Japan is changing its immigration system (probably). The law was passed last July, and within three years of that it will be brought into force by cabinet order. There is an article on the Japanese Immigration website about it, which is my source for what I’m writing here. That article is in Japanese, and has a helpful set of questions and answers.
The main change is that instead of the current Alien Registration Cards, or Gaijin Cards, there will be new IC-chip cards, issued directly by the Ministry of Justice. The card will carry basically the same information as the current ARC, although some information has been cut. It looks, for example, as if your region of birth and place of residence in your country of citizenship have gone. In the latter case, that’s very sensible, as long-term resident foreigners don’t have a place of residence in their country of citizenship. It will still have a photograph on it, but apparently the plan is to issue it when you enter the country, so maybe they plan to take your photo for you as soon as you step off the plane. Some or all of the information on the card will be recorded on the IC chip, but maybe not all of it. The web pages are clearly unclear on this; they explicitly say “all or some” of the information.
This has also changed the way you notify changes in details. Main details, like your name and citizenship, have to be notified to the immigration office. Interestingly, the page explicitly lists changes of sex as something you have to report to the immigration office. I have no idea whether the Japanese government recognises transexual Japanese citizens, but apparently they do recognise transexual foreigners. Of course, they also say that you should notify changes in your date of birth to the immigration office. I am truly at a loss to work out how that could happen; discovering an error in the initial registration? (Actually, I suppose that if you were a refugee, you might not, initially, know, and later find out.) Your address still has to be notified to the local municipal office, just as now, but apparently you won’t have to do it in person any more.
They’ve also added a few new situations that can get you chucked out of the country. Lying on your applications, lying about or failing to report your change of address within 90 days, not actually living with your “spouse” for over six months, and so on. It looks like these are basically there to close loopholes in the current law that made it difficult to deport people who had clearly broken the rules. On the other hand, there are quite a few exceptions for “good reasons”, such as fear that your abusive spouse will continue to beat you up, or your employer suddenly went bankrupt, throwing you out on the street. They’ve also added rules allowing them to deport people for helping other people enter the country illegally, which makes sense.
They also say that they are looking into making it possible to report changes to the immigration office by post or over the internet. This is important for people living on, say, Hachijojima, who would be quite a long way from the local immigration office. At the moment, you have to go in person, but the plan is to remove that requirement.
However, you are required to carry your Residence Card at all times, and your passport is not a substitute. That means that, if they do set it up to allow changes by post, they won’t be able to require you to submit your current card with your change notification, and will have to send you a new one first. No doubt this is one of the problems they are working on.
It is worth noting that this addresses the biggest practical problem that occurred to me when I heard about the system; some people live a long way from the nearest immigration office (I don’t), and if they had had to register all changes there it would have been a serious hassle. If you can do address changes locally and the others by post, that basically solves that problem. When I blogged about this in Japanese, I observed that I expected them to solve the issue, because they normally do.
There are also some concrete benefits for resident foreigners. First, the longer visas are all likely to be extended from three years to five years, and the student visa length has been extended to the length of a university course. I imagine the latter is going to be very helpful to students. (They say they are still investigating exactly which visas will be extended, but that basically all the three year ones will be.) Your residence card will have the same duration as your visa, unlike the current ARC, which has a completely independent five year duration, and you will get your new residence card when they put the new visa in your passport. This, incidentally, removes the need to go and tell the municipal office when you get your visa extended. Permanent residents will have seven-year cards. At the moment, it looks as though you will have to apply for a new one, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they change that to sending them out automatically. After all, they know they have your latest address, and if they don’t, so you don’t get the card, they can deport you anyway, and it’s less hassle for them to do it automatically. They can just program the computer to spit it out. It will need a way to apply if you don’t get one, but you’d need that anyway.
The visa length extension bit made the news. The other benefit doesn’t seem to have, and I haven’t noticed the expat community being aware of it.
The re-entry permit system is basically being abolished. If you have a valid passport and residence card, you will not need a re-entry permit if you leave Japan for less than a year (less than two years for special permanent residents). If you want to go for longer, you will need to get a re-entry permit, just like now, but it will be good for five years, rather than three (six, for special permanent residents). There may also be special situations in which you still need a permit; those haven’t been decided yet.
Note: this system is not yet in force. You still need a re-entry permit at the moment.
Some people have privacy worries about the IC chip (there are concerns over just how remotely it can be read; maybe you should carry the card wrapped in tin foil), but if the MoJ does its job properly and makes sure that it can only be read by people who are entitled to do so, I don’t see that it adds much to the current rules. Apart from that, it looks like these changes will all make life easier for people who are in Japan legally.