by Christopher Johnson
Like thousands of foreigners, I came to Japan in 1989 to learn Japanese and work in the booming economy. With a degree in journalism, I landed a job creating textbooks and materials for a Japanese company in Osaka who sponsored my work visa in 1989.
After saving money in Japan for a few years, I traveled around the world, made several trips to Japan, and lived in other countries, including Thailand, Myanmar, Brazil, China, and Canada. I covered the Kobe earthquake in 1995 (CBC, Toronto Star), Aum Shinrikyo (BBC radio), the Nagano Olympics in 1998 (CBC), and the World Cup in 2002 (BBC TV, others). I came back to live full-time in Tokyo in 2005. I got a work visa in 2005, then another renewal in 2008. I was able to sponsor myself as a freelance journalist. I went to the immigration office in Shinagawa, showed an officer my tax forms, passport and other documents, including freelancer agreements with various media employers in Japan and other countries. She interviewed me at the counter, in Japanese. I explained about how I make a living in Japan as a freelancer. She said that was fine, took my applications, and said I could continue working in Japan during the renewal process. The immigration officials seemed to want me to stay living in Japan.
The rules were different back then. She kept my passport during the process. I had to wait a long time, maybe about 4 months, before I got it back, with my new work permit. Without a passport, I couldn’t travel that whole time, meaning I missed some assignments in other parts of Asia that I cover. This was a pain for me and other people, because I typically make between 5 and 10 reporting trips out of Japan in a year. It cost me a lot of money in missed work. Shoganai. At least I got a new work visa, under the “humanities” category. Freelance journalism work, back then, fell under the “Humanities” work visa, or so I was told.
A few years later, with my visa due to expire, I asked the immigration bureau by phone if I should apply for a new work visa now, on my old passport, or wait to get my new passport, and then apply. They told me to get my new passport first. So I decided I would renew my Canadian passport for another five years, in order to have the new Japan work visa, and a new multiple re-entry permit, stamped into the new Canadian passport. Before that happened, a big news story broke overseas. I bought a ticket at the airport, and jumped on a flight that same day, as I often do. While I was overseas for several weeks, my Japan work permit expired. I figured no problem, I will simply apply for a new one, after I get my new passport.
When I showed up with my old passport, showing my work visas, and explained my situation to the officers at Narita, they gave me a 90-day temporary visitor stamp to allow me to apply for a work visa again in Japan.
I contacted the immigration office in Shinagawa as soon as I could. I asked them, should I apply for a new work visa immediately, on my old passport which will soon expire, or wait to get my new passport, and then apply. Again, they told me to get my new passport first. They also told me that the Immigration Bureau had changed the rules, to allow people to keep their passports and travel outside of Japan during the renewal process. If I had known that, I could have received a stamp in my passport to allow me to keep my passport and travel freely. That would have saved me from the bureaucratic mess to come.
The officers at the counter were not as helpful as before to a foreign freelance journalist. There was something hanging over them in the background. Some journalists and activists were accusing their colleagues of murdering Abubakar Suraj from Ghana while forcing him onto an Egypt Air plane on the runway at Narita in 2010. In 2011, they were also dealing with sensational media reports and an exodus of foreigners, bureaucratic paralysis, and their own personal dealings with aftershocks and radiation fears. It wasn’t the best time to be in Japan, for anybody.
I stayed in Japan during the so-called “flyjin” exodus, and I spent much of March, April and May in the disaster zone, often working in tandem with brave Japanese reporters. I never overstayed my visa. I made several trips to the Shinagawa office during the spring and summer of 2011. I told them I needed to be sure that I had a visa that would allow me to continue working as a freelance journalist. I brought my tax forms, bank statements, and many contracts from my strings. One officer, a man who didn’t seem to like me for whatever reason, told me it was impossible, because I don’t work full-time for a Japanese company.
I thought that was unusual, since I had received work visas as a freelancer. I went back another day and talked to a different officer. He said I should apply for some type of entrepreneur business visa, since I’m technically a self-employed businessman running a small enterprise. (I do pay assistants from time to time, and I have assets in Japan.)
I took the papers home and tried to figure out how to do this. I remember former NHK colleagues such as Jon Bosnitch advising me on how to do this, a few years earlier. I called other longterm foreign residents of Japan who told me it was very complicated, and required a lot of money in the bank, and lawyers and so on. Besides, I need to work legally as a journalist, in order to attend ministerial press conferences.
So I went back to the office. This time I spoke with a friendly female officer. She told me, “No, you should not apply for the business visa, you should apply for the Humanities visa, same as you got before.”
“But I need to make sure I can work as a journalist.”
She checked with somebody, got no clear answer, and said come back again.
I continued making reporting trips back and forth to the disaster zone in Tohoku. I went back to the Shinagawa office with all my contracts and documents.
Another officer said I must apply for a “journalist” visa. “You can only submit the contract from one company.”
“But I work for many companies, about 10. I make money from each company, and it adds up to a good full-time salary.”
She checked the rules over with various people and said, “The rule is, you can only supply one contract.”
I thought about which contract would best suit their requirements. They wanted a company with staff in Japan. So I gave her my contract from a large and well-known media company.
She gave me documents saying that my application has been received, and she said that I was allowed to keep working in Japan during the renewal process. (It was probably June or July at that time. I am unable to access papers in my office in Japan, since I’m excluded from entering Japan.)
I heard nothing from the department for several months. Since my previous renewal had taken four months, I figured it might take several months this time as well. I went to Canada for a few weeks, then went to Europe for a month in September and came back, with no problems whatsoever at Narita airport. Each time, I told them my story: I had work visas before, and was applying for a new one. They gave me 90-day temporary visitor’s visas. I recall one officer saying: “O-kaeri-nasai — welcome home.”
By October or November, I still had heard nothing from Immigration. I called them. They said, by phone, “You must continue to wait. The process is taking a long time.”
“It’s been many months,” I said.
“We’re sorry, there is confusion here. Everybody must wait their turn.”
Days or weeks later, I called back again. Again, a person said “You must continue to wait.”
During this time, from the spring to the fall, I did controversial articles about TEPCO, Japan Tobacco, the Japan Volleyball Association, Rakuten, Olympus, Yomiuri, the yakuza mafia, and others. I was interviewed in Japanese on major Japanese TV and print media, and I gave my unvarnished opinions. I received threatening letters from people who didn’t like my stories or views. I was hassled and insulted by officials at two events, and blacklisted from another international event held in Japan. I didn’t bow down to rude, corrupt people who habitually mistreat freelance journalists. I probably took more risks than other reporters, partly because of support from excellent editors, and my own previous work experiences in 9 war zones. I also continued to do feature stories promoting tourism to Japan, especially Tohoku. I sincerely wanted to affect reform and recovery in Japan.
Then, sometime in the fall, I got a letter from immigration, which arrived on a Friday night. It said I had to provide all these details and documents from my company by Monday morning! Yes, I had to somehow do this over the weekend.
But, with my Japanese partner’s help, I did. (We have been living common law since 2005, not legally married, due to complications with previous relationships and sharing of assets. Thus I did not have a spousal visa.)
They wanted to know things such as: how many people are working in this company; amount of annual revenue; my position in this company; and my annual salary from this company (difficult to estimate, since I’m a contributor, not a seishain full-time employee.)
We managed to get all the papers and facts together that weekend and delivered it on-time Monday morning. They checked the papers and said everything was complete. Please wait for us to contact you at home again.
Nothing came back for awhile. I continued to make reporting trips to the disaster zone. I stayed in Japan all of October, November and December, waiting for my new visa. Then, another letter came, demanding all the exact same information. Again, demanding an instant reply.
My partner and I looked at this, puzzled. “What’s going on here, we’ve already provided all this information.”
So, this time, I took the print-outs of all the same information, plus print-outs of about a dozen articles published on the website of this major global media company. Again, I went in person to the Immigration office in Shinagawa.
I explained to her, “This is all the same information as I sent before. Are you sure this is what you need?” I showed her the articles, and I even showed her my stories online on my Mac. I wanted to make sure that she could see I was a working journalist, making a good living in Japan, paying taxes, contributing to the economy.
“Are you sure this is everything you need,” I repeated.
She looked through everything and said, “Yes, this answers all the questions.” She marked up some papers, which she would give higher up the chain.
“How much longer will it take?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said, “but you can continue working in Japan and going in and out of the country with your Canadian passport during the process.”
So, I did.
When North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died, I immediately bought a ticket, and packed for a 3-day trip to Seoul, not a temporary or lifetime ban from Japan. On December 23, on my way home to Tokyo, I fell into a kind of “gotcha bureaucracy” trap at Narita Airport outside Tokyo. I was denied entry, detained overnight in a windowless cell under the airport, denied rights, harassed, robbed, given an Exclusion Order, and forced to leave Japan. I wasn’t allowed to collect my things at home in Tokyo. (see stories below).
For more than two months, I didn’t know if, or when, I would be allowed to return. It was terrible being in limbo.
Finally, thanks to some help, I was granted a new journalism visa, and allowed to return to Japan.