If you have had the courage to read my about page you will have noticed that I have an interest in Japan and that I am married to a Citizen of the Japanese Empire. People who have a spouse from another country, continent or planet will have had to make the decision, sooner or later: who of the two will leave their family, friends and history behind to join their loved one in that strange new place. In the early days of the relationship I was lucky enough that my wife had bigger coconuts then me - She left everything and everyone behind to come and join me.
But before I met my wife, there was another, simple reason I visited Japan: I love that country. It is difficult (and beyond the scope here) to say why I like it so much. Probably has something to do with the deep respect that is woven into the fabric of their daily life. Or the sharp contrast with the former in which many Japanese literally offer their lives to work for the bigger, older Japanese companies who it turn show no respect what so ever to their employees.
It could also be the ancient culture that is still so much alive today. Or the fact that the Japanese have made their own isolated world with their own brands and models of almost everything they use in daily life (cars, cellphones, food products, health products, medicine, movies, ...). Maybe even, in harmony with the former, the almost chauvinistic way the Japanese love Japan...because it has everything one ever needs, and more.
Or it could just be the food...because the Japanese make some goddamn tasty food. Tampura, Onigiri, Yakiniku, Shabu-Shabu, Terriyaki, Okonomiyaki, Sushi, Soba, Ramen, ... I'm so hungry right now. Okay, it has definitely something to do with the food.
As much as it startled me at first though, one cannot make a decision on moving to the other side of the world solely based on the quality of the food. Really. One cannot. So it is probably a mix of everything I scribbled above, the most important one being: my wife.
Do not get me wrong, she loves Belgium, and she surely loves the food (which I think is still a good reason to move). And she surely would be okay with living out her live together with me here in this cold, foggy speck on the world map. But there is a small detail I have come to know over the past years that grows more apparent over time:
"If you marry a Japanese, you marry with Japan."
Aside from the high corny content of the above quote, it still is a fact. The Japanese love Japan, and the more I visited Japan, the more I got acquainted with their customs and way of going about things, the more I realized why. Again it is too elaborate and too difficult to pinpoint but it boils down, like I said above, to the fact that Japan has everything the Japanese need.
So after this brief introduction about the reasoning and sentimentality's behind our decision, I would like to take you on a small tour of what it takes to move to Japan.
Note: the procedures explained below are based on my personal experience in obtaining a legal visa to live and work in Japan. The documents, forms and procedures explained can vary in different countries, different visa types and are subject to change over time.
Types of Visa
When you simply visit Japan for recreational purposes, you will have a tourist visa. This visa is strictly for roaming around the country; you are not allowed to do any paid (or unpaid) employment. The maximum length of stay is limited to three months. If you want to actually work in Japan you will need a different type of visa. One of the most significant ones:
- Diplomat visa
- Student exchange program visa
- Working visa
- Press agency visa
- Spouse or child of Japanese national visa
Being married to a Japanese national, I have to choose the last: Spouse or child of Japanese national. Each visa has their own procedures and surprises, but this post will, of course, only cover the latter type.
First, what exactly is this visa thing?
All of the above visa types are, in the first place, mere landing permits. Like I said before, the standard visa is a tourist visa. You will get this automatically on entering Japan (unless you are prohibited to enter Japan). The only thing you need to get such a tourist visa is simply a valid passport (for most countries).
You land in Japan, enter immigration, get your passport checked, get your fingerprints and mugshot taken and if all is well, you will get a stamp in your passport that allows your entrance into Japan and a stay of three months.
If you want to live and work in Japan as a spouse of a Japanese national, you will get a special visa glued into your passport together with a special document officially titled a Certificate of Eligibility. These two will be checked, together with the same checks a tourist will get, and if all is well you will be granted a Foreigner Card which will (together with a possible driver's license) act as your Japanese ID card.
But first things first, how do you get such a certificate and such a glued visa?
Certificate of Eligibility
Before you can do anything else, you have to get your own, genuine certificate. As is the case in many countries, Japan is very wary for sham marriages; two people getting married for the sole purpose of obtaining a visa.
So in an attempt to counter these fake marriages the Japanese introduced a check in which you will have to file a few forms of paperwork together with prove of your love towards your spouse. After sending them all these documents a special immigration officer will decide if you are eligible to get the certificate. Let us look into this a bit more.
The Question Form
First, the paperwork. The first form you have to fill in is fittingly called "Question form" and consists of about 7 pages crammed with Japanese / English texts followed by dotted lines.
One the first page you will be asked about your current details. You, the applier, has to tell immigration where your are currently living and what your current contact details are. They also want to know the basic layout of your current residence.
This layout has to be entered in Japanese form. Japanese layout always consists out of a number followed by letters representing predefined rooms. The following letter codes are available:
- L = Living room
- D = Dining room
- K = Kitchen
- S = Service room
All of the remaining rooms can be summed up and put in the number preceding the letters.
2LDK = Living room, kitchen, dining room and 2 extra rooms.
3LK - Living room, kitchen and 3 extra rooms.
1ROOM = Single room (small studio or really small student flat) including everything.
They also wish to know how much rent or loan you have to pay to live in your current place.
Still on page one they would like to know some employment details of your Japanese spouse, referred to as the Japanese national. Where does she or he live and when did she or he start to work for that company.
Page number two is dedicated to your relationship with your spouse and is the page the immigration officer will use to see if your are actually really in love with each other. This page has some general questions that you have to answer with short stories.
The most significant question is about how you met your spouse. You need to write a short story explaining how and how many times you met each other before you got married. They ask you to prove this with extra material you can send together with this form. In our case we added copies of old plane tickets proving I flew to Japan many times.
We also include about 30+ photographs showing many highlights of our relationship in the time before we married. Each photograph was numbered and we used page number two together with some extra white sheets to describe each photo (including date, time and place taken).
On this page they actually only ask for about 3 photographs, but it speaks for itself that the more material you can include, the better chance you will have of being taken seriously.
The next 5 pages consist of many small questions asking more details about you as a couple and the family on both sides. These questions are:
- What language do you speak with your spouse?
- To what extend do you understand your spouse main language?
- To what extend does your spouse understand your main language?
- How well do you understand Japanese and how did you learn to speak it?
- If you do not understand each others language, how do you communicate?
- How many times did you marry before marring your spouse?
- How many times did you spouse marry before marring you?
- How many times, on which dates and why did you come to Japan before marring?
- How many times, on which dates and why did your spouse come to your country before marrying?
- Before getting married, where you forced to leave Japan?
- List the age, full name, address, telephone number and relationship to you of each of your direct family members
- List the age, full name, address, telephone number and relationship to your spouse of each of your spouses direct family members
- Who of those listed direct family members knows about your marriage with your spouse (both sides)
None of these questions are difficult to fill in and many of them are in multiple choice style; you do not have to write much stories. Use common sense to fill them in, you can be optimistic but be realistic. If you can only speak very basic Japanese, be honest. If you say you speak it fluently, chances are high the immigration officer at your port of entry will talk to you in Japanese, without a translator and I do not think they will like it if you cannot get any further then "Konnichiwa".
This sums up the "Question form" papers. The next piece of dead tree is the "Guarantor form". Before a foreigner can move to Japan they, at least, need a Guarantor to safeguard there stay in Japan.
A guarantor is a person who, for at least the past 3 years, is living and working in Japan. It is, of course, also preferred (though not required) that that person is of Japanese origin. They will be financially responsible in case you need to be deported and cannot pay for your own means of travel or in case you subject yourself to criminal acts while in Japan.
This person can be anyone, a friend, a family member (in my case it was my mother in law), your future boss in Japan, ... as long as they qualify with the above requirements.
On the "Guarantor form" they will ask the nationality, full name and address of the person as well as the full employer details and your relationship to your guarantor. It is also mandatory for the guarantor to include a paper from her or his employer stating that she or he is actually working in that company.
This one page form has to be signed with the regular inkan that belongs to the guarantor.
What is an inkan?
In Japan it is uncommon and in some cases even not allowed to sign forms with a western style signature. They have to be signed with a special stamp baring the family or given name of the person it belongs to. This stamp is called and inkan or hanko.
You usually have three types of inkan:
- Registered inkan: This inkan can be used for the whole direct family and carries the family name decorated with many lines to make it as unique as possible. This inkan has to be registered at your local city hall and can only be used to sign very official documents ie. buying a house, buying a car, ...
- Bank inkan: This stamp is used only inside a bank office to sign transactions or to open a new bank account.
- Regular inkan: This stamp, also referred to as hanko, is used to sign every day things ie. receiving a parcel, signing something at your office, ...
The Application for Certificate of Eligibility Form
The next sheets you have to fill in are called the "Application for Certificate of Eligibility form". This is the actual application form for getting your certificate. Being a bit redundant, you have to fill in many details again. Part one of the form consists of your personal details:
- a recent photo
- your full name, sex, age
- place and date of birth
- current place of residence
- current occupation
- address and contact details where you can be contacted in Japan (or details of friends/family of you can be contacted in Japan). I gave my other in laws details.
- passport number, passport expiration date, the government who issued your current passport
- purpose of entry into Japan (in my case: living indefinitely)
- estimated date of entry into Japan
- how many times you came to Japan in the past
- persons who will accompany you while traveling to Japan
- whether you have a criminal record in your country of origin or in Japan
- if you have been deported out of Japan previously
- which immigration office you would like to apply in Japan
- details of your family in-law in Japan
Part two mainly asks about your financial situation:
- which visa type are you applying for
- do you have any money in the bank (Japanese bank or foreign bank) to support yourself
- do you bring cash money into Japan and how much
Part three of this form will ask, again, the details of your Guarantor.
That is actually all the mandatory forms you have to fill in before your application will be accepted. However, again, the more details you can ship with your application the better.
In my case, we added the following extra documents:
- A copy of the official "Marriage certificate" issued by our local government office here in Belgium.
- All the bank statements regarding the savings we build up the past few years; money which we will use to bootstrap our Japan life.
Trip to the immigration office
After you have filled in all these forms and supplied all the additional pieces you are ready to submit this to your preferred immigration office in Japan.
In our case we lived in Belgium at the time of application, so we had to send the whole package to my mother in law, who in turn did the application for us in the local immigration office of Chiba (Japanese prefecture). When you go to the office, you also need to bring an envelope they can use to send your certificate to you if your application was accepted.
When you apply, prepare a good book or any other waiting material because waiting can take up to four hours or more.
My mother in law went to there in the early morning, just after opening hours, and there was already a line of 20+ people. She had to wait for three hours before getting to a clerks desk. Also make sure you have filled in every form, if not, they will check, point you to your errors and send you back to the end of the line for another few hours of waiting.
If you have no direct errors in your forms they will assign you an application number and give you a paper with the date of application and the immigration office stamp together with a small leaflet of what will happen next.
Good, you just applied and they inform you (like only a government can) that it will take from two weeks up to three months for the application to be processed. If the result is positive the envelope you provided will be filled with a certificate and sent by special post to the Japanese address you provided when applying.
If it was negative they will call the Japanese contact person and tell the reason why.
After about seven weeks my mother in law received the certificate, bringing me one step closer to living in Japan.
Applying for a visa (landing permission)
However, the certificate by itself is not worth a thing. It will need an accompanying visa. This visa has to be provided by the Japanese embassy of the country you are currently living and thus moving away from.
In my case this meant that my mother in law had to send the certificate via secure post to my home here in Belgium, so another week past.
Please note that this step is heavily dependent on which country your are living. For most European countries this will be quite identical. If you live in countries like America or Russia, the local Japanese embassy will probably require different items.
Once your certificate arrived you have to prepare the following items to bring to your Japanese embassy:
- Your current valid passport
- Recent photo
- Your certificate of eligibility
- Your ID card
When you arrive at your embassy you will get another application form, this time to get your visa. This form is only one page with some general questions like your full name, birth date and place, passport number, ...
Give this form together with a recent photo, your passport and your certificate to an embassy employer. In return you will get a small card with the date you can pick up your passport containing the glued visa.
This usually takes up to 3 business days. If you did not get any phone call in those three days, you can go there, pick up everything and prepare your trip to Japan.
Landing in Japan AKA The foreigner card
The next and final step is to actually say goodbye to your home country, take the airplane and fly to your favorite airport in Japan. After getting off the airplane you usually have to head over to the immigration booths where they will, as I mentioned in the beginning, sample some biometric data and stamp your passport.
But for you it will be slightly different, in fact, there is a special waiting line for people who enter Japan on bases of a visa other then a tourist visa. When I landed at Narita airport they even had different lines based on the types of visa you had applied for.
Once you reach the immigration officer she or he will check your glued passport visa and certificate of eligibility. If these are in order you have to wait for about 10 minutes as they prepare your foreigner card. If your arrival is suspicious you will be taken to a separate, private booth. What happens there is left over to the imagination, but I think a rubber glove is included.
I was lucky enough that everything checked out and I received my foreigner card together with a few pamphlets telling me about the Japanese health care system, Japanese pension system, etc.
What is next?
Well, if you have come this far I think you have accomplished your goal: you moved to Japan. Now everything is left up to you, learn the language, find a job, become a pupil of a bonsai master, etc. Start your Japanese life.
Some starting points:
- Get your Japanese drivers license
- Go to your local city hall to enroll into the national health insurance
- Go to your local city hall to enroll into the national pension service
- Go to your local city hall to register your official Inkan
From time to time I will update you with enlightenments about my Japanese experiences, hopefully giving you useful tips and tricks to speed up your life over here or to help you consider (or reconsider) a possible move to Japan. Keep watching!
And as always, thanks for reading!