How I Got My Japanese Permanent Residency
In 2018 I applied for and received Permanent Residency in Japan. The process I used is relatively new and unknown so I wanted to document it in case it might come in handy for someone else.
In 2011 I graduated with a Master's degree from Brown University and then moved to Japan and got a job as a software engineer. I am not married. I am fluent in Japanese but would not be mistaken for a native speaker. I am a citizen of the United States.
Highly Skilled Foreign Professional
There are three main ways to qualify for Permanent Residency in Japan.
- You can be a resident for 10 years or more on a work visa, or a smaller number of years on a marriage visa.
- You can make a significant contribution to Japan (我が国への貢献), such as personally contributing to an Olympic victory by coaching, winning a similarly prestigious prize, or getting a medal from the Emperor.
- You can use the Highly Skilled Foreign Professional visa system.
The Highly Skilled Foreign Professional visa is a points-based visa system introduced in 2012. It seems to have been modeled on points-based visa systems introduced in Australia. The basic idea is that based on things like income, educational history, and language ability you get points, and if you have enough points you can apply for a special visa. In 2017, on average 352 people a month were accepted in the visa program. (see graph 1-3-3 on page 27 here)
One of the advantages of the HSFP visa is a fast track to Permanent Residency. When it was first introduced you could apply for a PR after five years on the HSFP visa, as opposed to ten years on a normal work visa. Over time the fast track became even faster, and in 2018 you could apply after three years or even just one year if you had enough points. What changed in 2017 was that if you could demonstrate that you had the points historically you could apply for a PR without ever having the HSFP visa. That's the process I used.
The way points calculation works is you calculate your points at the start of the term (so one or three years ago) and at the time of your application for a PR, and submit a separate point sheet for each of those times.
There are three categories of HSFP visa: academic, specialist/technical, and business management. I was in the specialist/technical category, which covers more than 80% of applicants. Some point sources are shared between all three categories, but they do have significant differences in where most points come from. For example, if you apply with the academic category, published papers become an important criteria for points.
Excluding salary, here's my point breakdown. Note that this uses the rules at the time of my application in 2018, and they have changed slightly since then, and are likely to continue to change over time. You can view the current points sheet as an Excel file at the Immigration Bureau site.
- Master's Degree: 20 points
- 5-7 years of work experience: 10 points
- Age less than 30: 15 points
- JLPT N1: 15 points
- Highly ranked school bonus: 10 points
That's a total of 70 points at the time of my application (again, excluding salary). 70 points is already enough to qualify for the three-year fast track. A year before my application I only had the JLPT N2 (10 points) for a slightly lower total of 65. That means that with a salary of five million yen a year or more (roughly 50,000USD, worth 15 points) I would be eligible for the one-year fast track.
There are a number of other bonuses I didn't qualify for, or may have qualified for but didn't investigate because I already had enough points. When the system was introduced it was relatively hard to get enough points to qualify, but over time it's gotten easier. For example, initially only the JLPT N1 was worth points, but later the N2 was added as well.
The Reason Letter
Most of the paperwork required for the PR application is unremarkable. One major exception is the 理由書 or "reason letter". The reason letter is required when applying for a PR from a work visa, but the only guidance is that there is no fixed format. What on earth are you supposed to write in it?
By looking at websites run by immigration lawyers and blog posts from various people, it seems the conventional wisdom is that you should briefly state your educational history and how you came to Japan. You also need to explain your reason for seeking the PR, but "I want to keep living in Japan" is not appropriate.
Typical reasons to use here are an intention to raise a family or needing a PR in order to get a loan. (Anyone can own property in Japan, but it's difficult to get a mortgage if you don't have a PR.) Neither of those applied to me so I struggled with what to put in the letter. Eventually I settled on describing several reasons I was invested in staying in Japan, with supporting documentation.
Besides discussing my day job, one point was my work on Japanese NLP projects. At the time of my application I was working on adding Japanese support to spaCy, and as part of implementing Universal Dependencies I needed to contact NINJAL, who were incredibly kind in responding to a request from a random Internet person. I described this as part of an ongoing personal effort to make Japanese NLP easier, which continues now that I maintain a popular Python tokenizer for Japanese and other projects.
Another point was my work with Tokyo Indies, the largest monthly game development gathering in Tokyo, where I'm on staff. Tokyo Indies had media coverage from a Famitsu subsidiary and the WBS television program, which made good supporting documents showing both the importance of the event and my involvement in it.
A third point, different from the first two, was using the reason letter to explain issues with my other supporting documentation. One of the required documents for a PR application is a bank statement showing financial independence in the form of savings or steady income. A few months before my PR application I broke my leg, and I was unable to walk without crutches for three months, two of which I was on unpaid leave. The reason letter gave me a place to explain the situation (and attach X-rays).
Besides the reason letter, one unusual component of the application process is that it requires a guarantor, who must be a Japanese citizen or permanent resident. The form for the guarantor indicates they accept responsibility for various costs the applicant may incur and assert they are a reasonable member of society.
Some people hear the word "guarantor" and assume this is a major responsibility. Guarantors, or co-signers, are commonly required for rent contracts or loans, and if the main signer is unavailable for some reason the co-signer will be held liable for the terms of the contract. There's a lot of fiction where someone co-signs a contract with a friend who ends up being unreliable and winds up on the hook for vast sums of money. The guarantor for the PR is not like that.
Immigration's FAQ (Q7) helpfully explains that the guarantor is essentially a formality, and the guarantor statement holds no legal force. In the event that the guaranteed person does something horrible and is expelled from Japan, the worst thing that can happen to the guarantor is that they are unlikely to be able to sponsor similar applications, and even that's not forever. Given the very limited responsibility actually involved, if you can explain that you shouldn't have trouble finding a willing friend or associate.
When applying for a PR from a work visa, it usually makes sense to have a senior coworker as a guarantor. I had two coworkers as my guarantors.
The Application and the Wait
I actually composed my PR application during the considerable downtime I had after breaking my leg, and went to Immigration on crutches towards the end of my recovery process. When handing over my documents the person at the counter was impressed by their tidyness, though all I'd done was use the officially provided Excel template to fill it out.
One thing I was told at the counter was that I could provide a copy of my N2 certificate instead of the original. Official instructions say all supporting documents generally have to be original, but I was told it was OK to copy my US-issued N2 cert because it was hard to get it replaced. (Looking at current re-issuance instructions it doesn't look that bad, perhaps the process has changed since my application.)
I also asked about whether I needed to submit a copy of my degree. I assumed I didn't since I'd submitted one with my initial visa application years before and figured it was still on file. I was told it was probably fine without it. (It wasn't, but I'll get to that later.)
I applied in late January 2018 and was told that it would take a year to process my application. This was a bit of a surprise, as Immigration's site said it usually takes 4-6 months. Apparently the recent change in requirements for PR applications had increased both the number of applicants and the amount of time required per application as Immigration got used to the new rules.
In late September I got a letter from Immigration about an issue with my documents. It turned out they needed a copy of my degree, submitted by mail within two weeks. I had not expected this and it was nearly a problem - my degrees were at my parents' house in America, and they don't use the Internet, let alone a scanner. It took a nervous few days but my brother who lives nearby managed to get the degrees and send me scans of them.
That presented another problem - I had forgotten, but my degree was in Latin. All documents submitted as part of an application have to be translated into Japanese, and I don't speak Latin. (Maybe they wouldn't really care about a degree, but I didn't want to take any chances.) Luckily Brown has an English translation of their degrees, but that presented another problem - the text of the degree reads like magical language.
TO ALL WHO ARE ABOUT TO READ THIS DOCUMENT, EVERLASTING GREETINGS IN THE LORD.
BE IT KNOWN TO YOU THAT THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSITY WITH THE AUTHORITY ENTRUSTED TO HER/HIM BY THE BOARD OF FELLOWS HAS BESTOWED IN PUBLIC ASSEMBLY
AND TO HIM/HER HAS GIVEN TO ENJOY ALL THE PRIVILEGES AND RIGHTS AND HONORS AND SYMBOLS PERTAINING TO THOSE ADVANCED TO THIS DEGREE
I ended up writing a sheet explaining the degree was mostly formulaic language including "appeals to God etc." and just translating the gist of it as "A Degree in X is bestowed on Y". On the copy of the degree I circled the important parts ("SCIENTIA COMPUTATORIA" is "Computer Science") and translated them. I mailed the degree in time.
In late November the small postcard that implies acceptance came, and I took a day off to go and get my new Residence Card. The process was short and unremarkable. Since I had spare time and no plans I ended up going by my ward office to update my My Number Card, deeply confusing the staff with a freshly issued card not yet reflected in some databases and an unusual procedure, but that got sorted too. (I did end up having to fill out a Change of Address form with no Change of Address, but such is paperwork.)
In total it took ten months from application to acceptance, which while long was less than the year I was quoted. Looking at posts by immigration lawyers online it looks like the fastest applications around this time took eight months. I understand that the following year applications were processed more quickly, though I have no idea what things are like now given the current virus situation.
I went through this application process without consulting an immigration lawyer, and while things worked out I am still not sure that was a good idea. My rough recollection from checking publicly posted rates at the time was that immigration lawyers will usually handle PR applications, including writing the reason letter, for 100,000 to 200,000 yen, which is pretty reasonable.
One reason I didn't end up consulting a lawyer is that being on crutches severely limited my mobility and gave me time to read all the legal documents related to the application process. If I'd had less time and more mobility it's likely I would have hired a lawyer.
While I didn't formally use their services for my application, I would like to recommend the June Advisors Group site for visa information. They were the only site I found that explicitly described the new application procedure, which was specified in a roundabout way in the official Immigration documents.
While the requirements for the HSFP visa are quite high in general, if you're young, speak Japanese, and have a high-earning job like being a software engineer, 70 points is pretty accessible, and the advantages of the system are very attractive. I was lucky to fit right in that niche. In my case the system allowed me to apply for a PR three years earlier than I could have otherwise, and was key to quitting my job to be an independent consultant last year (which I'll write about later).
I'm not a legal professional, and while the above is provided in the hope it will be helpful, every application is different. If you need legal advice, please consult a professional. You can also contact the Immigration Bureau of Japan directly for questions; I found them quite helpful in my own application process. Ψ
Thanks to KC, Samuel, and Niki for proofreading.