Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Immigration Administration Control in Japan

Feb 3, 2010

[Author's note: This essay represents only personal views. It does not represent the Japanese government's official policy positions or official administrative guidelines.]

Introduction to Japanese Immigration Policy

"Internationalization in compliance with rules" has been the Immigration Bureau's motto since the 1980s. It is a straightforward expression of the objective of immigration control, which is to appropriately treat foreigners who enter and stay in Japan for various purposes in accordance with the laws and regulations established under the government's immigration policy, and to promote international exchange and harmonious coexistence among Japanese nationals and foreigners.

The needs of the people of Japan and foreigners with respect to Japan's immigration control services may be categorized into two types. First, there is a need for smooth and smart immigration control with simple, efficient, and quick procedures for actively accepting foreigners who are compatible with the national and public interest of Japan, in order to promote international exchanges and develop the economy and society, and for international humanitarianism as well. The other need is for secure and strict immigration control to protect Japan from terrorism and crimes and to ensure a secure and safe society without foreign offenders, including prompt deportation of foreigners who stay illegally in the country. To achieve the former, we need to improve administrative services such as examination procedures, while to achieve the latter, we must reinforce border control to crack down on those considered a security threat and prevent them from entering the country.

Although these two requirements for immigration control may appear to conflict with each other, both must be fulfilled diligently. The Immigration Bureau cannot carry out its mission without addressing both of them. Therefore, it is important for us to reform the processes and systems using the latest technology while increasing our manpower and improving our skills.

Reinforcement of Administrative Infrastructure

Today, the work of Japan's immigration control authority faces major challenges due to changing socioeconomic conditions such as employment, social welfare policies, and public security issues.

At immigration offices around the country, 3,714 officers are engaged in various services related to the approval and rejection of applications, as well as the prosecution and deportation of offenders in the three main phases of immigration control, namely entry examination, status of residence examination, and deportation procedures.

Manpower, budget, detention facilities, and information systems make up the four types of administrative resources for the daily operation of immigration control services. Since the late 1980s when problems involving acceptance of foreign workers and illegal working began to emerge, manpower has doubled, the budget has increased 3.8 times, and the capacity of detention facilities has increased 6.6 times. Information systems were introduced in the 1970s and have become indispensable today for most immigration control services.

Policy measures and laws and regulations concerning the acceptance of foreigners and the immigration control system have been reviewed and revised over the years. In particular, the status of residence system was revised in 1990 to clarify the scope of acceptance and criteria for examining foreigners wishing to stay in Japan. During 2004 and 2005, the Japanese Immigration Bureau introduced the departure order system, which encourages illegal foreign residents to leave Japan and revokes the status of residence of foreigners who entered Japan by deceit or other wrongful means. In addition, the refugee recognition system was revised to bring in refugee examination counselors and to clearly define the relationship between refugee recognition and granting of residence permits. Since 2007, biometric systems for entry and departure examination have been introduced at all Japanese airports and seaports as the best way to counter terrorism and illegal entry of foreigners. Following upon these reforms of the border control measures, a major reform of immigration control will be implemented in 2012.

Residence Management System

In July 2009, the Diet adopted a revision of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, introducing a new residence management system. The revision applies to foreign nationals residing legally for medium to long term with a status of residence. Under the new residence management system, the alien registration system operated by municipalities since 1947 will be abolished; thereafter, administrative services for the welfare of foreign residents will be handled by the basic residents registration system operated by municipalities, while operations relating to managing necessary information for the residence of foreigners (such as residence cards, a replacement for the alien registration cards currently issued) will be conducted directly by the Ministry of Justice.

The new residence management system is intended not only to ensure a secure and safe society free of illegal foreign residents and foreign residents who have disguised their qualifications, but it will also provide an institutional infrastructure to make it easier to accept foreigners for employment, study, and other activities for the benefit of Japanese society, which will require greater foreign manpower due to population aging and the declining birth rate.

The early summer of 2012 will mark a turning point for the Immigration Bureau and staff when the revised Act becomes fully enforced. Along with the issuance of a residence card to medium- and long-term foreign residents, the new system will extend the maximum period of stay to five years from three years. In addition, a system of "presumed permit of reentry" will eliminate the need to file an application for permission for reentry when reentering Japan within one year of departure.

Under the new system, a residence card shall be issued to applicable persons in addition to landing permission, permission for change of status of residence, and permission for extension of the residence period. The card is equipped with a chip to prevent forgery and alteration, and the chip records information about the holder, including the type of permission to stay in Japan, working permission, etc. Under the new residence management system, extension of the period of stay and other measures to improve the convenience of living will be provided for legal foreign residents so that they can settle in Japan, become familiar with the local community, and promote cultural exchanges, thereby helping to create a society in which Japanese nationals and foreign residents coexist harmoniously. Conversely, it will be more difficult for illegal foreign residents and falsely qualified foreign residents to stay in Japan for a long time. Residence cards will not be issued to illegal foreign residents, and falsely qualified foreign residents will be discovered through stricter information analysis. These measures are expected to help prevent the entry of foreigners who are outside the scope of acceptance set by the Japanese government, to strictly deal with illegal foreign residents and workers, and to prevent crimes by foreigners.

The Ministry of Justice has also been studying Japan's immigration policy in light of the country's shrinking and aging population with a declining birth rate as a core part of the Basic Plan for Immigration Control (4th Edition). The Ministry is currently seeking the opinions of academics, economists, lawyers, business leaders, labor union representatives, and so forth on various issues such as encouraging foreigners with professional skills under the "300,000 Foreign Students Plan," welcoming nurses and care workers based on bilateral agreements, and the possibility of accepting foreign workers in a broader range of jobs.

Immigration Policy and Administrative Ethics

Japan's immigration policies are not unique in comparison with those of other countries. The Japanese government considers the influence of foreign visitors and residents on the economy, industry, employment, and people's lives in general, and welcomes those who are judged to benefit the national interest of Japan, while refusing the entry or extension of stay of those who may be a burden on society.

Residence permits are granted according to residence statuses stipulated by law—such as employment, study, training, dependants, spouses, etc.—and there is a certain period of stay for each status of residence. The law also specifies the conditions to be satisfied in order to qualify for each status of residence, such as educational and career background, details of activities, monthly remuneration, and other conditions of employment, as well as type and size of the entity employing the foreigner. According to these criteria, foreigners who wish to work or study in Japan can judge for themselves whether or not they will be accepted to stay in Japan, while the Immigration Bureau can process examination matters efficiently because the aspects to be reviewed are set out in advance.

Consider a typical example. A foreigner who wishes to work for a Japanese company to do business with people overseas and translate documents must have completed a university education or have at least three years of work experience. In addition to these background conditions, the application must show that the employer exists in Japan and is actually doing business (the use of a dummy company for applications is prohibited), and that the employment contract of the applicant stipulates remuneration which is not less than for a Japanese national.

But what is the Japanese government's view on using foreigners as manpower in manual, routine jobs and in jobs that can be easily performed by Japanese nationals? We believe that no government accepts foreigners merely to work in low-wage, non-skilled labor if such a policy reduces job opportunities for its own people or causes intense competition in the labor market and lowers wages. Another question is about cases where foreign residents become a burden on society. Is it appropriate to allow a foreigner, who is unable to sustain himself and who receives money or other support from the national or local government, to remain in the country as long as he wants? (The acceptance and support of refugees for humanitarian reasons is an exception.)

I should emphasize here that the Japanese government, through its status of residence system, welcomes foreigners who satisfy the clear examination criteria which have been long established under its immigration policy. Those examination criteria have not been and will not be changed often or arbitrarily. Japan will never suddenly stop allowing foreigners to come and stay in Japan or force legal foreign residents to leave due to an abrupt change of the examination criteria. This reflects the ethical standpoint of Japan's immigration control services.

Some Western developed countries seem to approve or reject the employment or residence of foreigners on a case-by-case basis after they enter the country, or they require companies to place job advertisements for nationals for a certain period before employing foreigners. On the contrary, the examination criteria in Japan's immigration control are rather like the bar in the pole vault, not the judges' scores in figure skating or gymnastics. And the height of the bar for each status of residence is set carefully and will not be changed often or arbitrarily.

Immigrants and Behavioral Ethics

It is estimated that in excess of 113,000 people overstay their visa in Japan. They tend to work as non-skilled laborers after entering Japan on a tourist or student visa. In addition, it is estimated that there are about 20,000 stowaways living in Japan who entered by hiding on a ship to avoid the strict landing examination. However, it is not difficult to identify these overstayers and stowaways by passport inspection. Japan has halved the number of overstayers and stowaways in the last five years by adding staff in the Immigration Bureau and through closer cooperation with the police.

In addition to illegal foreign residents, falsely qualified foreign residents also pose immigration control problems. They stay in Japan in disguise with technically legal residence statuses such as studying, being a spouse of a Japanese national, etc. Unlike illegal foreign residents that can be easily spotted by checking their passports and visas, it is only possible to identify falsely qualified foreign residents through various information analyses and patient, consistent investigations.

There are numerous types of falsely qualified foreign residents: (1) A foreigner who has been permitted to stay in Japan as the spouse of a Japanese national but does not live with the Japanese husband/wife, (2) A foreigner who has been permitted to study in Japan but does not go to school at all and works illegally, (3) A foreigner who has been permitted to work in Japan in a professional job by submitting false evidence and engages in non-skilled labor, (4) A foreigner who has been permitted to receive training in a Japanese company but is forced to work overtime with unreasonably low wages (in this case the foreigner is a victim), and (5) A foreigner who files a petition for recognition as a refugee after staying illegally in Japan for a substantial period of time claiming that it would be dangerous to return to their own country or that they had participated "temporarily" in an anti-government demonstration in front of the home country's embassy. In any case, these foreigners, having entered and stayed in Japan in a fraudulent manner, are determined to enjoy the life and rights of legal foreign residents by deceiving immigration official or demanding immigration amnesty.

Both illegal foreign residents and falsely qualified foreign residents abuse Japan's status of residence system and enter, stay, and work in Japan by intentionally deceiving the government and people of Japan. If the Japanese government allows them to do as they please, Japan's national wealth will be distributed to those who are not qualified to live in Japan. Moreover, in terms of the social security system, the problem of free riders who enjoy the benefits without shouldering their share of the cost is serious. The Immigration Bureau believes that these unethical migrants who attempt to enter or continue to stay in Japan by wrongful means should be expelled from the country, and it endeavors to ultimately create a society in which there are no illegal or falsely qualified foreign residents.

Immigration Amnesty and Ethics

In principle, foreigners who have entered and stayed in Japan by wrongful means will be deported from the country after undergoing deportation procedures. In some cases, however, the government gives these foreigners the privilege to remain in Japan. This is called "special permission for residence." Today, some people demand that the special permission for residence be flexibly applied, so the Immigration Bureau has published a guideline giving the criteria for granting special permission for residence, with relevant examples. In my own opinion, the ethical requirements for granting the special permission are as follows:

(1) The foreigner should be able to maintain a standard of living which is equivalent to that of the general public, and should not constitute a heavy burden on society in terms of social security. In other words, those who remain unemployed and receive public assistance and livelihood protection will not qualify for the special permission. (The acceptance and support of refugees for humanitarian reasons is an exception because the Japanese government has already understood their situation and standpoint.)

(2) Granting the special permission to a particular foreigner should not be unfair to legal foreign residents working in Japan. Preferably, the foreigner should have obtained professional expertise or skills while in Japan. Granting a status of residence which does not limit the type of job or business to the foreign residents who are pardoned for long-term overstaying and illegal settlement in Japan should be avoided. It would be unfair in light of more limited statuses of residence granted to foreign high-level professionals who stay in Japan legally.

(3) The foreigner should not be inclined toward antisocial behavior or crimes as judged from behavior at the time of landing and lifestyle while staying in the country. Those who violate immigration control policies such as misuse of a passport, resident registration under a false name, and illegal entry and stay in conspiracy with family members and friends should not be regarded as good members of society even if they appear honest and hardworking.

(4) The foreigner should be able to communicate in the Japanese language and have settled in the local community. However, it may be necessary to give special consideration to cases in which the whole family seeks the special permission because their children have learned Japanese and forgotten their mother tongue by attending a Japanese public school for compulsory education.

(5) It is necessary to consider whether or not the foreigner can return to a normal life in her own country. If the foreigner can do so, then she does not need to continue living in Japan.

Some human rights activists and humanitarian advocates insist that it is clearly a violation of human rights rules or international humanitarian law for the immigration control authority to force foreign residents who are arrested for long-term overstaying and illegal settlement to evacuate to their countries of origin. However, it is preferable that the final decision whether they are admitted to stay in Japan or not lies with a national consensus and careful consideration of national interests.


In this essay, I have addressed the ethics of global migration and people's right to move. Simply put, the Immigration Bureau merely processes relevant matters consistently, according to the provisions of the laws and regulations under the established immigration policy. Therefore, foreigners who respect the Japanese government's immigration control policy for entering and staying in the country will not face any disadvantage in terms of immigration control.

However, some foreigners attempt to enter or stay in Japan to earn a living or settle down by wrongful means. Various methods used in the past to extend their stay include: demanding protection of human rights or humanitarian treatment from the Japanese government by exaggerating facts or even presenting a false story; filing an administrative complaint for withdrawal of the deportation order to gain time; and intentionally refusing to obtain a passport from their country of origin.

Immigration control services examine people, which means it is impossible to determine approval or rejection by mechanical means. It is necessary to judge in a comprehensive manner, considering behavior and various other factors. If individuals freely cross national borders according to their instinct or will in violation of ethics, it will seriously damage economic and social order in both the country of origin and the country in which they stay. In summary, sound international exchanges depend largely on the commonsense, conscience, and ethics of those individuals who cross borders.

I think it is quite natural as an emotional proposition to advocate "the freedom of movement" in the world from the viewpoint of universal ethics in order to realize an ideal international society which doesn't have boundary lines at all. All people have the right to pursue a happy and prosperous life. Therefore, people make every effort to free themselves from imminent privation and starvation, and infringement of life and property. And it is the expected duty of contracting states to international treaties to accept the refugee who asks for protection.

However, it is very difficult to obtain approval of public opinion about accepting the free rider from neighboring nations unconditionally at the sacrifice of the economy, employment, national security, and daily life of the people. One foreigner states that he is a foreign student, a technical trainee, and a Japanese spouse. Another foreigner claims to be a professional expert, a specialized or skilled worker, or a refugee who needs protection. On the contrary, it appears that some of them are illegal or irregular immigrants aiming to "break away from poverty" and "pursue the wealthy life."

It is generally understood that our country would like to stand on a position of noble-mindedness in international society under the Peace Constitution. When a foreigner does make a serious demand about a respect for human rights and humanitarian concerns, needless to say, it is necessary to carefully examine each case. But we should not accept the demand without any question and should analyze exactly the influence on economy, national security, and daily society. Moreover, we should consider the reaction of public opinion to immigration policy.

The immigration control administration authorities should keep in mind the ideas of "accountability with insight", "administrative management which maintains a balance between administrative systems," and "positive promotion of the measures for leading to improvement of national interest and public benefit."

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