Immigration Authorities in Japan

If you are coming to Japan as a tourist, you will usually only need to deal with immigration when entering and leaving the country, but if you are here long-term (or want to extend your tourist visa, which is possible for some countries) you will need to go to a place called the 出入国在留管理庁. Yeah, that’s a mouthful, which is why I am going to just call them the Immigration Agency from here on. There are several offices around the country, usually in places with a higher population density such as Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, and at various airports, while the head office is located in Shinagawa, Tokyo.

Dealing with immigration authorities is almost never a pleasant experience in any country, and sadly Japan is no exception. Entry and departure to and from Japan, granting of new visa or changing of existing visa status, handling applications for refugee recognition are all examples of procedures under the Immigration Agency’s jurisdiction. The vast majority of people that will need to use the Agency’s services are – by the very definition of the word immigration – going to be foreigners, whose Japanese level will understandably vary a lot from person to person. Yet, despite this fact, foreign language support at the Immigration Agency is still severely lacking. If you have a question regarding your visa status or an immigration procedure, you can email them but you will probably never get a response, you can call, in which case you will probably get half of a non-answer from some underpaid temp staff (if you even manage to get someone on the line that does speak a different language), or you can go to the Immigration Agency in person which might result in a pretty long trip, depending on where you live.

Additionally, if you choose to go in person, the agency will most likely be heavily crowded. If you are looking to submit an application for a new visa/change of status or receive the result of your examination/new visa, then you can expect to wait multiple hours. In some cases, this can take a whole day, even if you go there as early as possible (some people start queuing in front of the building as early as 6 a.m.). If you apply for a new visa you will get the result of your application after a whole month at the earliest, with some visa types such as Permanent Residency taking up to half a year even.

Better to expect a severely outdated process

In general, the whole institution is just horribly outdated, clearly not ready to deal with the recent rise in foreigners coming to Japan and desperately in need of an update. To illustrate my point, here is a personal anecdote. If you change jobs as a foreigner in Japan, you have to report this to the Immigration Agency. Uncharacteristically, there is actually a website that lets you do this, saving you the trip to a nearby office. How modern! However, as if on a mission to prove their own incompetence, the website is a mess. First, you have to register an account, then log in using said account. If you managed to do this, you have to put in all the information that you just put in during account registration again, completely invalidating the need for the registration in the first place. Then you fill in the name and address of your former company, as well as the name and address of your new company, submit and that’s it. But what makes the process infuriating is that for some reason, you need to input any numbers in the address (such as the district code) in FULL-WIDTH characters. In every-day use, as well as any other web form that I am aware off, you are always required to type in half-width characters (for reference, halfwidth is the normal way of writing characters and numbers that you are used to and looks like this: 1991, while full-width looks like this: 1991). I am not sure why this requirement is in place and if it is a simple oversight or an arbitrary test of your knowledge about the Japanese keyboard. 

As you can probably guess from the above, I am not overly fond of the Japanese Immigration Authorities. Unfortunately going there is sometimes necessary, but in almost all cases you will have to go once or twice a year at most. If you have had trouble with the Immigration Agency in the past, let me know your experiences via mail or in the comments.

An Introduction to the Different Types of Visa for Japan

If you want to go to Japan, the first and most important thing that you are going to need is a valid visa. There are many different types of visa, all with varying validity periods, terms and conditions etc., so I thought a short introduction would be in order. See below in no particular order.

The short-term stay

The short-term stay visa, sometimes also called a visitor or tourist visa is the most basic visa available. As the name implies it allows you to stay in Japan for a short time (15 to 90 days, though citizens of some countries have the option to extend for another 90 days) and pursue activities such as tourism, visiting friends and business, as long as they do not include remunerative activities. Depending on which country you are a citizen off, you may not even need to apply for this visa, it will simply be issued to you once you arrive at the airport in Japan with your valid passport, but for some Nationalities (Chinese, Russian among others) an application in advance is necessary. 

Working Visa

Working in Japan under a short-term visa is illegal, so if you want to work in Japan you have to get a proper Working Visa. There are many different kinds of working visa, with every visa having strict conditions on what kind of work you are allowed to do. Usually, these are valid for 6 months to up to five years. Included are types such as the Highly Skilled Professional (based on a pretty unrealistic points system), Professor, Artist, Religious Activities, Journalist, Business Manager, Legal/Accounting Services, Medical Services, Skilled Labor, Entertainer, Researcher, Nursing Care and Intra-Company Transferee visa among others. These are all highly specific and restricted in who can apply for them and what activities they are allowed to pursue, so the number of people holding these types of visa is comparatively low. However, there are a few more visa that allows for a broader range of activities.

The Engineer/Specialist in humanities/International services visa

A very common visa among people working in an office in Japan. While the Engineer part can mean a person working at a car factory, it also applies to people working in the IT industry for example. The Specialist in humanities/International services part is equally vague, with people working at the reception of a hotel, airport workers and even translators/interpreters holding the same visa. If you apply for a job at a Japanese company, chances are very high that this is the working visa that you will receive. Just be aware that you cannot work “blue-collar” jobs, for example, manufacturing and similar jobs. The visa is usually valid for 1, 3 or 5 years.

The Specified Skilled Worker visa

The Specified Skilled Worker is for “blue-collar” jobs what the Engineer/Specialist in humanities/International services is for “white-collar” jobs. Due to Japans ageing population manpower is severely lacking, especially in industries such as farming, nursing and manufacturing. Thus, in 2019 the Japanese government created the Specified Skilled Worker visa. Japanese governments seem to hold a perpetual fear of “low-skilled immigrants”, swamping Japan and disturbing the 和 (Harmony), and therefor rules and restrictions apply. If you want to apply for the Specified Skilled Worker, you need to first pass a test that shows that you have general knowledge about the industry that you wish to work in, as well as a Japanese Language Test (JLPT N4). Then, when you are in Japan and working at your new company you have to take and pass more tests, otherwise, you will not be able to renew your visa. The visa is relatively new and unknown, but the many hoops that have to be jumped through to get it are most likely not helping its cause. 

As a side note, there is also the so-called Technical intern training visa, which is somewhat of a precursor to the Specified Skilled Worker visa. The original intent was to enable people from lesser developed countries to get training in Japan, so they might help the development of their home country once they return. In reality, due to the aforementioned lack in manpower, these trainees were (and still are) often used as cheap labourers, with tales of mistreatment and exploitation not being unheard of. All in all, a visa that’s probably best avoided.

There are other visa types as well, such as the Student visa, cultural activities visa, Spouse of a Japanese National Visa or the unholy amalgamation that is the “Designated Activities” visa status, but for now, I am going to leave you with these, more common kinds of visa.

What are employment/staffing agencies/人材紹介会社

Disclaimer: I currently work for an employment agency called “Astmil Corp”, located in Shinagawa Tokyo. However, I have tried to be as impartial as possible and not to embellish anything. Still, I felt it prudent to mention this. Read on.

Depending on where you are from in the world, this might be common knowledge for you, but I am from Germany and I was not very familiar with the idea of private companies searching for suitable employees/staff on behalf of other companies. While such companies exist in Germany, they seem to largely engage in what is called “head-hunting”, which is not as badass as it sounds, unfortunately. They search for people to fill managerial positions and other high-ranking staff or staff with very highly sought after/rare qualifications only. Most normal people in Germany will most likely neither use this service nor do they really know what it actually is and provides.

In Japan, however, these companies are a normal part of the job-hunting process. They exist in many different forms, from one-man entrepreneurs, searching for staff on behalf of their friends, up to major companies such as the Recruit Group. If you are using an internet website, searching for jobs in Japan then chances are good that this website is operated by an employment agency. While this has become the preferred way of sharing information about available jobs with jobseekers, this is of course not the only service such an agency provides. They also provide agent and training services, for individuals and companies alike among other things. 

The most common service, apart from the job search websites, will most likely be the agent service. In many cases, if you apply for a job on one of the websites, your application will not go directly to the company that is searching for an employee. Instead, your application will be screened by an agent beforehand. If they think that you are suitable, they will contact you via phone/email and set up a short meeting with you. This meeting will usually be over the phone and take around 30 minutes. They will share more information about the job in question and ask you a few questions, clarify information in your CV and so on. They then send this information, together with the CV and any other documents that you submitted, to the company where you originally applied. The company will only correspond with the agent, not directly with you, and you will learn only through the agent whether you passed the selection process or not. They will also handle the setting up of interviews, questions that might arise during the process etc. will give you hints on what the company is looking for in potential applicants and how to make a good impression during your interview. Some agents, especially those that specialize in hiring non-Japanese staff, might even provide continuous service after you are hired, helping you with visa application and relocation to Japan, translating and interpreting between you and your future employer if communication in Japanese is still difficult and so on.

A service that is free of charge for potential candidates

An integral part of this system is, that the introduction/紹介, e.g. the sending of your CV and other information that you might have provided throughout the interview, to the company is FREE OF CHARGE. Any costs incurred regarding the introduction will be borne by the potential employer. If you are being charged money by the employment agency, it is most likely a scam (unless you also took advantage of other services that they provide, such as education etc.). The fees that employers have to pay to employment vary, depending on the type of job and contract. But a common fee for successfully introducing a full-time employee (正社員) to a company is usually 30% of that employees first annual income. So, if you are earning 3 million yen during your first year at a company, the company will also pay 900.000 yen to the employment agency for introducing you to them. This means that there is an incentive for the employment agencies and their agents to ensure that they introduce you to a company that matches your profile, but on the other hand, it also means that they might push you to continue pursuing a particular job, even though you might be inclined to withdraw your application, for example, due to bad impressions during the first interview. When dealing with agents, it is usually best to treat them akin to staff in a clothing store I find. Listen to their advice and appreciate their services, but always remember that they are trying to sell you something. Make the decision that is right for you, not the decision that the agent wants you to make.

That’s it for now. In the future, I might also look at temporary staffing agencies (派遣会社) and other forms of employment in Japan, as well as a guide to the most common websites where you can find information on companies looking to hire non-Japanese staff. For now, this introduction to employment agencies is all. Use them. I have used them in the past and I currently work for one. I know, some people really hate being mailed or called by agents and prefer dealing with the companies directly, but employment agencies are an integral part of job searching in Japan, so ignoring them will reduce your access to a lot of companies searching for people like you and me.

So You Want to Work in Japan

In the current digital age, it is easy to glance all kind of news and information about a foreign country simply by visiting the internet and websites such as this one. But, as in most other cases, the real thing is a lot different from what you can see on a computer or smartphone screen. If you are studying the Japanese language or simply have an interest in Japan, you might start thinking about visiting Japan, to experience the country that has piqued your interest for real. For some people, visiting for a couple of weeks on a tourist visa might be sufficient, but especially if you are trying to learn the language and understand Japanese culture, you will soon find that just a couple of weeks are simply not enough to get a good grasp of either. There are several options available that allow for a longer stay. You could apply to a Language school in, or student exchange to Japan. If your country has a Working Holiday agreement with Japan (at the time of writing 26 countries have such an agreement with Japan), you might be able to get your hands on a Working Holiday visa. Both of these usually grant you a one-year stay. But, I hear you say, that is not enough! If you want to stay longer consider the following: living in Japan is not cheap and if you want to stay long-term you will need to find work.

A working culture that is certainly plagued by many issues – but stereotypes is one of them

The internet is full of people that have very strong opinions on working in Japan. Be it on websites like Reddit or Twitter, even the comment sections on news articles (reading those is a bad habit of mine), if Japan is mentioned you can almost guarantee that someone will bring up the working culture. Inevitably, a grizzled veteran will chime in, claiming that he has worked in Japan or a Japanese company for five years and that he hated every minute of it, how the working culture is abysmal, working hours are unreasonably long and that the Japanese even have a specific word for people killing themselves due to work-related stress (過労死, karoushi, lit. death from overwork). Other commenters will react with surprise and point to suicide as a big issue in Japan and that Japan ought to do something about their working culture to stem the tide of suicides and to attract foreigners to work in Japan.

There are several things wrong with the above statements. While it must be said that Japanese working culture can indeed be very overbearing, it is usually not the slave-driving hellscape that people on social media like to paint it to be. More often than not, the reason people work long hours is due to simple inefficiency. From my own experience, workers seem reluctant to make decisions by themselves and will instead consult their direct supervisor. If they are working in a more modern company, they might get an answer at this step (or simply be told to figure it out by themselves), but in one of the bigger and traditional companies, the supervisor might, in turn, defer the decision to the person above him. This process will then repeat itself until it reaches someone high enough in the chain of command to make a decision. By this point, a lot of time may have passed and the worker that is waiting for the decision may have simply been sitting on his thumbs the whole time, doing nothing. Another issue is excessive record keeping. Let’s say you work in a call centre and it is a busy day. You are expected to make a record of EVERY call that you take, but you are also expected to answer the phone as quickly as possible. So, what ends up happening is that you constantly answer the phone until your shift is over, and then write your call reports after your shift is over. Yet another pattern (especially observed in older people) is that people simply do not want to go home or are specifically looking to stay longer to collect overtime pay. 

Do not get me wrong, overtime and related stress are big issues in Japan, but just as there is a word for death from overwork, there is also a word for companies with these abysmal working conditions with people calling them “black” companies (ブラック, burakku). Awareness is slowly but surely rising. Due to an ageing population (though this is another problem that is blown out of proportion by the internet at large, Japans population is ageing at a similar rate as many other first world countries’), there are 108 job offers for every 100 people seeking work, and companies have taken to lure potential candidates with promises of little overtime, maternal/paternal leave among other things. Change is slow but happening.

Another issue that gets raised is the so-called karoushi, death from overwork, and suicides in Japan in general. First, the existence of the word itself seems to surprise many people, but that simply shows that they most likely do not have an understanding of the Japanese language. If you are familiar with the language you will know about Kanji (characters that were imported from Chinese script). If you want to create a new word in Japanese, you simply pick the appropriate Kanji, stick them together and you have a new word. New words and phrases are coined all the time in any language, but few make it as easy as Japanese (or by association most likely Chinese, though I cannot speak to that), so there being a specific word for a specific issue or phenomenon does not necessarily speak to the severity of said issues or phenomena. Further, let me say that every suicide no matter the issues that led to it, is a serious and sad issue and should be treated as such. I do not mean to downplay the stress that some people have to endure and the mental issues that might lead one to end one’s own life. But looking at the bigger picture ( figures on suicide rates per country, released by the WHO in 2016), we see that Japan is lower on the list than countries such as Russia, South Korea and Belgium, and only marginally higher than for example the United States. Especially so-called “Westerners” (as a German I would count myself under this label, whatever it’s worth) often think suicides are only a problem in the eastern hemisphere, but looking at the numbers, rising suicide rates are a global problem that every country needs to address and are not isolated to Asia or Japan.

If you made it until this point in the article, お疲れ様です(otsukaresamadesu). All that is to say, that many people with strong opinions about working in Japan might not be fully informed about the bigger picture or are basing their opinion on outdated or incorrect information. There is a lot of that out there so do not rely on information from the internet to make your decision about whether you want to work in Japan or not (I appreciate the irony of telling you not to listen to me, but hopefully you know what I mean). My recommendation to anyone looking to work in Japan would be: do a language exchange and maybe try to do an internship, though those are far and few between, get a Working Holiday visa if your country allows for it and get some work experience, or maybe even come on a tourist visa to do some volunteer work (as long as you are not paid for it, you are allowed to work on a tourist visa). Of course, do your research as well, but do not let your opinion be swayed too far, be that either by promises of anime delights that await in Akihabara or by the threat of death from overwork that might kill you as soon as you set foot in a Japanese company building. Experiencing the real thing for yourself will give you a much clearer picture and will let you make an informed decision on if you want to work in Japan or not.