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.”

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