how I got kicked out of Japan
2006.03.10 (updated : 2021.06.30)
This cautionary tale is relevant to anyone sent to work in Japan.
In 2005, I worked for a very large IT company. Among other things, they provided software and support to the global life insurance industry from a thriving Canadian subsidiary, and had a booming business in Japan. For years staff had been sent to Japan on a regular basis, sometimes for lengthy work stays. Mine, it turned out, was to be the last of these longer stays: six weeks in the summer of 2005.
I went without a visa, because it was a bit of a scramble to meet the client's needs. The firm's Japanese unit instructed our Toronto office to have me to simply turn up at the airport, and that at the airport I could enter on a temporary visitor's visa. The Toronto office confirmed that it would work because they'd all been doing it themselves for years.
The first six week assignment went so successfully that the client in Japan with whom I'd been stationed wanted me to stay on longer—for six months. So we struck a deal by which at the end of my six week stint, I'd: go back to Canada to sort out visa the paperwork; pack up my apartment; and then return to Japan for the six month duration. Things went nearly according to plan except for one hitch: when the six month work term started, I once again I entered on a visitor's visa.
I'd need an Engineer's visa to stay in Japan and work for the duration of the full six month term, and my employer's Japanese unit had asked me to gather the supporting documents I'd need for an application. University transcripts, letters from past employers, and a few other odds and ends. These I turned over to my employer when I arrived in Japan the second time.
They reassured me that all would be well. And they'd "been doing this for years", so I had no reason to doubt it. So for the next ten weeks I concentrated on only two things: my day job and evening Japanese lessons. The company had assigned me a tiny hotel room, and I had pretty much everything I needed for the duration. Occasionally, I'd check with my employer as to the visa application process and was always assured that all was well.
Then came my return trip to Canada for Christmas. I still didn't have a visa in hand at this point, and knew enough to be concerned. So I checked in with my employer before booking my flight. They gave me the green light.
I went, and brought my new Japanese girlfriend along for the trip. We'd only met that Autumn and a trip to my country might have seemed a little early, all told. But it was a lucky thing we went, given what happened next, because I'm not sure I would have seen her again (or Japan, for that matter) if she'd not been there.
The two of us flew back to Tokyo at the end of our week's vacation. I tried to enter the country on a tourist visa as before, a vague sense of wonder about the whole thing nagging at the back of my head.
And sure enough, I was detained by immigration. First I was put in one of the little rooms just off of the immigration counters, where I sat with a collection of other foreigners looking bewildered and frustrated. Asking around, I was surprised to learn that some of them had been detained in surprising circumstances—such as not having a visa to enter Japan when their only intention was to take a transferring flight that didn't involved them leaving the airport. It troubled me that I was also being separated from my girlfriend. I didn't know what was happening and I couldn't communicate well with the Japanese authorities.
One of the detainees was fretting over a missed connection. Another was dealing with a squirming child. The room had exactly the wan yellowing white light and paint you'd expect, and as you'd expect those 80's faux-leather backless couch things that are all welded together. There was no water and no word from anybody. There was no mobile phone signal.
After quite a while, a uniformed fifty-something fellow appeared and took me to another room. As we entered the immigration office, he told me that he was to serve as my translator. We marched through something that looked exactly like a scene from a Japanese cop movie: uniformed people standing around without seeming to have any tasks at hand. Every one wearing an under-designed uniform with inscrutable adornments. Someone was smoking. I managed to suppress nervous laughter. This wasn't going to go great.
He sat me at a desk in a small room with a fellow wearing a tie. Right from the top, the interviewer asked me if I was working in Japan.
In the waiting room, or maybe even during the flight over from Vancouver, I'd already made up my mind that if I ran into this situation I'd stick to the truth and let the chips fall where the may. So I told him that I was in fact working, yes. He then asked why I was entering the country on a visitor's visa. I told him that I was following instructions from my employer. He clarified what I'd said, then asked again if I knew that I was entering the country on a visitor's visa to work. I confirmed that situation, then explained that this had been standard practice at my employer for some years.
When my translator told my inquisitor this, the two had a quick interchange that resulted in a wry smile on my inquisitor's face. Seeing where things were going, I produced the mobile phone I'd been given by my employer and told the immigration official that I could put him in touch with the Japanese employee who'd I'd been dealing with: because I had a visa application in the works.
They hadn't been happy about the fact of my employer sending waves of gaijin to work in Japan illegally, but they were interested in the news of a visa application.
I rang up my contact and explained the situation. He confirmed that he'd speak with the officials. The immigration officer handed me back the phone, and my contact told me that he'd do some phoning around within the firm. I waited with the two officials, one in his uniform and the other his empty cigarette tray and 1993-looking computer terminal. My contact eventually called back. Not a lot of people were in town because it was the hight of the year-end vacation period. But he had learned that in fact my visa application had never been started.
For four months, they'd been telling me everything that I'd wanted to hear—but in reality nothing had been happening. I didn't know much about Japan at the time, so I didn't know that I was just hearing "yes" for the sake of keeping things smooth. I also didn't know enough to ask for specifics: milestones reached; who was doing what. I also hadn't perceived that the unit in Japan I was working with wasn't the same unit that had been bringing in all of those other foreigners, and that in fact that second unit's demise was why I was there in the first place: I was a filler for the staff who'd bolted, leaving the Japanese limb of the vast IT firm without the staff it needed to support its product.
These are, of course, all the sort of questions you must ask. But I'd had stars in my eyes: Tokyo! Sure let me get my bags!
The immigration officer decided to eject me from the country. He made it clear that he thought that the situation wasn't my fault, and that he considered this an unfortunate situation. He even took me into the airport (beyond the passport-control area) so that I could meet poor Mari (my now wife) and tell her what was happening. We exchanged some things in our bags and said our goodbyes. I told her I loved her (it was the first time, but heart-felt), that I'd buy a webcam to stay in touch, and that I'd do what I could to come back.
All three, it turned out, were true. But first, a bit of hell.
Ninety minutes of what I can only describe as frantic drudgery followed, as I was hustled from one desk to another, from one airline to another, and from one potential return destination after another and finally onto a plane bound—once again—for Vancouver.
What happened on the other side of the Pacific is another story for another time, but it took me two months of renewed paperwork and delicate arrangements with my employer's offices in Toronto and Tokyo, with the client, and with the authorities, to secure a return to Japan. I somehow pulled it off. Now, years after returning to Canada to live, and joined not only by my wife and a child (and having had a second child here in Canada), I'm on good terms with the direct supervisor who sent me to Japan, and I'm still in touch with the contact who did the frantic dialing around. I also count as friends two of the managers at the client firm, who lost an HR manager when my wife left.
I have since heard from quite a number of people that it's common practice for IT workers to be brought into the country on visitor visas. It's been speculated that I happened to run into a sweep of some kind: a moment of very rigid application of the law (hence the people being detained during routine connections between flights). I can't really comment on that, but I hope that anyone sent to work in Japan will regard my cautionary tale. Here are the facts about applying for a visa to enter Japan:
- You are solely responsible for your visa application, you can not rely on an employer to do it for you. In fact, your visa application must be conducted outside of Japan.
- You will need considerable documentation for a working visa in Japan; the requirements are non-trivial (e.g. for an Engineer's visa at the time I needed both a University degree and ten year's experience) and I have seen qualified people ejected from the country because they couldn't come up with the laundry list of qualifications.
- It will take about two months to secure your visa.