Last year The Japan Times ran an article entitled “Students pay price in visa crackdown” about Americans put through the wringer on minor infractions.
At a subsequent meeting in Tokyo, a spokesperson for a foreign-interests group reacted to the news candidly: “This happened to Americans? Chinese, sure. But Americans? That’s overdoing it.”
Actually, it’s not. One of the sadder effects of the xenophobia coloring political and media commentary over “foreign” crime in Japan is that some Westerners now view “foreign” as a code word for “Asian.”
When reports of Japanese immigration cracking down on illegal foreign labor appear, these people dismiss the news as simply another rounding up of poor Asian factory or brothel workers.
Believing themselves above the law or confident that their status as some sort of “sensei” exempts them from the rules, these types can’t imagine immigration coming after them for something as “trivial” as a “minor” visa violation.
And then there are those who genuinely don’t know the law and are unaware they’re working illegally. Unfortunately, ignorance is no excuse, as one well-known Western-owned firm in the Kansai region recently discovered.
The firm, which employed part-time Western workers for years, was suddenly nailed. Immigration informed them that one of their part-timers was working illegally, forcing her to make a quick run downtown to get her visa status changed.
This is not an isolated case. If you run a business employing foreign labor part-time, or if you’re a foreigner doing a pocket-money “baito” on the side, you need to check, and quickly, that you are doing the right work on the right visa.
There is no shortage of visa categories in Japan — 30 categories, in fact. Assuming you’re not a permanent resident (“eijuusha”) or on a spousal (“haiguusha”) visa, you can work legally under about a dozen of them.
There are diplomatic and official mission visas (“gaikou” and “kouyou”), for those employed at embassies, consulates and government missions.
There are also cultural activities (“bunka katsudo”) visas are for those studying Japanese culture in some capacity.
Investor/businesses (“toushi keiei”) visas are granted to those running their own business in Japan or working for a foreign firm full-time. Specialized visas exist for lawyers (“horitsu”), accountants (“kaikei”), and medical (“iryo”) professionals.
The four separate types of student (“gakusei”) visas, with some restrictions, usually allow for 20-hour work weeks.
Increasing numbers of Westerners in Japan are employed under the obscure-sounding but convenient umbrella visa called “specialist in humanities and international services” (“jinbun chishiki/kokusai gyoumu”).
This is a good one, as it allows a very broad range of full and part-time jobs.
But many are also on professor (“kyouju”), instructor (“kyouiku”), or researcher (“kenkyuu”) visas, which will cause wrinkles in your lifestyle if you aren’t wary.
Because such people often have skills in demand by the business world, many moonlight on a regular basis. The problem is, as the above-mentioned Kansai firm found out, immigration frowns on that.
Exactly what work is allowed under each of the above visa categories is sometimes vague, subject to the discretion of whatever immigration official is investigating.
Nevertheless, the law is on their side, clearly stating that doing jobs outside your otherwise legal status will void your visa.
So how do avoid being voided? Ask the source.
Throughout Japan, there are 24 Immigration Control Offices (“Nyuukoku Kanri Kyoku”), usually open weekdays between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. There are also, in addition, eight separate Immigration Information Centers (in Sendai, Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka), with bilingual staff usually on hand to answer questions.
Immigration officials insist that if you really didn’t know the law and are eager to do things properly, you won’t get in trouble. A change over to the proper visa can usually be made with relatively little fuss, as it was with the foreign employee in Kansai.
But whether you’re an employee or an employer, be aware that what was once winked at by immigration is now being stared at. And many companies, cowed by authority or wishing a quiet life, are divulging names and contact details of foreigners — even those doing the odd job — to immigration.
One can argue that, on a practical level, this is a questionable way of ferreting out illegals. But it’s more sophisticated than being stopped on the street for, say, cycling, and being asked by police over and over again to display your gaijin card.
Of course, immigration policy here can often be arbitrary.
Indeed, The Japan Times receives enough unsolicited complaints from concerned readers on a regular basis about perceived abuses by immigration to indicate just how real the problems are.
But the fact remains that Japan is getting serious about rooting out illegals.
Even with all the Community Page essays decrying official gaijin targeting, it’s getting harder to argue that people working illegally (except of course those brought over on illegal pretenses on the part of the employer, such as the sexual slaves under the now-abolished Entertainer Visa) deserve much immunity.
Still, there are abuses by immigration. To help prevent them, here are some safeguards you can take against nit-picking bureaucrats now that might prevent problems later:
* A recorded hearing at Immigration to explain your circumstances? Definitely.
* A second chance under a new visa for researching the issue, owning up and apologizing for not doing things properly? Hopefully.
* A free pass just because you couldn’t be bothered, believing yourself above the law because you originate from a developed country? Or you remained convinced that Japan’s previously lax enforcement would continue? Forget it.
So, in the end you do have a choice. If you’re working, or employing people, illegally, you can continue to read newspaper stories about zapped illegal foreign workers, resting assured it couldn’t happen to you.
But don’t expect much sympathy when immigration comes knocking on your door. These days they are doing just that.
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For more information (in English, Japanese, Portuguese, Tagalog, and other languages) and for questions about your visa status and what part-time jobs are allowed, call one of the following Information Centers:
* In Sendai: (022) 298-9014
* In Tokyo: (03) 5796-7112
* In Yokohama: (045) 651-2851
* In Nagoya: (052) 973-0441
* In Osaka: (06) 6774-3409
* In Kobe: (078) 326-5141
* In Hiroshima: (082) 502-6060
* In Fukuoka: (092) 626-5100
Note: These are separate information centers from the regional Immigration Control Offices (“Nyuukoku Kanri Kyoku”).
More information on what your options are — just in case — visit: www.debito.org/whattodoif.html