Entering Japan, refugee-style

Good morning, Frogheads! I got back to Tokyo earlier this week, but thanks to my school’s very poor taste in temporary housing, I haven’t been able to get online. Fortunately there are Hotspots all over the place, so all hope for blogging hasn’t been totally lost. I’m currently reporting to you live from a Mos Burger overlooking the Yamanote Line, or “the ringworm of Tokyo” as Adamu calls it.

I had a different experience arriving at Narita this time, because I did it without a visa. It’s not that I was too stupid or lazy to get one; there were circumstances.

Basically, there was a mistake inside the Ministry of Justice when they were issuing my papers. They mixed my application up with someone else’s, and sent a Certificate of Eligibility back to my school with the wrong name on it. Correcting this mistake took another month and a half, so by the time I finally received the documentation to apply for a visa, the consulates were all closed for Christmas and the New Year holiday, and there wasn’t enough time to process the application before classes began.

So, on the advice of the school’s dean and visa specialist, I flew to Japan without a visa. They told me that since it was the government’s mistake, they would allow me to get the visa status as soon as I arrived. I didn’t believe this myself (and some of my friends agreed), but I figured that they wouldn’t actually lie to me about something like this.

I started retelling this story to the immigration inspector at Narita when he couldn’t find the visa stamp in my passport. “Well, you see, there was a mistake in the Ministry…”

“All right, all right,” he said, “follow me.”

He took me down the line of desks and through a door marked “official use only.” This door led to a narrow gray hallway, which led to a little cluster of rooms–the Narita Immigration Office. The inspector dropped me off in a room about the size of your typical Japanese coffee shop, with chairs surrounding a large table in front, and a couch and smoking area (with ancient-looking air conditioning device) in back. I sat on the couch and was told to wait.

On the back side of the room were a series of flowcharts illustrating the landing procedure and appeal process in several languages. Another uniformed official, a middle-aged lady, was speaking to an older lady in Korean, and an Eastern European kid was being questioned by someone else in English. I was ready to call the school or the office and scream for someone to come down and bail me out, but there was no phone, and a sign on the other side warned everyone not to use mobile phones without permission.

Finally, a uniformed Japanese gentleman with curly gray hair sat down with me, and I told him my story. He had me fill out a form with my personal history and my plans in Japan. I filled out the form in Japanese and gave it back to him, along with my passport and documents.

Maybe half an hour later, Curly returned and said that the Immigration Officer was ready to see me. He took me to an office next door, and we sat down before a younger, somewhat heavyset man wearing a uniform and a green armband.

“Do you need an interpreter?” the officer asked in Japanese, holding the form I had filled out. Curly translated.

“Might as well,” I said in English, figuring that it would give me more time to consider how I would respond to the officer’s questions.

“Good,” the officer said, “I can’t speak a word of English.”

The officer showed me the Certificate of Eligibility that had sparked this whole problem. “You know this doesn’t give you landing permission, right? That you were supposed to take this to a consulate and get a visa there before you flew to Japan?”

Curly translated the first sentence, but didn’t get to the second sentence before I answered in Japanese, “I understand that very well; if I could have obtained a visa, I would have obtained a visa, but there was no time and I was told otherwise!”

The officer wasn’t amused. “Whoever told you that was misinformed; there is no procedure to upgrade a visa in Japan. It cannot be done.” Curly translated.

“I was only acting based on what I was told,” I said, this time in English.

The officer nodded, produced a sheet of paper and pressed a seal on it. “Because you came to Japan without a visa, I must deny your entry application.” He placed the denial letter in front of me with an appeal form. “If you wish to appeal this decision, you must sign the second form and give your reason for appeal.”

Curly translated while I wondered what the hell was going to happen next. He then said, in English, “Look, all you have to do is say that you apologize for this trouble, that you didn’t know you needed a visa, and that you want to enter Japan to continue your studies.”

By this point, I was in all-out Debito style pissed-off gaijin mode. “But dammit, I knew! This isn’t ignorance! Two people told me that I had been granted an exception!”

“Just fill out the form and apologize,” he said.

I wrote an apology in English, signed the form, and gave it to the officer, who nodded me away. Curly took me back to the holding room, gave me a blank sheet of paper, and told me to write the story in more detail.

As I wrote, the Eastern European kid was being told that he could stay in Narita for three days while his appeal to the Minister of Justice was being processed, but that he would have to pay a ¥40,000 fee for a 24-hour security detail in the meantime, and that if he didn’t pay, the airline would be instructed to take him back on the next flight. Meanwhile, a Russian couple were brought in who only planned to stay in Tokyo for one night while en route home from Tahiti. I really wanted out of that holding room.

Two hours into the ordeal, another uniformed official walked in carrying my passport. “You have been granted special permission for landing.” I looked inside, and there was a regular printed landing stamp stuck inside, the same stamp I would have received if I had a visa, followed by little red rubber-stamped characters reading “SPECIAL PERMISSION” in Japanese. I thanked the official, gathered my stuff and left.

So that was my first hands-on experience with Japanese administrative law. I’m not sure whether the immigration officer called someone or received a call from someone or was just feeling generous, but fortunately, it didn’t take an appeal to the Minister of Justice to get me into Japan.


  1. If you get a promise from the government, get it in writing.
  2. If you get in trouble, apologize early.
  3. Even if you speak Japanese, speak English to officials when they supply an interpreter; it puts them in a better mood.

10 thoughts on “Entering Japan, refugee-style”

  1. I’m glad it worked out in the end, but what confuses me is why you didn’t just enter as a tourist, you would’ve had no trouble then right?

  2. I did consider entering as a tourist (and drank away a bottle of airline sake debating over the idea in my head) but in the end I concluded that Immigration might not like it if I knowingly lied on the landing card. They *do* ask you why you’re coming to Japan and how long you’re going to stay…

  3. At least it all worked out, man. I once had to interpret for a guy who was denied permission to land every few months for TWELVE YEARS over at the Osaka immigration office. He wasn’t even given special permission; both the police and immigration merely allowed him to be here the whole time illegally… Of course, the whole thing started when the cops busted him for the “herb garden” he was growing on his balcony, so I didn’t have too much sympathy (like, why don’t you just GO HOME?) until I found out he was living with his wife and daughter in the slums of Amagasaki, living off of her unemployment insurance and his occasional contribitions as a travelling piano tuner.

  4. Interesting story and I like the first moral as well. . It`ll be one of those stories you can look back on and laugh at (I hope) 🙂

  5. “Curly took me back to the holding room, gave me a blank sheet of paper, and told me to write the story in more detail.”

    I love this bit. Wouldn’t you love to know where that sheet of paper is right now?

  6. Respected sir

    Sir, This is to inform you that I am working with Pakistan renowned media group Express News/Daily Express/Express 24/7, Daily Express Tribune and also first president of Electronic Media Club in Sargodha .

    Sir, I have visited Japan in January and I liked it very much. And I was intended to make coverage of Japan Art, Culture, Law & Order, Beautiful Location, sports and other Human rights activities in Japan . I met with Immigration Lawyer Sekimoto and went to Immigration Office Kyoto, Osaka . Immigration Officers agree that Journalist Visa is allowed to enter in Japan for Long stay. Mr Sekimoto had taken 10,000 yen from me at this time. You should fulfill requirements for this purpose.

    Sir, After that I came back to Pakistan and then in March 2010 I went again to Japan for media coverage of Pakistan Bazar organized by Embassy of Pakistan in Japan and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Metropolitan Japan. And I met again Mr Sekimoto for Journalist Long stay Visa and applied for eligibility certificate in Kyoto Immigration office case No. LIO389 dated 25-3-2010.

    Sir, After applying I came back to Pakistan . But my solicitor required a document of Appointment Letter I gave to him. I have already submitted all required documents to Immigration office.

    I was very much worried about my case and my lawyer was not interested and replying my Emails. He has also taken 60,000 yen more from me at this time and asked me to give him 60,000 yen more after taking eligibility certificate.

    Sir, after that he asked me that your case has been rejected and I asked him that it was your own fault and asked him reapply my case but he is taking more yens.

    Sir, I am very much interested to work in Japan as a Journalist and my company is also supporting me in this purpose. Kindly re visit my case and decide on merit basis according to Japanese rules.

    Sir, I am expecting justice from your side.

    Thanks & Regards

    Nadeem Khan

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