Lately my job has kept me embroiled in legal matters involving civil law countries in Europe, and as a result, I’ve become very familiar with a fun little device of international law called an apostille.
Basically, an apostille is a certificate which authenticates a government document so that the document is effective as a government document in any country which has acceded to the Hague Convention of 1961. (There are a few big countries which haven’t, such as China, Brazil and Indonesia, but most of Europe and the English-speaking world is on board.)
These can be necessary in any number of contexts. Among them:
- If you sign a document before a Japanese notary, the notary generally has to attach an apostille to their certification in order to make it valid as a notarized document in other countries.
- In the business arena, apostilles are often necessary when a Japanese company is directly buying property or taking a lien on property, particularly in civil law countries where this has to be done through a professional notary.
- In the courtoom, apostilles are often necessary when making extradition requests, or if entering a Japanese government document as evidence in litigation.
Apostilles are always issued by government offices, although the exact issuing entity varies by country. In the United States, for example, one can obtain an apostille from any state government or from any federal court. Japan keeps tighter control over the process, and there are basically two ways to get an apostille here if you need one:
1. The neighborhood notary public
All notary offices in Tokyo and Kanagawa can attach an apostille to a notarized document; you just have to ask the notary when you go in to sign. (Note, however, that notaries attached to foreign embassies are not likely to have apostilles on hand; assuming they don’t, you would have to get an apostille from the competent authority in their home country.)
The other way to get an apostille—and the only way to get an apostille on government documents other than notarials—is to apply directly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. You can either do this in person or by mail: applications are accepted at the MOFA building in Tokyo (2-2-1 Kasumigaseki, Chiyoda-ku 100-8919) and the Osaka prefectural government building (2-1-22 Otemae, Chuo-ku 540-0008). If you do it in person, you have to leave the document overnight and pick it up the next day. All the details in Japanese are on this page.
There is a special procedure to be aware of when getting an apostille on a Legal Affairs Bureau document, such as a corporate registration certificate or real estate record. The registrar seal printed on the certificate is not enough for MOFA to issue an apostille; you also have to get a separate certification of the registrar’s authority sealed by the head of the bureau. In Tokyo, this is issued from a secluded office buried in the back of the 6th floor.