat you talk to. Immigration’s English and Japanese Web sites even differ, according to respondents to the Debito.org blog ( www.debito.org/index.php/?p=1664 ). Some applicants wrote that they got PR after only three years, others were told they needed to have put in the better part of a decade — yet others closer to 20 years!

“Looks like Immigration bureaus have no standard procedure,” says Dawson. “It’s poor management by the government.”

Most ironic is that naturalization requires only five years’ continuous residence regardless of marital status. It’s arguably easier to qualify for citizenship than PR!

The point is that Immigration seems overly eager to reset the “visa clock,” as opposed to judging people on their individual merits and contributions. Sorry, but too much emphasis seems to be put on continuous residence and spouse. Life is often more complicated for those of us who aren’t bureaucrats.

In some ways, the PR regime appears to be anti-assimilative, especially when you consider the lack of transparency. For one, despite the deliberation process being supposedly case-by-case, the “rejection process” is anything but: The mandarins need not reveal their reasons for turning down an application. What’s to keep officials from denying PR because, say, they had a bad “bento” boxed lunch that day, or because your revenue stamp was stuck on crooked? We’d never know.

You can appeal the ruling but, according to Akira Higuchi, administrative solicitor and Immigration consultant, precedent won’t be on your side.

“One time the High Court ordered Immigration to reverse their rejection of a PR application. But that was partly because Immigration made a mistake collecting information. If you appeal but there were no mistakes, you must show PR guidelines are wrong or too inflexible. That’s extremely difficult to accomplish,” says Higuchi.

“You can contact Immigration lawyers (“bengoshi” or “gyosei shoshi”). An hour or so consultation shouldn’t cost too much, and they may come up with a better solution after examining your explanations/documents. But I suggest people just wait and reapply later. . . . There may be major changes to the PR regime next year.”

Whether Immigration is planning to ease or standardize the qualifications is unclear, but without more transparency, the results will be largely the same: We reject you — tough nuts.

Ultimately, this degree of arbitrary rigmarole puts Japan at a competitive disadvantage for attracting qualified, educated migrants. As the New York Times reported May 17, “Japan is running out of engineers,” adding that “Japan had 157,719 foreigners working in highly skilled professions in 2006, a far cry from the 7.8 million in the United States.”

Lots of newcomers not only know Japan, but also know stuff Japan needs. Must we require they devote up to an eighth of their life-span without a break, or else get married (not a legal option for many, as Japan does not recognize same-sex civil unions) before deigning to allow them to stay here securely?

Many of them might (and do) think twice about coming here at all.

Wise up, Immigration, and help Japan face its future. We need more people to stay on and pay into our aging society and groaning pension system.

Remember, non-Japanese do have a choice: They can either help bail the water from our listing ship, or bail out altogether.

Sayuki can be contacted via her Web site at www.sayuki.net. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

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