Japan’s immigration control reform has proved to be fraught with pitfalls that could cause unwitting foreign residents to be expelled or face other serious problems.

The immigration control law was revised in July 2012, primarily to bolster the crackdown on cross-border terrorism-related activities. However, during its first year in force, the reform has caused various unexpected quandaries.

In January, a woman from Myanmar married to a Japanese man lost her permanent resident status after temporarily returning to her home country, because of a paperwork problem related to the reform.

Previously, foreign residents who left Japan for a temporary overseas stay were required to obtain prior permission for re-entry if they were to maintain their resident status. The reform has abolished this requirement, in principle, if the overseas stay is less than one year. Now, foreign residents only need to indicate their intention to return to Japan by ticking the appropriate box on the embarkation form submitted to passport control upon their departure.

However, the paperwork presents a pitfall.

The form filled in and submitted by the hapless Myanmar woman was one she had obtained previously, so it did not have the necessary box to tick.

When she submitted her travel documents and showed her return ticket to passport control on her departure, it was not pointed out to her that she needed to indicate on the embarkation card that she was planning to return.

When she arrived back at Haneda airport in Tokyo from Myanmar, the woman was denied re-entry. Thanks to her husband’s intervention, she was spared deportation and later regained her permanent residency.

Nonetheless, the couple emphasized that immigration officials should remind foreign residents of the risk they face if they do not fill out their embarkation form properly.

In another case, a foreigner who was staying in Japan to undergo vocational training was refused re-entry after inadvertently omitting to tick the necessary box when temporarily journeying overseas, according to the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization.

Noting that the change was intended to “enhance convenience for foreign residents,” an immigration control official at the Justice Ministry said that immigration bureaus across the country have been instructed to give foreign residents a reminder.

However, the ministry has no plans to revise the embarkation form or take other steps to prevent similar paperwork problems.

Meanwhile, the immigration control reform has apparently caused misunderstandings on the part of local governments about how to treat foreign residents.

This spring, a boy of Philippine nationality was barred from entering an elementary school in Gunma Prefecture because of his family’s illegal resident status.

The central government has allowed illegal immigrants to receive minimum administrative services, including education and some medical care, on humanitarian grounds. After the immigration reform, the government pledged to maintain leniency toward illegal immigrants.

However, many local governments erroneously believe the reform has stripped illegals of the right to receive administrative services.

Although the Filipino boy was eventually allowed to enter an elementary school, a similar incident occurred in Chiba Prefecture as well.

Foreign women married to Japanese men could also suffer unintended consequences of the reform.

To prevent marriages of convenience by foreigners seeking to obtain a work permit, the revised law prescribes that foreign spouses of Japanese nationals be deprived of their resident status if they live apart or otherwise fail to meet the requirements for married couples for six months or longer.

Fusae Oshita, a notary public in Yokohama, spoke of a case in which a Filipino woman married to a Japanese man who lived apart from him was forced to return to the Philippines because of the residency forfeiture rule. Foreign women separated from their Japanese husbands for legitimate reasons — in order to escape domestic violence, for example — could fall victim to this rule and be expelled from Japan, Oshita warned.

Pointing out that living together is not necessarily a prerequisite for married couples, Oshita said immigration authorities “should have a more open mind.”

The crop of problems that has emerged since the legal amendment is expected to increase calls for improvements in the run-up to the review of the revised law that is slated to be conducted three years after enforcement.

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