As of July 1, there are big changes afoot for the laws governing foreign residency in Japan. Not since 1990, when the categories of residence increased from 18 to 27, has the Ministry of Justice's Immigration Bureau undergone such a wholesale reordering of its operations.

What's coming up? Aside from a number of smaller revisions, there will be an extension of the maximum length of permission to reside in Japan from three years to five, the abolishment of the re-entry stamp system required to leave the country and return, and — most significantly — the replacement of the Alien Registration Card issued by ward offices with a new Resident Card to be managed by the Immigration Bureau.

While those first two changes will be welcomed by many in the non-Japanese community, the third could prove more controversial, as it means a consolidation of information on all foreign residents in a centralized location: the Ministry of Justice. The shakeup partly reflects a recognition by the ministry that it is no longer able to keep track of the changing demographics of the foreign population of Japan, the majority of whom, until recently, were "special permanent residents" (the legal description given to the zainichi Koreans and Taiwanese who lived in Japan before and during the war and were forced to take Japanese nationality, and their descendants). The number of Chinese in Japan, for example. has doubled in the past 20 years to more than half a million, meaning they now outnumber the zainichi Koreans. This influx — along with the arrival of workers from Brazil, the Philippines and other countries — helped push the total number of foreign residents to an all-time high of nearly 2.2 million in 2009, double the 1.1 million recorded in 1990.