Immigration procedures face huge shakeup

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.

All the changes that were decided upon in this process are scheduled to be realized within three years of July 15, with the first already having taken effect on that date: the stipulation that the destination of someone deported from Japan shall not include countries proscribed by the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Of all the amendments, the abolition of re-entry permits for stays outside Japan of less than a year is probably the least controversial. It should come as welcome relief to all those who, having gone through the ordeal of getting their status of residence updated, have then had to buy the stamp for re-entry and stand in two more lines to complete that process.

The end of the re-entry-stamp process and the extension of residence status to five years should help reduce the workload of the Immigration Bureau centers, the staff of which totals only around 3,500 members across Japan, with a single immigration officer currently reviewing upwards of 50 or even 100 applications a day. At the same time, however, the bureau will be taking over full responsibility for the registration of foreign residents — a mammoth task involving the processing and centralization of a huge amount of information currently held in ward offices around the country.

The introduction of this new system will mean a reorganization of the Immigration Bureau on a major scale, and the Ministry of Justice is carrying out a study on how to ensure the bureau’s Immigration Centers run smoothly as the changes are implemented. So far, this has only resulted in advance PR, including leaflets distributed at immigration centers and details of the changes listed on their Web site ( www.immi-moj.go.jp/english/newimmiact/newimmiact_english.html ).

The assumption of responsibility for the ID system for and registration of foreign residents raises big questions, the answers to which immigration lawyers that regularly deal with the Immigration Bureau seem as uncertain of as the bureau is itself.

The transfer of responsibility for “gaijin cards” from ward offices to the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau also raises important questions about what happens when a new resident arrives in Japan. At the moment, new residents with valid visas simply pass through immigration and are issued with their Alien Registration Cards on presentation of the correct paperwork at their local ward office.

There are sure to be bumps in the road as the changes come online. Some NGOs, such as the Committee against Resident Alien Card System, are concerned about the IC chip that will be embedded in the Resident Card, and in particular the security and privacy issues this raises, as well as penalties for filing changes late. The Immigration Bureau says that the chip will record “all or part of the information printed on the card,” which will consist of the cardholder’s name, birth date, sex, nationality, address, photograph, signature and status of residence. No further information has been provided by the bureau about penalties, except that they will be leveled if changes in the above information, as well as marital status, are not reported within 14 days.

For now, it is hard to tell what the reality of the new system will mean until it comes into effect — for both foreign residents as well as the Immigration Bureau, which has a lot of preparation to do as it adjusts to its new role as the central overseer of the expatriate population over the next three years. However, as far as Japan’s foreign community is concerned, the new system’s success is likely to boil down to one question: Will the handover of responsibility to the Justice Ministry mean a more bureaucratic, enforcement- heavy approach — or will it make life here that little bit easier?

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