Japan cracks down on foreigners overstaying visas


by Christopher Johnson

In 2005, Alisha James, an American teaching English in the Tokyo area, wanted to marry Chamballa Ally, a Tanzanian doing junkyard jobs unwanted by Japanese.

But there was a problem that would lead to a seven-year ordeal involving US and Japanese bureaucracies. “His visa had expired,” says Mrs. James. “That wasn’t going to change my feelings for him. But I didn’t realize it would be so hard.”

Mr. Ally had overstayed his visitor’s visa by three years to work for low pay in a grimy auto-parts scrapyard. Like thousands of illegal workers in Japan, he hoped for leniency, since he was helping Japan’s economy. Instead, immigration officials detained him for five months in conditions often criticized by the United Nations and Amnesty International. Deported to Tanzania in April, he reunited last week with his spouse near Indianapolis, where he hopes to study computer science and begin a new life far from Japan.

“I’m free now, so I’m happy,” says Mr. Ally, 38. “People there are so tired. They are not criminals, but they have no freedom. So lonely. So much stress. It’s not a place to stay for a long time. People don’t know when they will be free.”

Japan’s deportation of more than 100,000 foreigners since 2005, according to Justice Ministry figures, has polarized many expatriates in Japan, including an estimated 50,000 Americans, who have posted thousands of comments in the past year on web forums.

Rights activists have cited examples of immigration officers knocking on doors and taking startled foreigners — often from China, the Philippines and other Asian nations — away from Japanese spouses and locking them up for months or years in a so-called “Gaijin Gulag” of detention centers. Japan’s National Police Agency said in February that they arrested 10,061 foreigners in 2011, including 4696 on visa issues. Japan’s Immigration Bureau, which doesn’t comment on individual cases, said 1064 foreigners were detained in Japan as of November 2011. Local media reported that Japanese jails held another 3,786 foreign convicts in 2010, compared with about 100 in the 1980s. With a greying population expected to shrink, Japan accepted only 21 refugees out of a record-high 1867 applicants in 2011, mainly from Myanmar, Nepal and Turkey, the Justice Ministry said in February.

Many foreigners in Japan blame the crackdown on Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, 80, who has often spoken out against Chinese, Koreans and Africans working on the streets of entertainment districts in Roppongi, Ikebukuro and near City Hall in Shinjuku. “Crimes by illegal immigrants are rising rapidly,” Gov. Ishihara told Japanese troops in 2000. “Japanese people can no longer walk the streets of the Ikebukuro and Shinjuku districts at night. Those places are like other countries. Even the yakuza (gangsters) don’t dare to go in.”

In 2000, he told The Guardian that “after the Los Angeles quake, it was ethnic minorities, including blacks and Hispanics, who went looting. The same thing would happen here. The strongest fear is about areas with high levels of illegal immigrants.”

In 2007, Ishihara, who currently chairs Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Olympics, told Bloomberg that “Roppongi is now virtually a foreign neighborhood. Africans — I don’t mean African-Americans — who don’t speak English are there doing who knows what. This is leading to new forms of crime such as car theft. We should be letting in people who are intelligent.”

Ishihara’s views are supported by many Japanese lawmakers and bureaucrats, and also Japanese uncomfortable with foreigners. Even small groups of Western-educated expatriates, commenting on web forums while working at Japanese colleges and corporations, say they support detentions, including the incarceration since September 16 of New Zealand-born businessman Michael Q. Todd on alleged visa violations.

In 2003, the Justice Ministry, Tokyo City Hall and the Tokyo police department launched a joint policy to arrest, within five years, about half of an estimated 125,000 visa overstayers in the Tokyo area. “An increasing number of visa-less foreigners engage in serious crimes, and it is pointed out that the problem is closely linked to organized crime by foreigners,” then-Justice Minister Daizo Nozawa told a press conference. “Solving the problem of illegal residents is a pending task for regaining public safety in Japan.”

Many foreigners without proper visas ended up in the Ushiku detention center in Ibaraki province between Tokyo and Fukushima. Japanese media, citing immigration officials, say at least 120 Ushiku detainees went on hunger strike for 11 days last month, one of several protests in recent years against conditions blamed for at least two suicides and more than 45 attempts at self-harm. Released detainees have complained about being held in limbo for six to 18 months or longer.

Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat known for his “pro-Japan” speeches, says Japan loosened enforcement of rules more than a decade ago to solve labor shortages, then mistreated unwanted workers instead of helping them settle in Japan. “The crackdown hit a lot of harmless people who Japan needed.”

Mr. Clark joined a Justice Ministry immigration reform committee that revised laws to improve treatment of overstayers who surrender to authorities. “Even so, they ended up expelling a lot of people unfairly. The long detention is inhumane. If they decide they do not want you, then like the US they should show you the door quickly, with the provision you can apply to come back if, for example, you have learned Japanese or have some skill Japan needs.”

Other Asian nations, such as Thailand, impose fines and allow overstayers to return, sometimes on the same day. Mr. Ally says his deportation order bars him from Japan for at least five years.

Mrs. James says a Japanese lawyer in 2007 advised them to legally marry in Japan, even with the expired visa. A city office refused at first, then delivered a marriage certificate to their home in November 2007. Upon the lawyer’s advice, Mr. Ally surrendered to authorities in April 2008. “I didn’t want him to live in fear everyday,” says Mrs. James.

For three years, Mr. Ally had to report to immigration every month, while awaiting a spousal visa for the US. Tired of fighting with bureaucracy, Mrs. James returned to the US alone.

She says US officials told her that Mr. Ally’s illegal status in Japan wouldn’t bar him from the US.  She says Indiana Senator Richard Lugar’s office called the US embassy in Japan to help expedite the case.

In November 2011, two immigration officials and about five police officers knocked on Mr. Ally’s door, demanding his passport. “I told them ‘I’ve overstayed, but I’ve married an American, I’m waiting to go to America. The process is taking a long time.’ They said ‘No, you have to go with police. Your passport shows you have overstayed’.”

He was detained in a police cell for 10 days, and then detention centers in Yokohama for more than 3 months and Ushiku, in Ibaraki province between Tokyo and Fukushima, for a week. Dwelling in cells without windows, he was allowed outside a few hours a day to play soccer. “In Ushiku, you can only see the high walls around you and the sky above. It’s impossible to escape. The immigration guards have weapons in their holsters.”

Japanese media, citing immigration officials, say at least 120 Ushiku detainees went on hunger strike for 11 days last month, one of several protests in recent years against conditions blamed for at least two suicides and more than 45 attempts at self-harm. Released detainees have complained about being held in limbo for six to 18 months or longer.

Immigration official Hiroshi Hayashi told the Japan Times that “the main reason for long detentions is that they refuse to go back home.”

Mr. Ally says he shared a cramped room in Ushiku with three detainees from Sri Lanka, India and the Philippines. They watched TV, read, or sat in despair. After making 3-hour trips from Tokyo, Japanese spouses could only visit for 15 minutes visits behind glass partitions, and never on weekends.

“Immigration think the marriage isn’t true, so they try to pressure the wife into giving up, by making her sign too many documents. They want the foreigner to give up and go home. If you agree, and have money for flights, you can go. But these people are married to Japanese. They want a visa to stay in Japan.”

Eventually, Mr. Ally signed an order deporting him to Tanzania. “I was tired. On the plane I felt happy I could finally get out of Japan and be with my wife.”

James says US embassy officials in Tanzania apologized to him for the long wait.

“I felt a weight lifted off our shoulders,” says James. “The process was taking so long, so Japan arrested him to get him out of Japan. Foreigners think they’re doing a good thing by surrendering to immigration. But then they call you in, you think you are going to get a visa, and they detain you. It’s a trick. It’s going to hurt Japan in the long run, if they don’t have anybody but Japanese there to build the economy.”