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In the last two decades, the number of non-nationals living in Japan has doubled to more than 2 million. Most of these expats live in southern Honshu, especially in the three largest conurbations of Tokyo, Osaka-Kobe and Nagoya. Many are Koreans and Chinese who are highly assimilated into Japanese culture (most young ethnic Koreans no longer speak Korean, only Japanese) but do not have Japanese citizenship. Others include increasing numbers of Filipinos, Japanese Brazilians, and around 200,000 Westerners.
On arriving in Japan, long-term immigrants are issued with a residence or zairyu card at the port of entry. This will act as your ID card; you should keep it with you at all times to avoid incurring a heavy fine or being deported. If for some reason you do not receive a residence card, you are obliged to apply for one from the Immigration Bureau of Japan within 90 days.
Living in Japan for a few years, settling in and assimilating to the culture to some degree is relatively straightforward and likely to be an enriching experience. On the other hand, if your aim is to integrate fully and be accepted as Japanese, you may be out of luck. Xenophobia, historically always present, may have lessened since the shameful last years of the Japanese Empire, but it has not disappeared.
Treatment as ‘other’ is very often the case for non-Japanese. This notably includes more than half a million ethnic Koreans who have lived in Japan for decades. Despite making a significant contribution to the country, they are still subject to racial discrimination by some Japanese, and they are not alone. Nevertheless, it is possible that such attitudes will soften as Japan becomes more cosmopolitan due to higher numbers of expats from diverse backgrounds stay in Japan long-term.
Gaining permanent residence in Japan will take a lot of time, determination and documents and in some cases a fair slice of luck. The most important requirement is that you need to have been resident in Japan for ten consecutive years. By international standards, this is a very long period of time, though it is mitigated in certain circumstances. If you are the child of a Japanese national, you need only reside in Japan for one year, and if your spouse is a Japanese citizen, your waiting period is only three years. Similarly, if you have long-term resident status (only granted to those of Japanese descent), you need only be resident in Japan for five years.
To apply, you need to write a letter stating the reasons why you want to become a permanent resident of Japan, enclosing at minimum a completed application form, status of residence certificate, tax and employment certificates. You will also need to arrange for a guarantor, who must be a Japanese citizen or permanent resident, to complete a letter of guarantee form. If successful, your previous status of residence enhances to permanent residence. For a full list of requirements, see this Ministry of Justice page.
Once you have permanent residence, you are free to stay in Japan and work in any professional sector you choose, and may switch employment sectors without any need to change visas. Additionally, obtaining a home loan from a Japanese lender becomes much easier.
If you have been resident in Japan for a minimum period of five consecutive years, you may be eligible to apply for citizenship. You will also need to be at least 20, have a record of good conduct and submit documents demonstrating your job, relatives, tax payments and reasons for becoming a Japanese citizen. Though the application process usually takes from six months to a year, and can take even longer, the vast majority of applications are successful.
You will need to consider the decision to take up Japanese citizenship carefully, as dual citizenship is not recognised in Japan. This means that, to become a Japanese citizen, you will have to renounce your old citizenship.
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